It was the drowning sensation of smoke filling his lungs, forcing the air from his lungs that woke Henry from the blackness that had swallowed him up. His body lurched violently on the riverbed as his throat cracked and the hoarse sound of his dying lungs filled the air. His eyes ripped open and Henry lurched to his side, looking up at the roiling black clouds of smoke all around him. Immediately the smoke came for his eyes, burning and stinging as he blinked and looked at the veil of gray all around him. That was when he felt the heat.
There was fire all around him. Both the slopes were ablaze with campfires that had been trampled and spread during the flight hours ago. Panicked feet had stomped through them, kicking blazing trunks of hewn saplings, flinging embers into the dry brush and unfortunately, onto the clothes of the dead. Henry could see them, lumps of darkness at the heart of some of the fires, skeletal forms of charred flesh and bone. He blinked and coughed again, holding the sleeve of his shirt to his face. He had lost his pack on the plummet down, no doubt the fuel for some fire now.
Struggling, Henry crawled to his knees and gasped for air again, feeling it all around him, clinging to him. There was no one left for him. There were no screams, no wailing for the dead, and no names being called. There was nothing but the crackling and popping of rampant flames all around him. For a moment, he thought about calling out for Claire, for Mother, he’d even risk it and call out for William.
The wind battered against him, rushing south along the gully and Henry knew that there was nothing for him here to do but walk and pray that he could escape the smoke and flames. Taking a step forward, the toe of his boot kicked something and it clattered against the dry stones of the gully bed. Through the whisking veil of gray, Henry could see the glint of dull metal. His dagger. He had lost his pack, but he had gripped that handle as if his life might depend upon it. It had already once before.
Dropping down into a crouch, Henry scooped up the worn leather handle of the dagger and felt it in his fingers. It was coated thick with something sticky, the familiar feeling of dried blood. Henry was no stranger to the feeling. His father worked with skins for a living. The butchers of Umberlyn had been close friends of theirs and Henry had watched the bleeding of carcasses plenty of times, the way the butchers would open the stomachs of swine and deer, even cattle. None of this was new to him when he felt the sticky residue of his attacker on the handle. What looked peculiar to him was that the blood was incredibly dark, almost black. The flecks of dust and dirt coating the blade pointed to the obvious culprit. It was dirty, nothing more.
With no sheath, Henry held onto the blade and made his way along the gully path, moving as swiftly as he could feel comfortable doing in the haze of smoke. The heat was unbearable and all Henry wanted to do was take a drink from a water skin that he no longer had. His skin felt stretched, like it had shrunk around his muscles and his bones, squeezing against him. If someone chucked a rock at him, he had no doubt that he’d crack and split open. With the cloth of his sleeve pressed to his face, he pushed on deeper and deeper through the hill.
Somewhere deep inside of Henry’s mind, death became something inevitable, something natural, like the stone beneath his feet and the air rushing around him. He passed the dead with no thought to look at them, no thought to wonder or care who they were. He would look over them in a casual, general way, making sure that it wasn’t Mother or William, or dare he say Claire. If they were too large or too small, he would pass them by. He didn’t need to see the faces of friends he once had or neighbors who would call to him in the street, or merchants whose goods he’d enviously eye while at the market or during a festival. He didn’t need that. He didn’t need confirmation to add to the evidence that he already had before him and that was the declaration that life was irrevocably changed for the worse. In fact, it was all but over. Only he remained.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and a shiver ran through Henry. He whirled around, whipping his gaze in all directions, staring through the smoke and to the points of flame that he could see near him. Someone was watching him. He could feel their gaze as real as he could feel the cloth against his mouth and nose right now. His eyes burned and so they narrowed, staring intently in each direction for the watcher.
But he found nothing.
He was getting paranoid.
