The impact immediately blackened Henry’s eyes and dropped him to his knee, wincing and groaning as the impact started throbbing just above his right eye. A chorus of chuckling rippled through the air, heckling him from down the street as Henry listened to the gasps and whispers of others on the main street he had been allowed to walk on by the guards. The pain went deep, straight to the bone as his fingers felt the warm spread of blood. The gash was just a fresh addition to the injuries that were piling up on Henry’s body.
“Look at the little Bog Rat,” a boy cackled as the others continued laughing. “Got him good. Didn’t I?”
“You sure did, Pad,” another boy who laughed like a braying donkey said over his wheezing laughter. “Right in the eye. Think he’s blind?”
“Might be,” the boy named Pad said. “Hey Bog Rat, I blind you?”
Henry forced himself to stand and pulled his fingers away from the pulsing pain above his right eye and glared at the pack of boys that had pelted him with the rock. The boy that appeared to be Pad stood out first in front of the others. His face was covered in freckles and his eyes were a green that reminded Henry of the moss that covered Trennon’s walls. Pad wore a hat that pointed in the front and clothes didn’t quite look like they belonged to someone wealthy, but they looked well made. He wore greens and browns and the piece of his attire that stuck out most to Henry was his worn boots. They looked like they were older than the boy. Henry sized him up and figured that in a fresh day, Henry could take him. He’d clobbered riffraff as old as this kid before, even if he did look a couple years older than Henry. But right now, Henry couldn’t even stand up against the stone that had pelted him.
“Look at him quiver,” a heavy set kid said. His face was stained with ink and he wore black and brown robes, but they looked far more rustic and older than the men who had been seated at the plaza. He was a monk or initiate of some kind. He looked more than well fed. Was that the monastery’s doing or were they trying to quell that particular fire in the initiate? “You going to cry Bog Rat?”
What was a Bog Rat and why did they keep calling him that? Henry’s left hand tightened into a fist, ready to defend himself if they didn’t leave him alone. His right arm was useless now. He could barely lift it now. If it was a fight they wanted, then they were going to get an easy victory.
“Leave me alone,” Henry said to them. It was the strongest voice he could muster. It didn’t sound tough at all. It sounded winded and exhausted. It sounded like a man who had barely survived his last brawl. Henry truly wished that he’d waded into the water to find his dagger. He was completely defenseless.
“What did you say, Bog Rat?” Pad stepped forward, coming closer to Henry. His fingers were tightly pressed into fists as well. This was someone that Henry would have made an enemy of very quickly in Umberlyn. They probably would called each other their nemesis after a few brawls. Pad stomped closer to Henry until he was right in front of him. “You smell like bog shit. I could smell you coming down the street. Since you’re new in town, let me give you some advice. Bog Rats don’t say shit to real folk. Got it? Or bad things happen to them.”
“What kind of bad things, Pad?” A taller boy in an apron that was stained called from a doorway, his arms crossed as he watched his friends torment Henry. His arms were muscular and his neck was thick, giving him the kind of roughness that made Henry pray that he stayed out of this.
While Henry was watching the boy in the apron, he never saw the flash of Pad’s fist as it slammed into Henry’s nose, or the uppercut that flashed like lightning and sent a crack like thunder through Henry’s head. Henry stumbled and toppled over backwards into the street while people in front of the shops watched with annoyed disdain, not for Pad, but for Henry it seemed. They murmured and whispered before hurrying along with their tasks.
“Those kind of bad things,” Pad chuckled and the others, given their permission, laughed as well, howling and hooting at Henry. This only seemed to encourage, Pad, who kicked at Henry and pounded him in the stomach, bearing down on him like a hawk going for a wounded rabbit. Henry didn’t call out or scream. He didn’t give them the satisfaction. He pulled his legs in close and tucked his head, trying his hardest to protect his stomach. The beating didn’t last long, but it was merciless until Pad suddenly stopped.
