Henry squeezed Claire’s hand softly as her tears ran down her cheeks and dripped into the wooden bowl of warm liquid that their mother tried to pass off as a stew. Henry wasn’t falling for it. The “stew” was horrible; boiled bones and lumps of rock hard bread that slowly tried to softened at a glacial rate. But the tears Claire cried weren’t for the stew. They were for the screams beyond the walls of their home, where the air was laced with the scent of burning lives and razed dreams. She wept for the city that they had grown up in that burned around them and in the distance, the low, unrelenting horns bellowed and the pounding of drums rippled as the invaders continued to etching away at their sanity. Umberlyn was on the headsman’s block.
Claire was the daughter their mother had always wanted, respectful, polite, and just a touch too witty for those around her. She had a compassionate side that Henry always found baffling, especially when it was directed at him. They were twins, so she had to put up with him. She didn’t have to like him, but she did anyways. When Henry had driven their parents to wit’s end fighting with local ruffians, she had bailed him out. He’d chased off boys who had cornered a stray cat one day and Henry had swooped in like a knight in shining armor for the terrified cat, rescuing it and remaining unscathed—at least, until he rounded the corner in their triumphant flight. The cat turned on him then, scratching him raw and bloody. He’d fought off four urchins for that devil cat and this was how he was repaid. When he returned home, mentally preparing himself for the inevitable punishment, perfecting the story he would weave for them, Claire had come to his aid, saying she’d seen the whole thing. Of course, she hadn’t, but that was the kind of sister Claire was to Henry.
Turning his head, Henry looked out the window of their dining room, gazing over the rooftops of the neighboring homes and workshops. He could see straight to the walls where torches moved back and forth in the gloom and darkness, like fireflies drifting across the tops of fields. From the inky sky, stars plummeted, flickering and twinkling before they pierced the wooden shingles atop the homes and shops that were near to the wall. Tongues of fire licked at the crusty moss and old, dried wooden tiles, taking root and growing while members of the Watch rushed pails of water with the few remaining citizens in the north end racing behind them, dousing the infant flames.
The siege had picked up in the past few days and they had all held their bated breath with growing discomfort. The whole city felt like it was suffocating in the smoke of its own body burning. Not only had the savages starved them, but now they were burning them. And soon, the ram would come. They had all heard the rumors of the ram. It ran through the city like roaring water through a broken floodgate, spilling into every alley and every nook. There was no hiding its presence.
There were stories swarming through the city like angry hornets buzzing around, spreading fear with each singing recitation of what people had heard. They’d come from the north, that much was obvious. They dressed like barbaric northerners, beyond Fenkland even, like Dovgorod north, where the wind and the ice slithered down the mountains and the forests were tall and ancient, full of shadows and whispers. They wore pelts and bones, antlers and wood; rolling in the mud to round out the look. They came like a bloody flood, spilling out of Fenkland, freshly garbed in pillaged armor and with fresh blades pulled from the hands of corpses they’d left behind. This was the horde that had come knocking on Umberlyn’s gate and soon, they were going to kick it in.
“Henry,” his Father barked. Maybe it wasn’t a bark, but it made Henry jump. Beyond the walls, the black was thick and full of whooping calls and the pounding of primitive drums. It was hard to focus. “Mind your supper.”
“Yes, Father,” Henry looked back at the gray, murky stock in front of him. He released his sister’s hand and took up his wooden spoon, swirling the unidentifiable contents.
William slurped the contents of the bowl, completely calm and content in the raging storm that was churning all around them. Across the table, Henry’s Mother gripped his Father’s hand as she cradled Quinn as he played with her spoon, babbling in his infant tongue. The only person who was missing was Percy, who was too busy kissing Barlon’s daughter in the shadows of the North Plaza where he was stationed with the rest of the Watch.
Henry had slipped form the house by his Father’s orders to offer Percy a seat at the last supper that they were partaking in before the inevitable befell the city tomorrow. Passing between shadowy figures that had once been friends and neighbors, Henry only saw shades now filled with hunger and despair. They were frantic, maddened by the thought of getting their families out of the city when the horde attempted to breach the gate.