The trail that wound through the hills, flanked by the dried riverbed grew more and more littered with the bodies of the dead the farther he walked. The savages or the bandits, whoever had attacked them, had slaughtered hundreds of the survivors. Henry didn’t want to do the numbers on that. He didn’t want to think of how many were left from Umberlyn. It was as if the entire city had been wiped out, completely butchered in the insanity of the night. Henry swallowed hard. It was getting more and more likely that one of the smoldering bodies was his Mother or Claire, or William, or even little Quinn. Henry felt nothing but an empty weeping side of him, a dismay that he couldn’t articulate or even truly grasp. All he felt was loss and darkness. It was the loneliest he had ever felt and there was no visible end to it. No going to Mother. No confiding in Claire. There wasn’t even the hope of his Father asking him what was wrong. There was just Henry.
A gust of wind hit Henry and he stumbled forward, nearly tripping. It was only then that he felt the tears racing down his cheeks. Reaching up, his fingers brushed his soaked cheeks and he quickly sniffed, blinking to trying and recover from the flood of emotion. Strangely enough, he didn’t want to recover. He didn’t want to brush it off. Most of the thoughts inside of him were directed toward the emotion roiling inside of him and he just wanted to languish in the suffering, to wallow there and let it consume him. Maybe then it would end.
Henry heard the sniffling and the sound of a sob and stopped.
It wasn’t coming from him.
Looking ahead at the swirling haze, Henry could make out a shadowy figure before him. The figure wasn’t close. In fact, they were nothing more than a dim shadow in the swirling gray just ahead of him. But more importantly, the hope that it was Claire or his Mother vanished, blown away in the whirling smoke and wind. The person was too short to be any of them. A thing, reed of a child and from the look of the hair blowing in the wind, it was a young girl.
“Hello?” Henry called to her. He took a step forward and stretched out a hand with finger tips of white, everything else was covered in dust and soot. “Hello, are you lost?”
The girl spun around. He could hear the shuffling or rocks under her feet as she moved and looked at him. She hushed him, a loud, sharp hiss that escaped through lips Henry couldn’t see yet. He took another step forward and saw the girl’s face. Much like his, it was striped dark and pale from the trails of tears that had been running down her face.
“They’ll hear you,” she warned.
“Who will?” Henry’s eyes searched the smoky world behind the girl as his fingers gripped his bloodied dagger tighter.
“The monsters,” she answered.
Monsters? Henry had injured one of the men that had attacked him. He had savaged the man’s arm to the point that he was going to either bleed out or lose the arm at least. He knew butcher’s work. These were no monsters, just men, wretched, and cold, and vicious. He was going to deal with any of these monsters that dared to show themselves to him again. They had taken everything from him and Henry would never forgive them for that. He would chase them to the ends of the world just to make them pay.
“Okay,” he spoke quieter and took a step toward her. She was younger than he was, maybe five or six. “What’s your name?”
“Lira,” she answered quickly. “I know you,” she said. “You played with my brother, Ansel. You’re the tanner’s son.”
Ansel, there was an impish little punk that Henry had clobber a time or two for the tricks that little Ansel thought was funny. Sure, they’d shared a few laughs, but did that mean that he was Ansel’s friend? Was that the standard for friends in Ansel’s life. Maybe it was and Henry figured that was fine with him. They’d never had any serious scuffles before and Ansel had been funny enough when he got in over his head with certain situations. Like when he’d tried giving flowers to the washer woman’s daughter and he’d ended up in a bucket of suds and chased off with a broom. Henry grinned at that memory. All the local boys had enjoyed a good laugh on that one.
“Yeah, I know Ansel,” Henry said. “Do you know which way he went? We can go find him.”
The girl stared at him with eyes that evaporated all emotion and went cold, distant, like mountains on the horizon. Henry realized it the moment he said it. He regretted even voicing the question. Ansel was gone. Either burning on the hill, dead in the gully, or off in the distance where little Lira couldn’t hope to find them. He swallowed hard and took a step closer.
“It’s okay,” he said to her. “I’ve lost everyone, Lira. But we might find others. We might find someone you know. Do you remember which city they were going to? Do you have family in Dorothea?”
Lira shook her head. “Uncle Grant lives in Trennon,” Lira sniffed.
Everything was terrifying and his soul felt crippled. Henry could only imagine how it would feel to be a child out here, to have been abandoned through death or panic. Surely no one would leave a child intentionally and no parent would leave their child. Mother did. Henry suddenly thought. He regretted the callous nature of the thought. She hadn’t left him intentionally. There was no way they could have known he was alive. If they had seen him hurled from the hilltop, they would have known for sure he was dead. Regardless, Lira was alone, just like he was and there was no way he could abandon her. They needed each other right now.