“Picking on Bog Rats?” A voice cooed. It was a man, but Henry didn’t dare look at him. Henry wanted to vanish again. He wanted to let the world around him go back to the way it was while he just sank into oblivion. “Not much of a sport, now is it?” The weight of boots near him made Henry tighten, pulling his legs and arms closer to his body.
“He was mouthing off to me, Ciaran,” Pad said. “Bog Rat needed a lesson.”
“There’s a whole infestation of Rats these days,” Ciaran said. “They’ll figure out the way of things soon enough. No need to make an example of them yet. The Rats are just settling in.”
Ciaran gave Henry a swift kick to the side and left him there to wait while everyone left. There was no haste in their movements, no urgency or sense of fear that the Watch might see what had happened here. In fact, this seemed to be something that was regular in Trennon, as no one dared to say anything about the altercation. They just left about their business. Henry, slowly uncurling from his ball, saw that he truly was alone.
Part of him wanted to go straight to Boglin and avoid the city at all costs. It wasn’t safe here for him. His ribs and legs were bruised and aching from the beating, as did his jaw and face. He just wanted to stop getting hurt at this point. He needed to have someone look at his arm so that he could defend himself. He needed something to help take the barbed edge of pain off of his mind. Usually Mother did this, but he was on his own now.
Climbing to his feet, Henry looked around at all the people who ignored him, walking about their various tasks as he looked for someone to show some sympathy or even acknowledge that he’d just been attacked in the street. No one said a thing. The only one who even acted like he could see Henry was a man leaning in a doorway with a pipe between his lips. He locked eyes with Henry and pointed down the street and nodded to him once. Henry understood. This was the only kind of help he was going to get in Trennon.
Limping through the street, Henry avoided anyone who might take to objecting that he was there. He didn’t want attention from any of these people. Trennon was an awful place so far. There was nothing friendly or welcoming about it like Umberlyn. The air was humid and lichens grew on every stone that wasn’t already covered in moss. The thatch and wooden tiled rooftops were covered with what looked like green fur.
The only thing that truly stuck out on the street was the Chapel of Mirna, which was built out of brown stone and towered over the rooftops of the neighboring shops. It took up the size of a plaza and all around it, the streets were wide where men in green and black robes shouted from apple crates, hands raised and eyes closed, chanting the words of Mirna. No one paid attention to them. It was exactly the kind of response that Henry expected the people of Trennon to have to the gods and saints.
The only people that did linger seemed divided into two groups. There were the dirty and the injured who sat on steps, speaking with initiates who tried to bind wounds with old rags. Then there were the guards who stood near, hands clutching cudgels and shields, ready to bust skulls if they needed to. Henry looked at them, their malicious, disdainful glares and he wondered why they would even accept the refugees from Umberlyn if they were such a curse. Of course, Henry supposed that Umberlyn would treat the cruel and mean Trennonites the same. Cruel people deserved this kind of treatment, but the people from Umberlyn had nothing to merit this response.
“You there, youth, have you heard the words of Mirna?” A man atop a box pointed at Henry and he ignored him. He needed to find an initiate, someone who would look at his arm. He didn’t need a lecture. “These godless northerners have spread their paganism to those who have fled. Their taint is among us. Do not succumb to their darkness, my brothers and sisters. The filth runs down to the gutters, down to Bogland!”
Henry limped to the front door of the massive building. The entry way of the great building was packed with men and women standing around the doorway, leaning against the brown walls, exhausted and injured. All of them looked as if they were wrapped up and bandaged for whatever injury that the initiates could take care of. The wounded and injured were so thick that Henry couldn’t find a path into the choked doorway of the chapel. Hobbling and wandering around, craning his neck for a glimpse of a path in, Henry felt the anxiety swelling inside of him. It was all too much for him. He wanted to shout and shove people aside, but they would return the favor, he was certain of it.
