The room was a gaggle of misfits and confused Umberlyn refugees, surrounded by a layer of scrappy, scrawny thugs that looked like they could barely find a full shirt among the lot of them. Their arms were covered in tattoos, some of them wore suspenders, and others wore daggers on their hips that looked like they had been hammered out of scrap metal. Henry didn’t know what it was that he had stumbled into, but it wasn’t going to be pretty. The people that Henry was surrounded by in the heart of the room were the kind of people he had to drive off from Father’s workshop. They were the kind of people that he’d call Scratchers, all fingernails and digging at the fleas that covered them. They’d bite and claw and kick if they could get their hands on him. Henry used to chase Scratchers away, now he was one.
“Welcome, one and all,” the man with the mutton chops and mustache said, his pipe still between his teeth as he growled at them. “Welcome to the hall of the Bog Lords.”
The hall was a dank room filled with shelves that had bins full of trash and junk that must have some value in a fetid community like Boglin. Henry Understood why it was called Boglin by so many, the apathetic slur, the disinterest and irreverent insult that it was every time they said it. It all made sense to him now. But, these were the Lords and that was all Henry cared about right now. He wasn’t a fool. He knew that they were criminals, a gang of thugs and thieves. But if they were going to cause trouble for the callous and vicious monsters in Trennon, then he was game for causing trouble.
“Most of you, your homes are gone, your families slain, and the only shelter you have is a city full of assholes. Trust me, no one comes to Boglin willingly. And, no matter what that blowhard Taylor says, there’s no justice for our kind. Not until we burn Boglin down and have homes beyond the wall. You see, Taylor gives the people a little hope, making them think they’re putting up a fight, but nothing changes. We, we’re the only true fighters that Boglin has and I’m willing to offer each of you a place in the fight. Want a good life? Then you’re going to have to take it from them. Understand?”
Fear crippled most of them, keeping them silent, but Henry could feel the tremor of discomfort that was ripping through them. It was separating the oil from the water, showing Henry and the Lords exactly who was looking for vengeance and mayhem and who was too afraid, too broken by their circumstances to do anything. Henry pitied them. He was ready to share the pain that was inside of him.
“You know why Boglin looks the way it does?” Pipe said, pacing in front of the group. “Cause the City Council tells us where we can and can’t go. The Watch robs us for taxes that do us no good and whatever is left, is pilfered by the gangs of Trennon, the Brogans being the worst of them. So any of you who don’t have the stomach to fight the system, feel free to leave now. I won’t hold it against you, but when things only get worse and worse, you’ve only got yourselves to blame. Get out and don’t be shy about it. Get on with it.”
Henry watched over half of the group get up, not cut out for the life of crime and trouble that was being promised to them. Fear was for people who had something to lose. Henry was all out of things to lose. He felt a fire inside of him, a fire that had grown wild and out of control. All he could think of was letting others enjoy the rage inside of him. He wanted people to stop ignoring him, to stop treating him horribly, and he was tired of being a victim. When the last scraggly youth had left the room, one of the criminals closed the door and locked it.
“Good,” Pipe said. “Call me Ryler, I’m the head of our little organization here. The lot of you are precisely who I’m looking for. I’m looking for those of you with brains—those of you with ideas. Me and the boys have got big plans for this city and we’ve lacked the numbers, but after a few weeks with you lads, we’ll be ready to start making Trennon a genuinely respectable city. Sound good?”
The others nodded, Henry did not. Henry was too busy looking at the faces around the room. They were older, seasoned veterans of Boglin. These were the people that Henry would never have been caught dead with in his old life. These were the people that Henry would have avoided, as noticed earlier, but especially these people. They were the bruisers, the beaters, the torturers, and the psychotic. The Scratchers were gone and these were the people that genuinely enjoyed doing what was wrong.
That was okay. Henry told himself that he was like them now. He’d lost his home. He’d lost his family. The world had taken everything from him and it was time to make the world pay. He could do this. He could be one of them. He thought he could do it.