“Then I’ll go with you to Trennon,” Henry smiled at her. “We’ll see if we can find your uncle. Okay?”
Lira nodded and Henry’s hand was no longer empty. Her hand was nothing compared to Claire’s. It was tiny, a little thing that drown around his fingers. He led the way for her and together they made their way through the gully. Whatever it was that happened to Lira, she was clearly trying to find her way out of it. Henry understood that as well. It was all he could do to keep his mind from crumbling further under the weight of everything that had happened. He had to look at the path before him, decipher the veil of smoke, and survey the surrounding environment, all for the sake of avoiding the face that he was alone, utterly and completely.
One day, he wouldn’t be able to hold back the thoughts, but until then, he would try his hardest to run from it, to avoid it.
It was over an hour before the smoke began to clear. It wasn’t quick and it wasn’t clear, but Henry started to notice that he could see more. He could see the dark lines of trunks along the hills or the jagged outcropping of a rock formation that looked like a perched beast before he noticed that it never moved. Slowly, the black turned to gray, to pale white. Soon, the sunlight stabbed down in prisms of pale light, shards of light in the haze.
Lira never uttered a word along the gully path as they walked. Henry didn’t try to get her to speak either. He would look over his shoulder at her and smile at her, forcing his lips into an unnatural form to try and comfort the girl. He’d squeeze her hand gently to get her attention and she would look at him with her large brown eyes and then go back to staring off into the Ether. At that point, Henry would leave her be for a while. He tried his hardest not to forget her. The tiny hand in his began to feel normal, almost unnoticeable as they walked.
For as long as they were walking, Henry noticed that they were gradually moving downward. They were heading into the lowlands. Henry had no idea where Trennon was, but everyone had been moving in this direction. The trail of corpses had dissipated to the point that the dead were rarities. This made Henry curious. Either they were getting closer to safety, or there were just less people to kill at that point. Henry hoped for Lira and his sake that it was the first.
He wondered how much farther it would be until they reached Trennon and what the city would be like. Would it be just like Umberlyn, bustling and what his Father often told him was Fenkish. He didn’t know what that meant, but he hoped that Trennon was Fenkish. He needed it to be familiar and just like home. Maybe not too like home. He didn’t need ghosts following him around, but he didn’t want to feel like he was on the far side of the map either. He didn’t know what he wanted. All Henry wanted was to get out of the wilderness.
The only thing that he could safely assume that the danger was getting farther and farther away from him. Maybe it was a false sense of security, but Henry felt like they were getting closer to safety. There were no signs of murderers or killers out there. He had not heard any screams or cries for help. There was no maniacal laughter in the smoke to warn them of danger. Right now, Henry felt like the life-threatening danger had passed.
Until Lira stopped walking, her fingers digging into his hand to the point where he was afraid she might draw blood. Henry looked at her and stared at her face. Her eyes were bright on her dirty face, staring off to the west where the trees were thick along the hillside. Henry followed her gaze until he saw the figure.
Henry could make out the sight of poorly cared for armor, ratty fur, and pale skin in the gaps. That pale skin was wrapped around thick muscle. The figure was tall and looming, muscular and far too much for Henry to deal with on his own. The figure’s gloved fingers gripped the shaft of an axe that was crude and vile looking, like it was hammered out of a large, unrefined piece of iron. In fact, everything about the man looked looted and unrefined, including the visor of the helmet that looked straight down at them. The man took a step down the hill toward them.
“Lira, we’re going to run,” Henry warned her. Before she could say anything, Henry reached down and scooped her up, cradling her close to his chest and making down the path as quickly as his exhausted legs could carry him. He gripped her tightly as he ran, running through the veil of pale white as heard the sound of the man crashing down the hill after them. The man made no noise, no call to others. That made Henry feel a little better. They could run and hide from one man. If there were others, then it would be serious trouble. They would be outnumbered and surrounded.