“Listen here!” A guard who had scales of armor peeking out from under his surcoat shouted, mail dripping from beneath his turban over his neck. “The whole lot of you that have been dealt with, form up and get ready. We’re moving you all to Boglin.” People looked up, their eyes solidifying on him, focusing on him after fading out into the ether. They had expressions of worry and concern written in their eyes. They muttered and looked at one another, uncertain of what was coming for them.
They lingered, hesitating and that was the cardinal sin for the guards. The hefted their shields in front of them and slammed their cudgels on the rims of shields, filling the streets with booms and bangs that caused the refugees to flinch and start with surprise. They moved in, rounding up anyone who was near them to start moving. They scrambled and rushed toward the captain of the guard who stood with his hands on his hips, surrounded by guards wielding staves, keeping the flow in check.
Henry did not move. He nursed his arm and stood in the only way that was comfortable for him while people shoved past him and pushed toward the round up. Henry squeezed through to the doorway, leaning against a column and watching the guards clear the area. People streamed out of the doorway, limping and hobbling like Henry, heading for Boglin. A pair of guards approached Henry, cutting through the flow in a way that Henry could never hope to accomplish in his state.
One of the guards looked over Henry with dark brown eyes, skin that was scorched by the sun and eyes that burned like the hottest sun as he stared at Henry. The other guard, glaring at Henry with hateful eyes, patted his leg with his cudgel. Henry got the warning of what was coming.
“You can go inside now,” the dark eyed guard said.
The knot of breath stuck in Henry’s lungs slowly began to bleed out through his nostrils as the guards turned and moved into the Chapel, ushering out anyone who was still inside and ready to go. Henry waited, feeling the wave of relief engulfing his body, making him feel like his whole body was slipping deep into a cold, numbing pool. He let the weight of his body fuse to the column of brown, rough stone that sat behind him, feeling its warmth tethering him to the world.
The guards all poured out of the Chapel, letting the mob of refugees start to trickle down the road, heading for the bridge that crossed the city’s dividing river. Henry waited patiently, letting the guards return to their posts around the chapel, waiting for another round up as handfuls of refugees made their way down the main street from the gateway. When everything went back to normal, Henry looked into the Chapel and limped up the steps to the great wooden doors.
The deep, humid air swirled around him like a foggy mist, clinging and hugging him with a weight that made Henry suddenly aware of his lungs and how hard it was to breathe. The entryway was gloomy and dark, the stones on the floor warm enough that he could feel the heat through his boot soles. The walls were dark and the whole place felt gloomy and like a crypt, illuminated by tall candelabras and hanging chandeliers with long, waxy stalactites, hanging from their iron frames. The whole place was dark, illuminated by blurry, thick panes of glass that were stuck in narrow windows, black soot ringing the edges.
The Chapel of Mirna was not the kind of chapel that Henry had been expecting. There were no pews, no altar, no sermons being shouted from on high. There were stone benches against foundation pillars and great, pools of bubbling water. Fingers and tendrils of steam curled off the surface of the water, drawing Henry closer. The massive building had stairs that led to higher alcoves and nooks that were hidden away. There were rooms that ringed the great bathhouse.
A woman in a black shawl and a green robe approached Henry. She could have been missing her face and Henry wouldn’t be able to pick her out of a group of three. Her footsteps were whispers and her hands were clasped together as she approached him with a reverent gaze on the stone pattern of the floor.
“Are you injured?” Her voice was high and seemed to float, like the song of a bird. Henry’s gaze was elsewhere, his focus captivated by the massive structure he was standing in. “Excuse me? Are you injured?”
Henry turned and looked at her. Her face was soft and it was sweet, the kind of face that belonged on a statue or in a stain glass portrait. Her eyes were large and bright hazel. Her lips were thin, but the ghost of a smile that hinted on her lips was one that made him feel safe and comfortable. She couldn’t have bene much older than him, maybe a year, maybe less. She was beautiful, but none of it penetrated Henry. His mind was locked in a molten flow, solidifying around him, processing everything that was happening. The aches and the pains from everything that he had been through were starting to come together around him.