That was when he saw curly haired Percy with his fingers intertwined with Illena’s, leaning against the doorframe of the old bakery that had served as a gate customs office where the Watch had poked through carts and merchants’ bags who had entered the city. Now, it was a barracks for their valiant defenders. Illena had kissed her heroic protector as Percy basked in the new found admiration that the age old object of his desire seemed willing to bestow upon him. He’d only spent most of his life pining after her. About time something came of it.
Henry slipped back into the shadows and returned home, telling Mother and Father that Percy had parapet duty. They didn’t ask him any other questions.
By the door, Henry’s pack was waiting for the inevitable to come. They all had packs waiting for them. When the battering ram reached the gates, everyone was going to flee south. Down alleys and through backstreets, the trickle of terrified souls would join together, streaming down the main streets to the South Gate where they would spill out, flooding across the countryside in hopes of getting away from the savages who spared no one. There was no bartering with them, no stopping them except for cold iron and sharpened steel. Next to their mound of packs, Father’s shield and sword rested along with his quiver and bow, waiting for the appopinted hour.
Henry forced the stew down. His stomach felt like ropes knotted together, pulled at all ends, constricting with each drop of the stew. It was seasoned with hunger, the best of all seasonings. The children at the table downed the contents in their bowls quickly, Claire weeping through it and William completely oblivious to his older sister’s demeanor.
“May I be excused, Mother?” William asked. Henry scooped the last of his stew into his mouth and swallowed, glaring at his younger brother.
His Mother looked at them with dark eyelids and gaunt cheeks. She was more concerned at the moment with their Father. Henry didn’t know why they were so obsessed with each other all of the sudden. Soon they would be out of this city, camping with his aunts and cousins on the road to Dorothea or Trennon, whichever they ended up going to. Uncle Lann and Maurice would keep them safe with Father, and Percy would meet up with them a little down the road as he and the rest of the Watch planned once the city was completely overrun. The plan was to regroup at Dorothea and Trennon then throw everything they had back at the city once the women and children were safe. Henry’s mind wandered through coming battle, like one of the tales the poets told. But in the meantime, until their revenge was fulfilled, they were going to have to give up their home.
That part was scary.
“You’re excused,” Mother said.
William pushed back form the table and made his way to the stairs that led down into the workshop that was ghostly silent. It had been silent for weeks now. Once the horde showed up, Father had worked endlessly with the other apprentices and journeymen that he employed. Henry had helped work the leather for armor, straps, grips, scabbards, whatever they could make to help fend off the invaders. Now, the leather was gone and so were the workers. Only silence remained down there.
“Keep close to the house,” Father called to William.
Henry looked at Father, with his thick brown beard and short hair that was turning silver in his age, lightly seasoned at this point, but it was getting more and more noticeable. He was a strong man, wrapped with muscles that he’d earned fighting for some lord in the north before he fled south with many of their neighbors to Umberlyn. He’d been a warrior once upon a time and when those savages broke through the gate tomorrow, he’d show them what kind of a warrior he had been if they came near.
William grunted and continued down the stairs.
“Claire, Sweetheart, what’s wrong?” Mother noticed finally that her beloved daughter was weeping.
“Nothing,” Claire wiped her eyes with the pack of her delicate hand. She shook her head, steeling herself against what was happening to their city. “It’s nothing. I’m fine.”
“Claire,” their Father reached across the table and took her hand. “You’ll be safe. The Council has made sure that everyone will have time to escape when they take the gate. You and your siblings will be safely on the way to Trennon before the northmen have taken half the city.”
“But where will you be?” Claire asked.
Henry felt a cold vein snaking through his stomach, winding through the knots until it found his spine and raced up his back. He shivered at the thought. Father would be fine. Father would cover their retreat as Percy and Uncle Lann had told him days ago. Henry’s father smiled warmly at Claire. “I’ll be right behind you,” he lovingly attempted to assure them.
“May I be excused?” Henry asked. He didn’t want to sit here talking about gloomy things any longer.