Running as quickly as he could, Henry flinched and dodged trees that began to sprout up in the world around him. The hills were no longer flanking him and he was heading deeper and deeper into a wooded area and the last of the haze vanished. Long grass hissed at his ankles and shins as he ran and the trees were becoming more and more thick. There were briars and bushes growing underneath the trees as the sky was blotted out by a canopy of green. Reeds were shooting up out of the long grass and Henry felt one of his feet slip in a patch of muck. The surprise heightened Henry’s senses as he gripped Lira tightly. He realized that it stank. It was a strange smell, like leaves that were wet and rotting, still water, and everything was humid around him, hanging in the air.
“Bunch of thick headed, bog dwellers,” Percy’s voice rolled through Henry’s mind. Henry had overheard Percy griping to Mother as she took care of a cut on Percy’s shoulder from a fight that had broken out with a merchant and caravan crew at the tavern. They’d been from Trennon.
Henry looked around him and saw that he was indeed in a swampy forest.
Taking another step, Henry felt the muck squishing out from under his sole and up around his boot. Pulling his boot free, Henry looked at the footprint and grimaced. They were going to be easy to spot. In fact, they were going to be leaving a path right to them. Looking behind him, Henry could hear the heavy breathing of his pursuer and the stomping of his feet. They didn’t have much time. IF the muck started to pull down on Henry’s feet, then it would certainly tug at his stalker.
“He’s getting closer,” Lira whispered. She scouted over Henry’s shoulder for him.
That was all the encouragement that Henry needed. Running into the swamp, Henry didn’t care that there were tracks behind him. He didn’t care if the killer was close at hand. All he had to do was outrun someone larger than him and coated in armor, carrying an enormous axe. Henry liked his odds and kept running. He could do this. He could get both of them to Trennon and to safety. It was somewhere in the swamp. It had to be nearby. There were farmers and laborers all around Umberlyn, so he figured that he’d run into someone or maybe even a road. He just needed to get far enough for the man to escape.
Henry’s legs burned. All the impact points on his body where bruises were seeping outward and swelling was expanding reminded him that he was in no position for a race right now. Lira, who weighed nothing began to weigh a whole lot and Henry knew that he couldn’t keep this up. He had been running for over ten minutes and the adrenaline from all of this was wearing out. He couldn’t keep it up much longer.
Suddenly, his footing gave out and Henry toppled into a pool of stagnant, festering water, filled with green muck and sprouting lily pads and reeds. Lira didn’t scream as they toppled in the water. She sank and resurfaces while Henry struggled to get back on his feet. All around him, the water rippled and the mud became scarce plots of reedy islands in the water. He looked around for some sort of path or road, but he had run straight into the swamp waters. There was no where to go except to push into the water.
“Behind you!” Lira shrieked.
Henry didn’t even look. He could hear the crashing of the footsteps and the grunt of the brute before he dared to move. He lunged away from the towering man and vanished into the reeds. Hitting the muck and sliding, Henry scrambled to his feet with only one open hand to help him. In the other hand, he gripped the dagger tightly, refusing to let go of it.
The brute of a man swung his axe wide and slashed the top of the grass blades, missing Henry by inches, putting the fear of death deep in Henry’s heart as he gasped and felt a tremor of permeating horror at how close he was to death. He let out a sharp yelp and stepped backwards. The man’s arms and shoulders were covered in armor, but it was old and looked worthless. Chainmail hung over his chest that was rusty and stiff, broken in many parts and left most of his abdomen exposed. Henry saw his target. That was where he would need to put his blade. That meant getting close.
Henry didn’t like that.
The brute followed through with the first swing, taking another step back and twisting his arms with the momentum, leveraging the head of the axe to bring it crashing down on Henry. Taking a deep breath, Henry watched the head of the axe. It rose over the brute’s head, picking up speed as it plunged downward toward Henry, jagged and crude, ready to cleave Henry in two. There was no surviving a blow like that.
So Henry dodged it. Digging his legs deep, he shot to the side, feeling the wind of the axe coming closer to him. He slipped and barely escaped the impact of the axe head sinking into the muck. The ground greedily consumed half of the head, sucking it down deep and holding it there. The brute grunted and gave the shaft a violent jerk and the axe head teased him, rising a little and then sinking back. The brute stared at the handle of the axe and his iron coated head tilted to the side, perplexed.
