The burn of the cut streaked across his face, wooden talons slashing his soft cheeks as branches whipped across his eyes, blinding him momentarily. Henry ground his teeth tighter and let the pain wash away as he blinked and kept running, bounding over a rock and praying that they got free before the raiders were done with the Watch and everyone else who had been foolish enough not to make their way to the hills. The horses shrieked and men screamed in the fields below. The cries of women and children being chased down by merciless raiders continued to burst and pop in the air every few seconds. People were dying down there. People Henry might have known. It wasn’t enough that these people had taken his home and part of his family, but they were now butchering the finer links to his past. Familiar faces, memorable encounters, and kind voices that he used to know.
He hated them for all they had taken from him.
For what, too? What was the reason for all of this violence, all of this death? When had Umberlyn done anything to warrant this kind of brutal aggression? They weren’t taking prisoners or sparing anyone. It was pure butchery. These people were born nations away from Umberlyn and yet, they unleashed their fury as if Umberlyn had been their oppressor for generations. Where was the justice in that?
Claire was still going strong, the gap between them growing with every stride she took up the hill. She was running with others who were around their age, those who were young enough to leave the elderly down in the valley below and the middle aged stranded upon the sides of the hill where the foliage couldn’t conceal them yet. Henry felt like he was betraying everyone that he passed. It felt wrong to let others provide a distraction between him and the killers.
The only thing that he knew, was that if he didn’t put them between him and the killers, then it was his life that was at stake. Survival was all that mattered. He had made a promise to Father and he was going to make sure that Claire made it to safety, that they found Mother and joined them. People were going to have to die, but it wasn’t going to be them?
The hills around Umberlyn’s southern bluffs were known as dangerous territory that the Watch continuously warned and scolded anyone who came limping back to the city, bloodied and crying about bandits and marauders. Anyone who wasn’t welcome in Umberlyn found sanctuary in the hills where unsavory people warred against one another for control over the southern road that headed for Trennon. Rarely were there caravans, but there was always an assortment of farmers or Wandering Jacks to prey upon. If the road ever got too bad, the Watch would run some patrols and march to Trennon and back to scare off any half-starved cutthroats lurking in the outcroppings or boulders. Half-naked miscreants were now the only thing that Henry could think of outside of the northmen who were swarming in the fields below, trampling and slaughtering anyone their horses came close to.
Percy had spun tales of the raiders in the hills. Percy, who was now surrounded or dead, had talked about them being nothing more than common criminals that couldn’t cut it with the low lives in the gutters of Umberlyn, which meant they were next to worthless. Archers who couldn’t hit the sky, cutthroats with dull knives, and dogs with no teeth. Most of them starved or froze to death in the hills, but some of them survived, because the bloodied and robbed would constantly rave about them. What would an army of refugees do for them? Would they be drawn to them like wolves to an injured doe?
Taking the first hill, the trees were growing taller up here, mostly stripped of branches with jagged crude bark around the thin trunks, needles making the route slippery and treacherous. Henry gasped for breath as he tried his hardest to keep pace with Claire who never once turned to look back. She was a hare darting between prominent rocks jutting out of the ground and the numerous saplings littering their route. Wheezing and gasping, Henry slammed into a saplings, shattering and crushing it as he stumbled after her blindly and grinding his teeth against the swelling pain.
At the crest, people scattered again. There were those that headed east and west along the crest, making their way down the slope to get to the neighboring hill’s slope. There was no one now to point directions, to provide any kind of insight. There was no road going through the hills. No one knew the way to Dorothea or Trennon. Henry was having a hard time just figuring out where the camp was going to be. They were too close to the city, too close to swords and spears and stampeding horses for him to think it was safe to stop.
The moon’s pale face illuminated the slope of the hill leading down into the gully to the south. There were hundreds of people storming the gully now and making their way south along the shadowy path beneath outcrops and overheada rocks that speared out of the slope of the hill. There were no torches to guide them, no light other than the moon. Henry took note of how much of the slope was marred in inky shadow from clusters of rocks the few saplings on the northern slope of the hill.