He could smell smoke in the air again and he knew that savages were launching firebrands over the walls again. The Cobbler’s house had burnt to the ground slowly over weeks because of the relentless assaults. The woman his Mother bought eggs from had lost her roof to the firebrands and half of their second floor, not to mention the chicken coup. The barracks was also pocked with scorch marks, but it had endured, mostly because of the well being so close.
“Yes,” his Mother said to him, bouncing Quinn. “Don’t wander far, please.”
“I won’t,” Henry assured her. The city was full of head cases lately. Leaving the house was growing steadily more dangerous with each passing day.
“Make sure your brother is staying out of trouble,” his Father offered him a wink and Henry smiled.
Downstairs, the workbenches were covered with dust, abandoned and untouched. The tooling hammers, chisels, and stamps all sat unused. Henry missed the feel of them, the way his mind could let all his thoughts fade away as he worked, making a dull piece of leather something beautiful enough for a king. Images and patterns translated into works of art with the stamps and the mallet in his hands. He passed the shelves of dyes and the hardware for buckles and wire. The rolls of remaining leather were stationary on the wall, waiting for purpose again. He moved silently between all of them, his mind wandering with ideas that he couldn’t wait to bring to life when all of this over.
Beyond the workshop, Henry saw his brother standing at the edge of the tawing vats and troughs. The rancid, pungent pits of murky liquid were useless now, festering outside. Father had a jug of poison on one of the shelves to poison the pits in case the invaders thought to let one of their hounds or horses drink form some of the water troughs. Only an idiot would dare drink or use the water, but these northerners were blatant savages. There was nothing between their ears.
“What are you doing?” Henry called to William.
William turned, looking at Henry with sharp eyes. His brother had always been smart, smarter than Henry by any standard. Henry had always been the son who picked fights with urchins and children who like throwing rocks at cats or chasing dogs with sticks. He was the kind of boy that jumped in and tried to save the day with his fists. William, he was smarter than that. William was the one who stuck rotten eggs in their boots or stole their clothes off the drying lines. William was the brother who was always two steps ahead of Henry at any given time.
“It’s going to happen soon,” William said with a sigh. “They’re going to come over those walls and they’re going to burn our home.”
“No they’re not,” Henry shook his head and walked up to the vat where William was standing. “Father says they don’t know how to use ladders to even get over the wall. They only know how to smash things. That’s why they’ve got the ram.”
“Father says that because you’re an idiot,” William growled. “Haven’t you heard that they’ve killed their way all across the north? They set fire to Fenkland. The King had to pay them gold to leave and they’ve come here, Henry. Stupid people don’t do that.”
Henry was silent. William had a point. Some of the farmers and loggers from the neighboring villages and hamlets had come to the city with terrifying stories of what had happened to their people. Henry had always assumed that they were just dumb savages and that was what drove them to commit such horrors. It was scary thinking that smart people could act that way.
“Mother has family in Trennon and Dorothea,” Henry shrugged. “It’ll be better there.”
“Mother made her family mad,” William shook his head. “They don’t like her.”
“Why wouldn’t they like her?” Henry asked.
“I don’t know,” William shrugged. “Have you ever met one of Mother’s siblings? She never talks about them. She must have made them mad.”
Henry didn’t know about that. People didn’t talk to other people for lots of reasons. He didn’t talk to Michael Thatcher anymore because his father lived on the eastside of the river because it was closer to the fields and kept their inventory dry. That didn’t mean that Henry hated him. Besides, their Mother’s family was spread all across the Tyrantine territories. That didn’t mean they hated her. They just didn’t travel much. Umberlyn was nice, but it wasn’t a destination. If they wanted to visit somewhere exciting, why not go to Tyrantium? Once again, William was being overly dramatic.
“They’re going to attack at dawn,” Henry exhaled. “Father said that they’ll strike with everything they’ve got.”
“Probably at dawn,” William shrugged. “I’d attack at dawn.”
“What do you know about attacks?” Henry nudged him with his elbow.
“More than you,” William snapped. Henry’s grin soured as his brother clearly not in the mood for Henry’s particular brand of comedy, even if it was golden. “Ever crack open a book, Henry? Ever spend a minute in the Council Archives? You should.”