He nodded to her.
“Come this way,” she said to him. She turned with a stoic coldness in her features, her movements were so fluid and almost inhuman as she moved. Henry followed her, limping after her. His eyes wandered from her, looking at women hugging their children, fathers whispering words of comfort into the ears of terrified children, and siblings huddled together as monks and initiates worked to clean and wrap their wounds.
The girl led him to a small alcove where there was a bucket of bloody rags and there was blood splattered across old tiles on the floor. Henry swallowed at the sight and tried to calm his pounding heart. The girl stretched out her hand and offered him a seat on a chair that looked saturated in blood.
He nervously sat down as she took her place at a stool near him. “I’m going to check you for lacerations, bruising, or anything that might be protruding. If at any point you feel uncomfortable, please let me know.” Henry nodded and kept silent, looking up at the ceiling and watching the misty air escaping from high windows far above him. There were also numerous chimneys that stretched up to the ceiling, letting smoke escape from beneath the stone floor.
“Please remove your shirt for me,” the girl said and Henry’s trembling fingers went to work. He could feel her eyes watching his shoulder as he awkwardly pulled the shirt off and placed it in his lap. Henry didn’t look at her face as she studied his back and chest, reading the numerous cuts and bruises all over him. Everything was written on his body, being hurled form the hilltop, the fight in the swamp, the welcoming party in the street. “You’ve been through a lot.”
“What’s your name?” She asked him.
“Henry,” he answered.
“Just Henry?” Her voice was welcoming, bidding him to give her more. She watched his face as her fingers probed his bruises, sending jolts of sharp pain spearing through him. He winced and flinched only slightly, his eye twitching or his lip curling slightly with each inspection. “Very well, Just Henry. Do these injuries have a story?”
Henry kept his lips tightly shut. He didn’t want to tell her that he’d killed a man out in the swamp or that he’d nearly been strangled and drowned. He didn’t want to tell her how he’d nearly burned alive in the gully, roasted like a duck. He didn’t want to tell her how he’d lost his family and that they could be in this very room, but he couldn’t get up and look for them. No, he wasn’t going to tell her any of that. He shook his head slowly.
“You’re very quiet,” she said. “Most people who sit in my chair can’t stop talking to me about all the things they’ve seen.” Her lips spread into a larger grin. “Telling me their war stories.” When her gentle fingers touched his shoulder, Henry’s whole face twisted in agony, warped by the excruciating burn that burst inside of him, ripping and tearing its way through his chest. “That one speaks to you a little more?” She waited for a response that Henry didn’t give. He looked back down at his shirt in his lap. She gave a soft noise to show her disappointment in his silence and then gently took a hold of his arm. “This is going to hurt. A lot.”
Before Henry could even process what it was that she was saying to him, the girl was on her feet. The pain that was ripping through his arm was unreal, a kind of transcendental hell that pulled him through the doorway of agony in his armpit. His mouth ripped open in a violent scream that never escaped his lips, stifled by the roaring inferno rushing through his body, orchestrated by her hands that gripped his arm. The vicious assault blew through him, a hurricane of true suffering, of burning, ripping pain that ground against him and pushed him to the brink, his eyes seeing only white and his whole body feeling paralyzed.
Then it was gone. Leaning forward, gasping for breath, as if he’d been plunged under water again. His eyes watered and his nose ran as he clutched his arm to his side and hissed in pain, like the air in his lungs was boiling and turning to steam.
“It’ll be much better now,” the girl said. She sat down next to him and continued inspecting the bruises on his back. Henry hated her. He didn’t want her touching him anymore. He didn’t want any more pain, anymore suffering and loss. He pinched his eyes shut and bit down on his teeth, grinding them together.