Without a word, Claire chose to push north, rushing down the slope, plumes of dust kicking up as she slipped on needles. Henry was grateful there were less trees on this side of the hill. The thought of tripping and crashing into the side of a tree made him feel sick. The flood of shadowy forms racing down the hill around Claire made him anxious. She could vanish into the flow within an instant and he would miss her just like he’d miss Mother or William.
The gully was dry, parched and littered with stones along a sharp bank that people continually toppled off and into the dusty streambed. The gully hadn’t seen water in years but the fingerprints of it remained. Taking the slope took minutes of frantic rushing footsteps that dropped him what felt like ten feet a step as he dropped lower and lower. All around him, people began to land hard on the bank. Everyone seemed to fan out across the slope, taking a dozen different trails that were cut out from everyone who fled the city before them.
Hitting the trail on the bank of the gully, Henry and the myriad of terrified evacuees from the city began to regroup, forming up together into a steady flow winding south. For a moment, Henry lost sight of Claire until he felt her hand wrap around his and tug him through the mob. All around him voices in hushed tones whispered questions to one another, voicing worries that had been locked in their throats in the frantic escape. Nervous eyes looked up to the ridge where there were still stragglers crossing the crest. Several people screamed when someone’s footing gave way as they were racing down the hill and tumbled violently toward the banks of the gully. People parted, making room for them, trying to catch and stop them before more damage was caused.
Everyone was languishing in this state of terror, worried that they would hear the pounding of hooves or the neighing of horses and the savages would arrive on the ridge at any second. For hours, the tangle of people made their way around hills and through the gully that slowly climbed higher and higher. The foothills never formed into anything that might be called a mountain, but it led deeper and deeper into the proclaimed bandit territory. His eyes scanned the crests and ridges, searching every shadow and every outcropping. He still had his dagger with him, the only weapon he had against anything that might come their way.
As they walked in silence, the thoughts of his Father and Percy began to pry at his mind more and more. He had no idea what happened to his Mother and everyone else, but he had a good idea about what happened to his Father. His Father was always a brave man, the kind of man that Henry wanted to be like, that he wanted to embody. His Father was honorable and believed in principles that Henry could barely grasp. Of course he would not surrender. Of course he would not give up the fight. He would die fighting and the words meant more now. They were heavy and Henry’s eyes burned at the thought of his Father living up to the standard that Henry had placed upon him.
Percy, on the other hand, was always too smart to die for honor. Percy was never what Henry would call a loyal brother. Percy was the kind of brother who stuck around for free meals or when he needed some sympathy from Mother. Percy was brave, there was no denying that, but only on Percy’s terms. He might have gotten out of the city. He might be safe. But he might also be dead in the North Plaza. He might be lying in a puddle of his own blood just inches from where he had been kissing Illena for the first time in his life.
The hours were gnawed away with thoughts and worries about what had happened to his brother and Father. His thoughts only came to Mother and his brothers when he saw people that might be them, only to be bitterly disappointed by running into someone he didn’t recognize. As for his aunts and uncles and cousins, who knew what happened to them. His Father’s brothers were back at the city with him and their wives and children had fled to the south side of the city long before the evacuation.
The trail they had taken came to a naturally formed stone wall and lip that had once been a waterfall that forced the swarm of refugees to switchback their way up the hill and cross over. It would be dawn in a few hours and that meant that the camp had to be nearby. If everything was supposed to workout right, the camp was supposed to be a rallying point for those who were lost. The idea was to set up camps, set lookouts, and wait for others to join them. Members of the Watch, those who got lost, and even members of the militia who might still be hiding in the city and might find a way to sneak out. Father said that they were supposed to send runners to Dorothea and Trennon to let them know where the camp was to get armed support.
