The city transformed into something out of a nightmare, shattering and breaking with every scream and every death. The blood began seeping into its foundations and the outsiders running through the streets were butchering it. Henry had known this city his entire life. He knew every alley and ever street, every shortcut and every shop. But tonight, the edges and the details melted with the fire and violence. Now, everything was dark and monstrous. This wasn’t home anymore.
“Stay together,” Father shouted. His voice boomed with confidence and a fire of courage Henry wish he had. The streets were filled with people fleeing the north. The remnant of those who had decided to stay and not move in with friends on the south side of the city now raced to get free of the impending attack.
Henry didn’t look for familiar faces or try to see who was fleeing. His eyes were fused to the north where he saw the walls crawling with shadowy silhouettes, illuminated by dropped torches. Devils wrapped in shadow. They had taken the walls. He didn’t know how or when, but the walls were swarming with the dark figures like rats on a carcass. His stomach felt like it was caving in and breathing became harder. How many were inside the city? How were they supposed to escape if there could be killers around any corner? They lived four blocks from the wall and there had been one of the killers in their yard. How many more were out there?
Bells filled the air as the Watch tried its hardest to rally a defense against the night raid and warn anyone who might not be aware of what was happening. When the bell rang, there was trouble and, right now, there were probably seven bells throughout the north of Umberlyn, frantically clamoring to let out its death wail. This was happening, Henry began to realize. Henry blinked and looked at the rooftops that were beginning to burn. There was no one to put out the firebrands that kept raining down from the night sky. They didn’t care if they hit one of their own men. They wanted Umberlyn to burn. What was the point to any of this? Everything was going to burn.
“Henry, get your head out of the clouds,” Father roared. He sounded angry now. Henry blinked again and started rushing to keep up with his family. His eyes went to Father’s hands. One hand gripped the bow and the other held a nocked arrow, ready for anyone who might spring out at them. That made Henry feel better, a little. He swallowed, feeling his heart racing as he rushed behind William and Claire. Where were their aunts and cousins? Where was Percy? Was Lann okay? He didn’t know.
He looked over his shoulder in the direction of the North Plaza, wondering if Percy was okay. Was he with Illena? Was he protecting her? Henry’s fingers constricted around the handle of the savage’s knife. No, it was his knife now. It was his dagger and he was going to stick it in anyone who dared to try and stop them.
Jumping with terror when a man stumbled out of one of the houses, Henry watched a looming figure follow the tumbling man, an axe in one hand and a bloody hand keeping the door to the house open. The man wore a helmet of rusted iron that hid his features. All Henry could make out was his towering figure as the fire from the hearth inside the house spread across the room. Henry stepped away from the man who was trying to crawl to safety. He looked to his family and then back to towering figure. His Father and Mother were ten paces away already, completely oblivious to what was happening. There was nothing Henry could do. Looking down at the dagger and then back to the man crawling, Henry didn’t hesitate. He ran.
The man screamed and others shoved past Henry, sprinting southward with longer, more desperate strides. Henry nearly stumbled and let out a cry as he heard a shrieking horse barreling past him, the clopping hooves storming down the street, missing him by inches. The pack on his back felt like a thousand pounds already as he was running, desperate to reach William who had yet to notice that Henry had fallen behind.
“William!” Henry shouted. “Father!”
No one could hear him over the screams and the shouts. There was a man crumpled on the ground, clutching his face and screaming, wailing in agony as his whole body quivered in pain. Henry looked at him and hurried past him with the flow of people. He recognized the man. He was a courier that Father used beneath those shaking hands. Henry looked at the man’s bloody fingers and kicking leg before putting him away in the distance, far behind Henry.
There was a fresh burst of screams and people vanished off the main street, darting into alleyways like rats scattering before the house cat. Hunching over and shielding themselves, they screamed as they sought shelter. Looking around, searching for any sign of danger, Henry finally caught sight of another man standing in the street still, looking around amidst the confusion before an arrow sprouted in his chest, just below the collar bone. Henry stopped in his tracks and felt his eyes widen in horror as the man crumpled and fell, uttering a guttural sigh as he hit the ground. The man continued to crumple, pulling his legs inward and his arms wrapping around him. Two more arrows dug into the man and his body made a violent jerk before everything went limp. More arrows snapped and shattered against the cobbles of the streets, exploding into shards as Henry made a run for it.
“Henry!” A voice shouted down the street. He looked and saw his Father drawing back on his bowstring and releasing an arrow. There were others who were rushing down the street with bows, yeomen from the hunting lodge and members of the Watch on patrol in the heart of the city. They silently aimed and fired upon the attackers that Henry had yet to spot. His Father shouted as he nocked and released another arrow.
“Get out of here, boy!” a Watchman shouted through the visor on his helmet before continuing north. Henry was too terrified to say anything. He just ran. People were running out of doorways and alcoves to make a break for it, rushing to beat those who had vanished into the alleys.
“Henry,” Father shouted. “I need you to join your Mother and your siblings.”
“What about Percy?” Henry asked.
“Percy is fine,” Father assured him as more of the Watch showed up. “I’ll go find him and we’ll meet back up with you once you’re free of the city. You have to hurry; your Mother is waiting.”