A man with fiery red hair and a field of stubble across his cheeks approached Henry and held out a piece of oiled cloth to him. Henry looked at it, watching the man’s tattooed hands lift the fabric, revealing the crude, dull gray of the iron dagger that looked as if it had bene hammered into existence, the kind of jagged edge that made Henry’s skin crawl. The handle was wrapped in a dark leather that looked brittle, ready to fall apart. This was hand made. This would be more valuable in the middle of the river.
“Every used one of these?” The man asked.
Henry nodded. “I killed a man in the swamp.”
“Sure you did,” the man chuckled. “Show us what you’ve got tonight.”
Tonight? Henry looked at the others that were given clubs and daggers, one of the boys was given something that looked like a pike, but it was little more than a broomstick with a piece of crude, beaten metal lashed to the pole. They were arming them. Henry suddenly felt a chill in his veins. He thought they would be thieves or trouble makers. He thought maybe they’d dump some cargo into the river or set a storehouse on fire, maybe dump tar on one of the statues outside of the Chapel of Mirna. But this, this was looking like something else.
“Listen up,” Ryler cleared his throat. “We’re going to show you a little secret now. You keep it to yourselves or we’ll cut out your tongues. We’re all going on a little walk, going on our own little initiation. Keep up and when you see your moment, jump in. Anyone who runs away will be flayed alive. Understand? Do your part and you’ll be one of us and we’ll all have a round of grog tonight in celebration.”
The group nodded, but Henry stared in baffled confusion. What was this? Was this nothing more than building an army? Were they going to riot and attack the Watch? Henry had seen nothing but the Watch since the moment he approached Trennon with Lira. They were well fed, armed and armored, and they hated people from Boglin. Why would they think that they stood a chance against them?
“You’re with me,” Red Hair said. “You and you, come with me.”
The other two were taller than Henry, older than him. One of them, Henry recognized instantly as working in the North Gate Plaza’s Stables. He was a big boy with freckles all across his face and was missing three teeth on the top of his mouth where a horse had kicked him in the face, leaving a jagged, nasty scar. The other was a blonde haired boy who looked twice as strong as the stable boy and meaner than anyone else in the room. He looked at Henry, gripping the crude pike and jumping at Henry, trying to gain a flinch or a start. Henry just looked at him, not even batting an eye. A bully didn’t scare Henry, not anymore.
Red Hair was the leader of their little quartet and as they all left the room, everyone seemed to be breaking apart into little packs, smaller units within the little army that they had assembled. From the limited experience that Henry had, he knew that armies were only good for one thing and that was hurting others, destroying. It felt odd to be in a pack of armed men suddenly. Maybe this wasn’t what he wanted to do. Maybe this wasn’t where he should be. Henry looked at Red Hair, watching him as they separated and parted ways, winding through the damp world of mist and groaning wood. The sagging and slanted buildings became a maze, but Henry kept his bearings. They were making their way south. The elder members of the gang moved like cats across the planks, feet that were ghostly silent slipped across the wooden streets, sticking to the shadows and walking with purpose and lethal intention. They had done this before and the new members of the gang followed like newborn kittens, clumsy and wild, trying their hardest to be something more impressive, more seasoned.
The pack of Bog Lords made their way to the wall where the Watch made their lethargic patrols, staring down at the outcast town, staring with apathetic disinterest. They never noticed the groups of three and four sneaking out from the alleyways and awnings, slipping into the shadow of a large, moldy cloth that hung between two poles and the wall, protecting a pile of crates and barrels from the rain. The Bog Lords cleared the barrels and crates away, shoving them aside and revealing a hole in the wooden walkway that dropped them right down into the bog.
“Deep breaths,” Ryler said before dropping into the shadow of the hole. He vanished with a splash. Another Bog Lord jumped, followed by another and soon the recruits were jumping in as well. Not wanting to be left behind, Henry joined the flow, making sure he wasn’t the last. Behind him, the Bully and the Stable Boy followed. Taking a step forward, Henry felt the weight of his body plunging down, vanishing beneath the wet planks and the cool darkness enveloped him.