But, as Henry got his first look at the narrow, tiny valley, he knew that there was nothing close to that happening. The gully continued to carve its way through the hills that were getting remarkably lower at this point, pushing closer to the steppes and the swamps to the south where Trennon lay. Here, the steep slopes were littered with small campfires made out of the stunted trees that lined the hill. There were people walking along the rocky ridges of the hills that flanked the gully, their torches looking small enough to be shooting stars.
“We need to find Mother,” Claire said as the mob’s fast pace began to slow at the sight of temporary safety and comfort.
Exhaustion and the weight of the flight began to settle in on Henry. They had been running for hours, running for their lives and rushing through the rocky terrain in search of sanctuary. It wasn’t just the physical exertion of running through the wilderness and climbing hills and rushing the entire time, pushing their bodies to the limit. It was the mental exhaustion that came with the fear of trying to escape death. It was the slow drip of adrenaline leaving the body, coming off like honey, sticky and heavy. Henry could feel the fatigue settling into his mind, his eyes, and his bones, ready to pull him down and leave him in the dust.
The only thing that kept him moving was hoping that they could find their Mother. Claire was right. Once they found Mother, Henry could finally let a bit of the weight fall off of his shoulders. He wouldn’t have to panic and pray that they were okay. Mother, William, and Quinn were out there and he was going to find them. Then he could worry about their aunts, uncles, and cousins, if they weren’t already with Mother. In the back of his mind, hope flickered dangerously like a spark. If he could find them, then maybe he could search for Father, and Percy.
First things first, though. Mother. Henry stopped with Claire, his chest heaving and the pack on his bag feeling like a counterweight from the city gates. He planted his hands on his hips and looked around, searching for some kind of strategy to wade through all of this. His eyes looked around the mob that was forming around the dry gully and the hundreds of huddled groups up the hill slopes. All he could think about was the fact that if the enemy showed up and the savages did pursue them, everyone in the gully was trapped. The smart move would be to make it up the slope so he could at least get a vantage. When dawn came, light would bring familiar faces for him to wade through. Besides, the camp wasn’t going anywhere now.
“Let’s head up there,” Henry pointed to the top of the hill. “See what we can see.”
Claire smiled. He knew what he had said.
Taking a path through the ravine, Henry took the lead this time. While he wasn’t in the habit of holding his sister’s hand when he was back in Umberlyn, life or death situations made an exception. He gripped her hand tightly, searching for a route up the hillside that wasn’t littered with rocks and blocked with huddled masses. His eyes spotted a narrow path and suddenly Claire stopped, his arm yanking in his socket.
“Illena?” She asked.
Henry turned and spotted Illena shivering, her legs dangling over the lip of the bank where her mother was standing with some people whispering in secret. Her eyes were wide, her face sickly pale. It was almost immediately that Henry noticed the dried blood on her face. Claire pulled him closer to her. All Henry could think about was that Illena was probably the last person to see Percy alive. The cold dagger of pessimism sliced through his thoughts. It hurt bitterly.
“Claire?” Illena asked. Her eyes blinked and then flitted to Claire and they lingered for a moment. As if it took a moment to fully register who she was talking to, Illena pulled herself up and spread her arms wide, embracing Claire in a hug that seemed like they were best friends, having not seen each other in ages. “Claire, it’s so good to see you. Henry? Thank the gods you survived.”
Henry nodded to her. “Have you seen, Percy?” Henry asked her.
Claire immediately stomped Henry’s foot. “Why would Illena have seen Percy?” Her eyes were narrow and angry.
Henry forgot. He’d been the only one to see them together. Embarrassment washed over him as he looked at his toes and tried his hardest to turn invisible. He could feel Illena’s eyes on him for a moment, lingering with a questioning stare as if she were trying to crack his head open and see what he knew. Henry tried even harder to vanish.
“Have you seen our Mother?” Claire asked. Her voice cut through the tension. “We got separated in the city and we haven’t been able to find her. She had a good start on us.”
“I haven’t,” Illena said. “It’s hard to tell who is who in the dark. You’re welcome to stick with us until you find her.”