“The gate is breached!” A voice thundered down the street from the north with the clatter of hammering hooves. The Watchman on the horse slammed into a figure and knocked him to the ground without the horse even bothering to look back. The beast’s nostrils flared as the rider pounded down the street shouting. “They’re inside the walls! The city’s fallen!”
Henry looked into his Father’s dark eyes and there was something inside of him that suddenly understood. He knew that the still that began to envelope him and engulf all the chaos around him was the clarity of what needed to be done. His Father’s bushy beard and caring eyes looked back at him, knowing that his son understood in that moment. Or at least, Henry hoped that his Father was aware that everything made sense to Henry. He didn’t like it, but it had to be done. The truth never asked for his permission before. So why would it now?
“Be safe, Boy,” Father muttered. “I’ll see you down the Path.”
“I’ll wait for you,” Henry said.
“No,” Father shook his head. “I will find you, Henry. Stay with your Mother and I will find you.”
“Henry!” A scream pierced the air, cutting through the insanity that suddenly crashed over him and made him flinch at it’s noisy reminder. It was Claire. She hadn’t run with their Mother. She had come looking for them. “Father! Henry!”
Thunder filled his veins and Henry saw the same worry in his Father’s face as they looked to the Market Square and saw Claire’s arm wrapped around the stone leg of the Umberlyn Prancer. She hugged the horse’s leg and looked at the sea of worried faces, screaming their names again and again.
“Go, Henry,” Father said. “Keep her safe! Get your sister out of here!”
He didn’t need to tell Henry again. His Father’s grip on his shoulder released and Henry’s feet started moving again. The sounds of iron and wood bashing into each other began to roil toward them. Screams and roars of battle drew near. Henry’s Father would do everything he could to throw back the invaders. Now, Henry had to do everything that he could to escape them. He hated the idea of running. He hated the thought of leaving his Father behind, but Claire was paces away from the battle that was in full swing and drawing closer every second. People were going to start dying and Claire needed to be as far away from that as possible.
No longer did people shove past Henry, clamoring to get past him. Now it was Henry’s turn to get out of here first. He slammed into a man who was in a frantic hysteria, babbling about the gods’ wrath. There was no time, no mercy for that. Claire was in danger and Henry would make sure that she was safe. Father was going to fight the monsters, tooth and nail. That was his battle. Henry’s was to keep Claire alive. He shoved past a Watchman who was shaking his head and staring up the street at the approaching horde. Flames illuminated the man’s terrified face under his helmet. There was no escaping what was coming. Henry pushed him aside and the man bolted down the street, throwing off his helmet and running for his life.
“Claire!” Henry shouted. He reached out his hand for her to take. “Claire, come on!”
“Where is Father?” She took his hand and jumped from the base of the great statue. Her eyes were filled with tears and worry. Henry shook his head and squeezed her hand gently. “Henry, where is he?”
“He’s helping hold them off,” Henry told her. He didn’t know how to tell her that he was probably going to die doing that. Father was a noble man, an honest man who kept to his word. If there were people in danger, he was going to help them. Right now, Henry found that to be a very dangerous trait to have. “We need to go, Claire.”
“We can’t just leave him,” Claire screamed. Tears began to escape. Henry didn’t think that her face was dirty, but the tears were leaving tracks down her cheeks.
“Claire, listen to me,” Henry grabbed her shoulders. “Father knows what he’s doing. He’s fought in wars before. If we go back there, we’ll only distract him. Come on, he’ll get through this.”
“What if he doesn’t?” Claire’s voice was strong and the tears rolled silently down her cheeks. The Market Square was all but empty now and Henry could feel that cold snake slithering through his caved in stomach of knotted ropes again. They needed to get out of there before it was too late.
“He will,” Henry said. There was an isolated part of his mind that chastised him in that moment, knowing that this was a lie that only needed time to mature. It was the seed of a lie waiting for the black sun to give it roots. Henry supposed that if Claire were alive to berate him for giving her false promises, then that was good enough for him.
Apparently, it was good enough for Claire too.
Gripping his hands tightly, Claire led the way. Henry felt a sting of disappointment that it wasn’t going to be Henry leading her through the winding streets of Umberlyn, dagger ready for any danger. That was never going to fly in Claire’s story. She was quiet and polite, but she was never meek or delicate. Claire knew Umberlyn’s more respectable streets better than Henry did. It was Henry who skulked in back alleys picking fights with demons while his sister delighted the angels of the city.
The streets were all but deserted at this point. There were a few brave and foolish souls who had refused to run, who had boarded up their homes and were waiting for the savages to come and pry their belongings from their cold dead fingers. There was an elderly couple standing in their doorway, embracing each other and waiting for death to come for them. Henry didn’t understand why they were giving up. He wanted to stop and tell them to keep moving, to not give in, but Claire was ripping his arm from his socket.
They past the granaries and storehouses, the baker’s streets, the Fishmonger’s Market, the Hunting Lodge, and even the Grand Chapel for those like Father who followed the Path. They passed a million memories and never batted an eye. There would be time to weep over what had been lost, but now, everything was bent on survival. Members of the Watch shouted at them as they perched on rooftops or in alleyways, preparing ambushes and traps to spring on the invaders.