When he hit the water, Henry plunged deep, slipping beneath the surface and feeling the water surround him. Sinking into thick mud, Henry found the bottom, pushing his legs up and breaching the surface, pushing forward before the next body came crashing through the cone of light, blasting them all with water as they sloshed forward, beneath the bones of Boglin, heading for the wall.
It wasn’t hard for Henry to figure out where it was that they were going. He knew it almost the moment they had plunged into the darkness. He gripped the dagger’s rustic handle. It was the obvious access point. The trickling lure of the sewer access told Henry exactly where the terrible smell was coming from. Wading through the water and sewage, Henry reached out to the dark hand waiting for him in the shadows and was hoisted him up into the narrow chamber that led through the wall and into the city.
It was brilliant, actually. This might be one of the only sewage outlets in the city and no one was interested in Boglin. No one cared about the fetid shantytown. Henry had seen the swamp. You couldn’t march anyone out there without losing most of them to mud that refused to let go, deep pools, or only the Saints knew what else. Even if an army took over Trennon, would Boglin really care? Could things get worse? It was a black spot on the map and Trennon was using it to dispose of sewage.
That was Henry’s road and he made his way through the grate that had rusted and been smashed through. Bars were snapped and twisted like dragon claws, pulled back and angry. Henry avoided them, slipping into the shadows and following the sloshing in front of him. The route they took wound deeper and deeper into the city. With each step, Henry lost track of where he was in the city. All he knew that he was waist high in rancid, murky water and his feet were squishing unknown horrors beneath him.
It must have been an hour that they walked down there, in the wretched smell in the frigid dark. They walked until they came to a slime coated set of stairs that led up, out of the murky horrors and toward the surface. Henry felt like some kind of Vark or demon coming up to the surface of the world. The weight of the dagger in his hand reminded him of what he was a part of and suddenly, Henry didn’t want to be here anymore. He didn’t want to be with a group of armed criminals outside of Boglin. He could picture the Watch with their truncheons and staves. He could hear the words of the Captain ringing in the darkness of his mind. This was a bad move. This was not what he should have done.
Their path led them up through a stone chamber where the stairs reached the surface, tucked in an alley where they all began to spread out. The units formed up again, taking shape and moving to different parts of the street. The locals paid no attention to them. Most of them just wandered inside and shut the doors behind them. They gave the Bog Lords sour looks, but the blades were enough to keep them silent. Clearly this was not the first time they had done this.
Henry made his way over to Red Hair and looked at him. “We wait for the others,” Red Hair said through clenched teeth. Stable Boy came next, walking with a particularly disgusted look on his face, completely horrified by what he had just waded through. Henry didn’t blame him. It was atrocious. Bully arrived next, still carrying his pike, but holding it with a sort of disappointment that half of the shaft was slick with brown liquid.
“Listen up,” Red Hair said in a hushed whisper. “The Brogans run this city. They keep all the other gangs in check, force ‘em to pay fees, and take their recruits. Today, we’re going after them. We each have our targets today. We’re paying them a visit and letting them know that the Bog Lords are in charge now. If each of you does your part, I’ll vouch for you in front of Ryler. Rat out and I’ll gut you myself, understood?”
Henry nodded to him. He did understand. This was a world where blood was cheap and that reminded Henry of the people that he had been forced to give up his home for. He had lost his father and his family to people that traded in lives, who thought it was frivolous to care about whether people lived or died. Now, Henry was among them. Henry was part of the world where people killed for sport. That didn’t settle well with him. That didn’t settle well at all.
Red Hair led them through the streets of Trennon, a world of stone and wood that looked completely different from the world of Boglin. This was a sturdy world, a stable world. This was the kind of place where the ground wasn’t spongy and buildings didn’t sag and droop. Henry had a much better view of Trennon than he had first entering the city. It looked like an actual pleasant place and Henry was about to make it much worse. The alley ways that they took were narrow and secluded. Groups shot off, splintering form the majority of the others. Soon, Henry and the others were the ones breaking off.