Claire nodded, but Henry didn’t find that good enough by a long shot. He needed to find them. He needed to fulfill on his promise to Father. Henry pulled his hand free of Claire’s and looked at her, watching as she turned to stare at him.
“I want to take a look around,” he said to her. “If you stay with Illena, I’ll know where to find you.”
“You’re leaving me?” Claire furrowed her brow. “Henry, don’t be foolish. Wait until dawn.”
“I’m not going to be able to rest until I’ve looked around,” Henry said. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep my eyes on you and I’ll make sure you can see me.”
Claire’s eyes were pensive, doubtful about the whole situation. Henry didn’t fault her of that. Things were terrifying right now and the one comfort in the world that they had was each other. Henry found it hard to give that up as well, but they were safe right now, or at least relatively so. He looked at it as a calculated risk. It was one of those rare times where it was worth it to put something on the line, especially for Claire. He knew that his sister would feel the weight of the world slipping from her shoulders if he could find their Mother. Claire needed more than Henry. He had to find their Mother for her.
“I’ll make sure we stay here,” Illena came to his rescue. She placed an arm around Claire’s shoulders.
Claire’s eyes burned and her face twisted in an expression that fully conveyed her disliking of Henry splitting off on his own. He waited patiently for her to make up her mind. He wasn’t going to give in, but he wasn’t going to push her either. Emotions were high and he knew that better than anyone. He would be patient.
Finally, Claire gave in, conceding to his call and nodded to him.
Henry leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll be right back,” he assured her.
The slope of the hill was steep, much steeper than any of the hills that they had walked around prior to the encampment. Or maybe it was just the fact that he was actually making his way up the hill this time and not just walking around it. Regardless of the reasoning, he hated it. His eyes were getting heavy, his lungs were stretched to capacity and his legs felt like they were filled with molten goo. Everything felt like it was ready to give out on him, like his bones were dry reeds, splintering and grinding into dust. He wanted to sleep. He wanted to just stop.
But he didn’t. He kept moving and when he stopped for a break to breathe, he’d lean over with his hands planted on his knees, gasping for breath and looking for Claire and Illena. When he spotted them, he’d wave, gather his waning strength and keep moving up the hill, looking at the faces that turned to investigate him. Everyone was searching for someone and no one was finding their marks. At every switchback that he made, Henry would look down the hill, spot Claire and wave to her.
Searching for his Mother in the huddled forms along his path was pointless. Some had wrapped themselves in blankets and cloaks, huddled around smoldering fires that hardly provided any warmth or light. Others simply sat shivering in the gloom of the camp. All around him, voices whispered and hissed, no words truly forming in his ears as he walked. It was like walking through a swarm of bees, trying his hardest to pick out a single familiar sound that he wasn’t even sure if it was there. His Mother could be anywhere in this camp. There were hundreds of people and he was supposed to find one person who looked familiar to him. Doubt was beginning to weigh down his mind.
At the ridge, Henry looked down into the line of trees that covered the eastern slope. They were tall firs and evergreens, needled trees that cast deep shadows that Henry could hardly see through. The one thing he knew was that there was no sneaking horses through that or a raiding party. The slope looked a little more gradual, a little more forgiving on that side. There were men standing all along the rocky ridge of the hill, surrounding the camp and staring off in every direction, searching for phantoms that never showed themselves. The weight of exhaustion and all of their emotions began to settle on them as well. He could see it in their posture, the droopy gaze in their eyes, and the way they turned slowly.
To the south, there were mountains jutting up from the earth, great, dark tan mountains that were capped with white that reflected the moonlight. Green stretched all the distance to the mountains, miles of green that they would have to walk through to reach Trennon. Of course, if they went to Dorothea, they would break off east and make their way across more hills to the lowlands and the foot of the steppes. Nothing seemed too appealing to Henry. He wanted to sit down and take a nap, just for a while, just to get his energy back.