“Get your asses moving!” A Sergeant shouted. “Bastards are on your tail!”
Henry wished the man hadn’t said that. Maybe it was true, maybe it was just to get them running faster, but it had terrible implications. Was Father already overrun? Was he dead at the end of some savage’s spear? He didn’t want to think that Father could ever be overrun, but the world was becoming a cruel and unforgiving place.
On a good day, Henry could race across Umberlyn in a matter of hours, but the streets were always busy. There were carts and wagons, couriers and apprentices, people with nothing better to do than take a stroll. There were deals being made, trouble being stirred up, and routines being followed that always slowed him down. Without a soul in the streets, Henry was shocked at how quickly they could cross the city. The south side was all but deserted. There were no burning houses or rooftops, no screams or shouts. There were a few members of the Watch hurrying to get northward to where the fighting was still going strong.
There was only the patter of their footsteps and the rhythm of their breathing. The pain and burning in their legs was nothing more than a distant phantom, locked behind towering walls of terror and fear. Henry had seen people die tonight, something no twelve year old should. He would be thirteen soon and nearly done with his apprenticeship. He was going to go throw stones at Lenda’s window and leave her flowers. He was going to give that urchin, Ruther a black eye from calling Claire names. He was going to take over his Father’s workshop and be the finest tanner and leather worker in the Territories. He was going to be and do a lot of things, but that future was gone. Whisked away in smoke and embers, drowned in blood and screams.
The darkness began to subside, retreating as the warm glow of torches spread across the cobbles and the walls of the street. A tangle of terrified souls pressed the gate, bottlenecking as the evacuation was still in full swing at this point. Hundreds lingered at the gates, whispering into a swarming roar that hung over their heads. Men of the Watch stood at the gates with torches ushering people through quickly, speaking orders in hushed tones to get them moving as quickly as possible. Henry could see through the great stone arch of the gate to the darkness beyond where people vanished into the inky black. There were torches in the fields beyond, but the glint of fire on iron betrayed the carriers as members of the militia or Watch covering the mass exodus from the city.
“We made it,” Henry whispered. Claire pulled them into the flow as stragglers like them filled in the back, funneling toward the gate that was large enough for a wagon and a thin man to make it through. Now, they were packing everyone through.
“Do you see Mother?” Claire asked nervously. Henry didn’t see anything except for the back of hoods, hats, and heads; no one he recognized. Everyone was facing the south, desperate not to look to the north. The heat radiating in the square was enough to make Henry feel like he was being strangled by some humid beast.
“Don’t let go of my hand,” Henry warned her. Claire’s fingers tightened, constricting around his. Henry would not let go of her, no matter how many people pushed and nudged them, slowly stammering toward the gate.
Three sharp horn blasts shot through the night, pounding against the black heavens and rolled through the streets. They were coming. Henry felt a shard of ice inside his heart, twisting and dissipating throughout his whole body, warning him that Father was either dead or surrounded. The horn blasts were answered by another rumbling, low horn, this one to the northwest. They were everywhere.
It was all the encouragement that the bottleneck needed to get moving. People began to stampede, shoving and rushing as quickly as they could. Some were pushed aside by the desperate and callous. Henry felt the flow through the middle of the mob quicken and he pulled Claire toward the draining center. He could move several footsteps now, taking his paces in stride as he began to run with the others. There was an old woman shouting at the gate, screaming at them for shoving her aside, but Henry pushed her out of his mind. They had to run. They had to find Mother.
The sloppy entrance to the gate splashed murky water around his ankles and before he could blink, they were on the southern road. The air grew cool and the heat evaporated all around him. The sky was filled with stars and the long grasses in the fields whispered as legs waded through them. The majority of people stuck to the road, but others shot off in every direction. Some lost faith in the group as a whole and sought isolation and safety in smaller numbers. Men of the militia and Watch shouted for them to stay together. To make for the camp in the hills to the south. Henry knew that Mother would be heading to the camp. She would want to regroup with their aunts and uncles. She wouldn’t dare split off on her own. So that was where they were going.
Claire overtook Henry once they were free of the mob and her skinny legs propelled him forward, pushing him to speeds he didn’t know he could run at. The faster they moved, the more he only heard the rushing of wind in his ears and the pounding of his heart. His conscience pounded at his mind that was locked in a survival state, thinking only of thin trees that lay up the hills and how they needed to get to the middle. They hurled images of Percy and Father at him, demanding an accounting for their abandonment. Henry had none. All he had was Claire and he wouldn’t lose her now. They had to find others. They had to make this worth it.
Suddenly Claire stopped and Henry’s feet skid to a halt as people all around him stopped and listened. They turned their faces to the sky and waited, panting and letting the stillness settle in around them. Then Henry heard it.
The shriek of horses, the war cries, and the blasting of horns.
They weren’t coming from inside the city.
They were coming from all around them.
Claire’s wide eyes drew Henry’s gaze and she looked as pale as a ghost in the darkness.
“Run,” was all she said.