For a moment, Red Hair spoke with a man in a heavy apron, a smelter or a smith, whispering and something was exchanged. When the short and brief conversation was over, the man in the apron vanished and Red Hair motioned them onward. It was a short trip that they made, cutting across a busy vein of a street where several people looked at them, identifying them for what they were. It wouldn’t be long until the Watch was notified of their presence. Red Hair knew this as well and he picked up the pace.
When they reached a small shrine to one of the Tyrantine gods, abandoned and forgotten, Red Hair motioned for them to gather around him. He looked around, watching for anyone who might bolt and head for the Watch. When he decided that it was clear, he whispered to them. “We’re going after the one in the green doublet, Ciaran. I don’t care what happens, Ciaran dies. Act natural and do your part. I count two others with him. Ready for this?”
Henry stared across the street at the tea hut where Pad’s brother was seated. Henry could hardly pick him out, except for the green doublet. He was a handsome man with dark brown hair, a frock of freckles on his face like Pad and a pointed chin. His high collared doublet was fancy and cost more than everything Henry had. Was Pad a Brogan? Was a group of assassins heading for Pad right now? Henry felt like he was going to throw up. This was not right, even if Pad was a monster.
The others nodded, but Henry did not feel comfortable about it at all.
“Ratting out on me?” Red Hair asked Henry.
Henry felt the whole of his lungs freeze, locking as he stared at the man and knew that he was in trouble. He had to nod. He had to prove that he was one of them or he would never get his revenge. He would never show them that he could make it. He would be an outcast among outcasts. That wasn’t what he wanted. He needed to belong. He needed action.
“Come to pray?” A man asked, stepping into the shade of the old stone structure. He walked with a hood over his head among the columns that were covered in lichens and etched with graffiti from ungrateful denizens of a city that had forgotten its heritage. Henry looked at the man, noticing the gear that he wore. This was not a man to be trifled with.
He wore chainmail, which Henry spotted first, not the kind of mail that was brittle or iron that had been worn and left in the hands of the cheapest smith to repair and clean. No, this was quality. Even in the shade of the shrine, Henry could see the silvery glint. Steel. The man also wore thick leather vambraces, reinforced with engraved iron. It looked older, but just as sturdy. Henry’s eyes dropped to his waist where his belts held two short swords. The scabbards were simple, but they looked like sturdy work. Henry could make them look better, maybe repair the light line of the tear beginning above his right hip, which held the larger of the two swords. The man’s pants were dark brown, maybe black. It was hard to tell in the light of the shrine, but Henry did study the man’s boots. They were worn and old, the boots of a man who had travelled a long way.
“You need new boots,” Henry said to him instinctively.
The man’s face was hidden in the shade of his hood, the cloak tossed over his shoulders so he could easily set to whatever work he was interested in taking up. Henry could see the man’s dark beard and his lips with only the tip of his tan nose visible. The man looked down at his boots, his gloved hands on his hips as he stared at them.
“Soon enough, I suppose you’re right,” the man answered with an amused tone. “You boys look like you belong back in Boglin. Hope you’re not thinking of doing anything stupid with that iron.”
“Shut up,” Red Hair snapped at Henry and shoved him aside. He raised the dagger in his own hand, a much more refined than the piece of trash that Henry held. Red Hair brandished it viciously, but Henry could see just from the way his body spoke that Red Hair was a stray alley cat, feral and forgotten, vicious but clumsy. This man, he was something else. He wasn’t brutish force and wrath like the Watch. He was something calm and confident, reserved, but alert. “Piss off or I’ll show you what I can do with this iron.”
“I can’t let you do whatever you’re thinking of doing,” the man said. Several blocks over, a bell rang out and Henry could see the nerves on Red Hair igniting, firing all across his body as the tension was mounting. The Watch had been alerted to the others. Someone had either been successful or failed, but the Watch was on alert now. “Drop the iron and I’ll let you go.”