Henry didn’t know how to read, so he didn’t bother answering. William had spent his childhood hanging around their Uncle Remy who was a monk at the Chapel of the Saints. Remy had always liked William more than Henry. It was probably the reason he’d bothered showing William how to read and not Henry. Either way, William was already being eyed by clerks and tutors around Umberlyn for apprenticeships. Well, he was until the siege. Now, who knew what the future held.
“So how does it happen?” Henry asked. “Since you’ve read all those books, how does the battle go?”
William looked at Henry with suspicion written in his eyes, looking for the trap that his brother was weaving, but ultimately, his thirst to show off his knowledge won the struggle inside his mind. He looked to the walls and took a deep breath, wiggling his fingers like he always did when he thought.
“Well,” he said after a pregnant moment, “it’ll start when the army can see the standards in the light of dawn. They’ll rally their men with drums and horns, order them into ranks and files. Their strongest men will want to take the ram, that way they take the glory for themselves when the gate is smashed. As it starts to advance, they’ll call the archers forward.
“Then, the archers will attack our archers on the wall and keep them hiding behind the battlements while the ram advances. Their ram will then smash through our gate after several heavy strikes, probably hours of them pounding away at the gate. Once they break through, it’ll be a vicious struggle. The Watch and the militia will hold off the attackers while the rest of us retreat, but from everything I’ve heard, we’re heavily outnumbered, so there is little hope in holding the city once the gate is broken through.
“It’ll be over within a handful of hours. Our homes and our old lives will go up in smoke and ash.”
“Sounds depressing,” Henry said.
“It will be bloody, you fool,” William said. “Our friends and our neighbors are going to die, Henry. We’re going to be left homeless, wandering the countryside. We’ll be lucky if raiders or bandits don’t pick us all off.”
“I’ll protect us,” Henry said. Henry had a few tricks up his sleeve. He had the hunting knife his father had given him, the club Percy had forgotten about under his bed when he moved into the Watch barracks. He also had a sling that he’d made personally. He still didn’t know how the thing worked, but he figured that trying it out on savages was the best way to experiment.
“Punching orphans isn’t the same as fighting warlords,” William chastised his brother.
Henry’s fist made a meaty slap as it impacted with William’s fleshy muscle. His brother winced and let out a wail in pain. Henry was about to say something witty, something that was truly cutting and barbed, he just hadn’t quite wrapped his mind around the right phrasing, which usually tangled his tongue and meant he was seconds from falling flat on his face in an attempt to make a well timed quip. He was saved only by the harmonizing wail to the east, several blocks away and closer to the wall.
William’s face froze in the wincing flinch as he rubbed his arm, only turning to stare off in the direction of the source, no doubt processing his own insult while he looked at the wall of their neighbor’s home. Henry arched and eyebrow as William looked at him. The air smelled like smoke again, but there had been no call for a volley like the watch usually shouted when the firebrands raced across the sky.
A few blocks over, another shout rose up, sharp and guttural before silencing abruptly. Henry looked at William whose face had finally gone back to normal. That wasn’t the shout of someone getting hit in the thigh by an arrow or whose house had started to catch fire. That was something different, something that made the hairs on the back of their necks stand up. Henry opened his mouth to suggest they go back inside before there was another scream. This one was a long scream, the kind that came when someone found something they never wanted to stumble upon. Henry’s mind conjured images of dead bodies.
Were people killing each other? Was that what hunger and fear was doing to people? Was this what everything boiled down to inside the walls of Umberlyn right now? Why did the enemy even need to take the walls if people were going to start knifing each other in alleys?
The scent of smoke was becoming more and more powerful. Something was truly burning and it was close. Walls surrounded their workshop and the yard where the tawing vats and the drying racks sat. There were numerous sheds and workstations that filled the space, but Henry was never more pleased to be surrounded by the wooden walls that kept the smoke and screams out. The only thing that made him nervous was the alleyway. It was a long walk from the yard to the street, past the storefront where Mother and Claire worked with his aunts during the day and then the long, windowless wall around the workshop, flanked above by their home above. The gate to the street was closed most nights, but Henry could see the light from the neighbor across the street’s home splattered across the cobbles leading down the alley. The gate was open and the long, gaunt shadow of a man slithered down the alleyway.