He could feel the tears dripping onto his pants, the pants that stank of swamp water and smoke. His whole body shook and trembled from the flood, his mouth agape in a scream that wouldn’t come, a scream that knew it would fall on deaf ears. In his mind, Father died before him, run through with spears as fur and horn clad shadows with red eyes dancing around him, howling as his blood ran out, his eyes wide with fear. He saw Percy, throat slashed and body thrown in a gutter, his friends and comrades toppling around him, abandoned and left for the fires that ravaged the city. They were gone. They were gone forever. They had been everything to him and now they were lost, stolen by men who had no reason to take them.
But there was his home too. He could see his room in the darkness, his shelves and the small bed that he had next to William’s. Nestled above the workshop, the flames roared around the windows, dancing and flickering as the ceiling boiled with orange and black. The memories of games and friendships made in that room, projects he’d proudly shown the neighbor boys who coveted his skill, all of it ravenously consumed by smoke and fire, blown away as ash and embers.
His tears ran freely and his whole body bucked and shook with tears, the seams of his mind coming undone. Claire, Mother, William, and Quinn, all of them were dead in the gully, a world of fire and blood surrounding them. Their faces were unrecognizable, skin blackened and shrunken to their charred skulls, mouths agape, and eyes empty. All of them gone.
He was alone. He was forgotten in a city that didn’t want him, in a world where pain was given to him like a gift, where he would be shoved into the sewers or into the swamp, or into a grave without anyone thinking twice. What kind of life was this? What kind of hope could he have? There was no father waiting for him like Lira had. There was no family in Boglin, anxiously wondering if he’d make it. He knew the truth. He knew that they were all gone and that he was alone now. The power of that word was horrifying and the weight of it shattered him.
Henry stood up from the chair and stormed away from the girl’s uncaring fingers. He slipped on blood and caught himself, birthing chuckles from those around him. He didn’t care. He hated all of them. He hated this world he was stuck in.
He was drowning. He was suffocating. The blinding light of hope and life that had always been inside of him, always tucked into the heart of his mind, something so ingrained and natural that he’d never noticed it until it started to fade, it flickered and danced, twinkling with the death throes of all that was happening to him. He couldn’t let it die. He had to find something. He had to get out of here.
“Wait!” The girl called after him as Henry made his way through the maze of pools and baths, past columns and chimneys, around stone benches with reunited families and loved ones. He made his way to the dark and uncaring world out there. “Wait, stop!” The girl caught his wrist and spun him around. Henry could hardly see her through the vision of red rage and the blurred veil of tears that blinded him. “Listen, Just Henry, I know things are difficult. I know that you’ve been through a lot. If you need to talk with someone, the Chapel of Mirna is here for you. I’ll be here if you want to let it out. Just ask for Tyla.”
“I’m fine,” Henry wrenched his arm free of her and turned toward the exit, leaving her to harass and assault someone else. He’d had enough of this city. He’d had enough of the true world, as he had deemed it. Storming out onto the street, Henry looked at the few remaining refugees. They were huddled together and the last, frayed strands of hope looked for just one familiar face. There was no one.
I can’t give up, the fading light inside of his mind warned. He had to get to Boglin. He had to find someone. Wiping the tears from his eyes, Henry rushed to one of the guards to ask him if he could get to Boglin. If they could escort him or if they could just point the way. He just needed something to give him fuel, to feed the dying hope inside of him.
“Excuse me,” he asked the nearest guard.
The man looked at Henry with such disinterest that it almost stopped Henry. The words froze in his throat, hit by the blizzard of disinterest that he was met with, but his hope remained. He couldn’t be stopped. If he were stopped now, then Henry would never get back the fire that was inside of him.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I think my family is in Boglin. Can you point me in the right direction?”
“The last barge left already,” the guard answered. “You Bog Rats are stuck here for the night. The Mirnans will let you sleep inside. But no roaming the city or you’ll get the beating of a lifetime.”
The fire flickered and all that was left was smoke.