“Henry?” A voice asked. The old, breathy voice made him start for a moment, flinching and turning on the old man who walked toward him, a hood over his head. “Henry, you’re Charles’ boy correct? I saw you at the workshop. Your father would pay me to haul water when I was short on coin. Henry, I’m glad to see you. What are you doing separated from your mother?”
Henry recognized the man but never learned his name. He had a face full of wrinkles and lips that curled over his toothless gums. He walked slowly and hobbled slightly, worn and tired from the journey to the camp. Henry took pity on the man.
“Funny you should say that,” Henry said, looking across encampment. “I’m actually looking for her?”
“She’s down there,” the old man pointed to the dried streambed. Henry followed his gnarled, crooked finger and stared down there in disbelief. He could see her, as if all the fog in the world had vanished and everything that he had been looking for was laid bare before him. “I spotted her on the way into the encampment.”
Henry’s Mother was embracing Claire, hugging her tightly as William held Quinn. They were small figures, but his eyes knew the sight of his mother. His heart swelled with excitement at the sight of her, bursting and flooding him with happiness and relief. It was as if all the pain and all the aching burned away in the glorious light of knowing that they were safe and that they were fine. As he watched his family reuniting. He had done it. He had made his Father proud. Claire was with their Mother. Henry felt the smile taking over his face, spreading through his lips uncontrollably as he watched them. He raised his arm to wave to them.
The old man toppled to the ground, crumpling next to Henry. It was a silent fall, soundless and hard. He looked at the man, fear washing over him, slamming against the confusion that roiled up inside of him at the sight of the man. His lips parted to ask the question to see what had happened as his knees instinctively started to bend, kneeling toward the man. He stopped only at the sight of blood running between the rocks under the man’s arm. It ran dark in the moonlight, slithering out from under his forearm as the man shivered.
His fingers constricted around the dagger as he spun, turning on whatever had injured the old man. Henry spun and felt the force of a hand slamming into his throat, forcing the air up from his lungs like a hammer hitting him. His eyes watered immediately from the blow. Fingers constricted around his throat as Henry tried to cough, choking on the burn. His eyes, blurred by tears couldn’t make out the figure. All he could tell was that the trembling world around him was moving. He could see figures moving out from behind rocks and rushing over the ridge. His ears pounded with the beat of his own heart. He could hear no footsteps, no clanking iron, no screams, and no slaughter. All Henry could hear was his own heart.
Fear crawled out of the depths of his mind, plaguing his mind, poisoning any reasoning, any constructive thought. Darkness suffocated the light inside of him. There was only despair as he struggled against the hand around his neck. He choked on the stench coming off of the hand, blood and rot, the smell of something earthy and savage. Henry’s teeth ground together, his mind frantically trying to race around the fact that he was about to die.
No, he had to get to Claire. He had to get to his Mother. This wasn’t where he was going to die. This wasn’t where his life ended, not now, not at this brute’s hands.
Swinging hard, Henry felt the tip of the dagger sink into flesh. He didn’t know where he’d struck, but he could feel the wet, meaty puncture of the dagger’s tip ripping through skin. Panic and terror fueled the fire inside of him and Henry ripped the dagger free, swinging again and again at anything. He tried to scream, but there was no air in his lungs, no breath to give his plight sound. All he could do is swing and feel the grip on his neck tighten more and more.
Henry could hear nothing, but whoever had him by the neck hurled him, flinging him from the ridge backwards. The whole world around him became a great whirling rush of wind and the ground slipped free of his boots and Henry could feel his arms and legs lifting weightless. He was plummeting, falling down the hill as the roar of wind on his ears surrounded him. He twisted in the air and slamming hard into the slope of the hill. His toes hit first and the rest of his body slammed face first into the rocky ground. He crashed and rolled, hitting a campfire and rolling again, picking up speed. His ears started to hear more now, catching the screams and shouts of everything around him. It was chaotic, interrupted by flashes of darkness.
His whole body hurt and when suddenly Henry could see the starry sky again, his whole body whipped back downward, slamming into the riverbed.
Darkness enveloped everything.