He never expected Henry, gripping the dagger’s handle with both hands and swinging upward, hammering the blade into the brute’s fleshy, lower abdomen. The blade slowed only slightly when it hit skin, pushing all the way through. Henry grimaced at the feeling of pushing metal through living flesh, but all he thought about was the butcher’s pig. He didn’t hesitate. He pushed upward, putting all of his weight behind the effort as he drove the blade through the muscle of the brute’s stomach and abdomen.
The brute threw back his head and bellowed, roaring like some kind of enraged beast as Henry kept pushing upward. The monstrosity of a man released his grip on the handle of the axe as he roared, tearing at his stomach where Henry had ripped through his flesh. The bellow was cut off by the loud clank of a clod of muck splattering against the visor of the brute’s helmet, knocking his head to the side slightly. It was less than a second before the brute recovered.
He turned his wrath on Henry first, swinging his arms to catch Henry. The exhaustion and pain in Henry’s body was catching up to him and he couldn’t move fast enough. The gloved fingers dug into Henry’s bicep and hurled him backwards toward the water, dragging him viciously and vengefully toward the water. Henry let out a scream before the cold water rushed all around him, white bubbles blinding him. The brute’s second hand slammed into Henry’s throat, choking him and stifling any more air from escaping his lungs. Henry couldn’t catch a break. People wanted him dead everywhere. His fingers scratched chainmail and Henry scrambled for the dagger that was still in the man’s abdomen.
Panic stacked up inside of Henry as he could feel warm tendrils reaching around him, some watery monster reaching for him. He tried to scream through the pain, his eyes burning and nose full of water as he choked and struggled. If the brute didn’t kill him, the swamp devil would surely drown him. He could feel the creature slithering around and over him. Darkness was filling the water and Henry knew that he was dying.
Until he noticed that the grip around his throat was loosening. Henry’s world was full of white again as bubbles filled the murky water and the loud crash rippled through the water. Henry was free of the brute. The demon must have gotten him. Henry swam, kicking his legs frantically to be free of the creature. Let it have the brute. Let it take him and let Henry go.
Scrambling to the surface, Henry gasped for air, but his throat was still closed on him. He choked and wheezed, flopping into a tiny, slimy island of grass before resting his head on the cold muck and blinking. He didn’t care if he was covered in mud. He was alive. He had escaped.
But what about Lira?
“Lira?” Henry pushed himself up on trembling arms. “Lira, where are you?”
“Over here,” she called quietly.
“Run Lira,” Henry called to her. She would be nothing for that monster. One of its tentacles would slither around her and pull her into the water with no trouble at all. “Lira, you have to get out of here.”
“Why?” she asked nonchalantly.
Henry looked around and saw her wading through the water toward her. Looking back to where he had come from, Henry sought any sign of the brute being consumed by the monster. All he saw was a pool of inky black water surrounded by brown, murky swamp water, with a pale snake stretching from the dead man to Henry’s foot.
Without any dignity or pride, Henry leaned over and puked into the swamp.
Lira didn’t utter a word. She walked up behind him and patted his back while Henry gasped for air and kicked the intestine off his foot. He planted his hands on his knees and tried to catch his breath, looking away from the scene in the water. Henry was no hero. He was no warrior like his father. But he had just killed a man. He had gutted him like a pig and got his foot tangled in the man’s guts. You never heard tales of great heroes doing that. Not only that, he’d lost his weapon.
“You saved our lives,” Lira said to him. He could feel her leaning her head against his back. Henry was shaking and trembling. He didn’t feel like a savior. He felt like a rat that had just watched the cat get crushed by a wagon wheel. It was all luck.
It took a moment for Henry to regain his composure and strength to barely walk through the forest. His body hated every move he made and he nurtured the arm the brute had almost ripped out of his socket. Before leaving, Henry looked at the axe and tried to give it a tug. It didn’t even move a little. He shrugged at the effort and the thought behind it before they continued south, praying they would find someone else, or maybe Trennon if they were lucky, something Henry wasn’t to certain of at this point.