He’d forgot to shut the gate when he came back from searching for Percy.
To the northeast, the chapel bell began to ring out in the clear night, rolling across rooftops and mixing with the screams and shouts that began to pierce the air. Henry felt a knot swelling at the base of his throat as he watched the shadow begin to move, rocking back and forth as the figure moved down the alley, moved closer.
“Throat cutters!” Someone shouted a block away, racing down the streets. “Get up! Everyone, get up! Killers behind the walls!” There was a wet, sloppy end to the screaming as the bell became more and more frantic and people all around them began to stir. Henry reached out and wrapped his fingers around William’s arm, tugging him toward the staircase at the far end of the workshop. They needed to get Father. They needed to warn the others. He gauged the distance and knew that even if they sprinted, it would still be seconds before they reached the door. Seconds where the man would hear their boots against the cobbles—seconds where the throat cutter would know they were there.
It was too late.
The man stepped out of the alleyway and into the yard. His long, dark hair hung over his face that was slashed with paint or mud, it was hard to tell in the darkness. His shoulders were furry and his boots made a worn, soft scuff against the stones. Henry couldn’t make anything out, whether he was wearing armor or had a sword. All he saw was the shimmer of light racing across the blade in his right hand as he moved it in an eager circle. He looked jittery, maybe even nervous. It was hard to say. One thing was clear in the darkness, his eyes were wide and pale. Henry had never believed in devils until he saw the look in the man’s eyes. It was glee, malice, delirious excitement, and what Henry knew in that moment was pure evil.
“No hurt,” the man said. His words were coated in a strange accent that Henry could hardly make out. He gave William’s arm another hard yank and pulled him toward the workshop. His eyes moved from the man who was slowly crouching, his body tensing, and tightening, legs coiling, preparing to launch at them, to run as fast as he can to catch them, like a cat preparing to pounce.
“Go away,” Henry said. He mustered as much courage as he could find inside of him, digging deep and trying his hardest not to cry or scream in terror. He didn’t want to look weak. He didn’t want to let the terror inside of him bleed out.
The man slowly shook his head and his rancid teeth showed across his darkly painted face. Henry had been in his fair share of scuffles and fights, but he had never been very good at winning without taking a few bruises with him. Fighting with an adult man who also had a knife, that was not going to end well for him. His whole body tensed up and he braced himself for the man to charge him, waiting for the agonizing pain of the blade gutting him or the blow of the man hurling him back into the tawing troughs, only to rise to hear William being gutted like a trout. Henry never thought it would come down to something like this. He was only twelve. He hadn’t even kissed a girl yet. He’d been saving that for the Jeweler’s daughter. What a waste.
Henry opened his eyes, cracking them nervously when he heard a deep hum rippling through the air and a wet hiss. His eyes opened in time to see the man topple over into one of the vats, splashing and sending rancid water mixed with urine and stale beer sloshing in all directions as he dropped the dagger upon impact. Henry could see the shaft of the arrow sticking out of the man’s head. It didn’t shatter. It had been a clean shot right through the side of his head. That was incredible.
“Come on,” Henry’s Father said. His footsteps were quiet, direct, and purpose driven as he crossed the dark workshop with Clair and Mother in tow, still bouncing Quinn as she covered his eyes. “Grab your packs and let’s go. It’s started.”
William didn’t hesitate. He grabbed his pack from Claire and took Henry’s for good measure, his hands shaking as he pushed it toward Henry. There was no time to go back to his room for the dagger or Percy’s club. There was no time for anything. His Father had said it. It was starting. This was when Umberlyn fell. This was when their home burned.
His Father marched past the body, leading their Mother and the others behind him. He walked with the agility of a hunter, becoming a man that Henry had never witnessed before. It was like watching a whole different man come to life. As William passed Henry, he looked at the dead man’s worn and tattered boots. Those were the boots that had carried him from the Wild Lands to the Territories. They were worthless now.
Henry knelt and scooped up the knife, gripping it tightly as he followed, the air thick with smoke.