“To hell with you!” Red Hair shouted. “Get the Brogan or you’ll be flayed alive.”
“Take a step and I’ll make sure it’s your last,” the man warned. Henry seemed to be the only person in the shrine who noticed that the man’s hands had dropped closer to his shortswords, open and ready to draw them.
“Who do you think you are?” Red Hair shouted. “Piss off!”
Red Hair charged, his footsteps heavy on the stone floor, rushing the stranger. He held the dagger with lethal familiarity, gripping the handle backwards so the blade ran up his forearm, ready to slash or hammer down into his victim. His eyes were on the outsider, picking out where he was going to slash the blade across the man’s neck, using his speed to saw the blade through the neck. Henry watched him feign right and then lunge left, raising his hand to bring the blade down on the man.
The stranger moved faster than Henry thought a man could. He moved to the right, spinning to avoid the slash as he stepped backwards, his hand pulling free his sword with a flash of silver. Steel again. Henry watched the crimson arc, flinging blood across the interior of the shrine as Red Hair fumbled and stumbled, losing his footing and before toppling over, slamming to his knees. His back was to Henry and the others, but he stayed there for a moment on his knees as if he were praying within the shrine. He turned slightly before slamming down hard on the side of his face.
Henry couldn’t see the pool of blood, but he knew that it was there. He knew that he was dead, his throat opened faster than he could open the intruder’s. The man’s face was still hidden under his hood, watching the three remaining urchins who were armed, never bothering to look at his fresh kill. This was a wolf among alley cats. Henry didn’t move. There was nowhere to go.
Bully didn’t think so. He let out a roar and lowered his crude pike, charging with all of his speed at the intruder. The man did not flinch, did not change his stance or appear to be surprised by any of this. Bully charged and lunged the tip of the pike forward, attempting to skewer the man, as if he were a scarecrow waiting for him, immobile and lifeless. The man’s speed was just as impressive as before, avoiding the blow entirely and as he spun free of the thrust, his elbow slammed into the nose of Bully. Bully’s head whipped back violently, his hair flying wildly.
Stumbling backwards, his face gushing blood, Bully snarled and whirled the pike around, like a boy playing with stick in the woods. He swung it at the man who danced around the wild youth, avoiding each blow until finally he had endured enough. With a swing of his sword, another fan of silver, Bully’s pike slammed with a clatter against the wooden stones, his hand still gripping it. Bully slammed his back against one of the pillars and stared with wide eyes at the stump that he clutched in his one good hand. Slowly slipping down the pillar, he watched the blood as it poured down his arm, over his fingers that desperately gripped his forearm.
“Breathe slowly,” the intruder said, whipping his sword and splattering blood against the floor of the shrine, nearly cleaning the blade with the movement. “It will be over soon. Find peace in the end.”
Bully muttered something, choking and gasping on the words as his life began to end. The cruel and vicious look that he had, the brutal posture, all of it was bleeding out of him, making him look like nothing more than a young man who had not deserved the fate that had found him.
“I didn’t want this,” Stable Boy shouted. He threw down his dagger and rushed for the exit. The man stepped aside and let him pass. He didn’t swing his blade at him, he didn’t stab him in the back, and he didn’t rush after him. He let the boy go. He let him run as fast as he could, let him hold his fate in his own hands.
As for Henry, he could feel the man’s eyes on him. Henry met the man’s gaze, staring into that dark hood, waiting for him to make his move. This was a man beyond Henry. This was a man who might have made all the difference at Umberlyn. This was the kind of skill and power that Henry wish that he had been able to call upon when his family needed it. This was something that Henry, a flea among gods, wished that he could have. This was a life beyond him. He was not a criminal and he most certainly was not an urchin. He believed that he could always be more, but that had been stripped from him. He had nothing left.
“Can you show me how to do that?” Henry asked him.