Well, after many delays–false starts, rethinks and just general think-through-it-firsts, most self-inflicted–here it is, Chapter 2. This one introduces the second major character. Chapter 3 will introduce character #3, and then Chapter 4 revisits character #1, and…well, it’s pretty technical stuff, you probably won’t understand, so never mind.
And, jesus, am I really considering doing this? Posting each chapter as I finish it? Have to think that one through a bit more…but until I come to my senses, new fiction for you!
“Henry, be a dear and get me some potatoes? I’ll need them soonest. Two sacks, at least.”
That’d been fifteen, maybe 20 minutes ago. He wasn’t in the kitchen now, nor in the cellars, nor somewhere directly in between. He supposed–since he was planning on eventually making his way down cellar for the sacks and then back to the kitchens–that he was still technically on his way, in route. But he wouldn’t have bothered to try that excuse on Lucy. Were she to catch him here. Which she wouldn’t; every waking moment of hers was spent either in the kitchens or getting ready to go back to the kitchens, and she was not known for even moderate detours, let alone scenic ones. It’s not that she would have thought his own detour to be a bad idea, and scolded him for it; it’s that she never would have thought of it at all.
As much as he loved Lucy, and was grateful to her for having taken him in when he was barely old enough to stand–mother dead, father unknown, wrapped only in an old golden cowl–he had no expectations of spending his every waking moment as she did. Certainly not now, and less and less as time went on. He wasn’t sure where he did want to spend them, but the kitchen was right out, if he’d a choice. Which he didn’t, aside from these stolen moments, and it was hardly realistic for an orphan to think that that would ever change. Still, in these moments that he could take for himself, by himself, he didn’t have to pretend that his life was his to do with as he desired: it was his, and no matter if and when reality would come crashing back over him, and he’d have to hand his life back over to seemingly everyone around him, these moments were real, and sustained him in between.
A small rain storm had rolled through overnight, a hint of things to come, and the air was clear enough to cut. He could make out each individual tree, stretching away to the foothills to the north, dispersing slowly to the south, giving way to larger and larger farm plots the futher they were from the capital. In both directions, he could see the line of the main highway, straight and wide; finally, earlier this past year, the job of paving it end to end had been completed. It was a phenomenal achievement, but had also dumped thousands of hardened laborers into and around the capital city, hungry and with skills that didn’t translate to any sort of work they could hope to find here. Jobs were still scarce, food–especially after a few seasons of drought–even scarcer, no matter how much this year had been a return to “normal”, and Henry was still thankful that he had a place to work, food to eat, and a place to sleep. Even if it took excursions like this one on as regular a basis as he could manage to keep him sane.
Another cold gust of wind swept through, biting him, his thin shirt serving only to allow the air through to his skin, then trapping it there long enough for it to seep into his skin and bones. It was time to get back to it, and after one more longing glance at vistas just beyond the seen, he swung himself down through the trapdoor, climbing the short ladder to the spiral staircase and castle beneath.
He followed the passageways and then more stairs, further and deeper into the castle, the chill around him, as he reached ground level and then descended even further into the cellars, was no longer a result of the weather outside; it emanated from the very stone walls around him, the quiet of age and weight pressing in around him. He’d been terrified to come down to this part of the castle when he was younger, the darkened corners and musty smells and torches (their light bent and hidden by the smoke) suggesting some unknown and faceless landscape, just alongside the path he had to walk. You could slip there, between one breath and the next, and they were waiting for you there, things without name, without age, without reason or purpose, just waiting, especially for young boys with no parents, no home…no one to miss them when they were gone, dragged off to whatever awaited those unlucky enough to be down here and alone when they next decided to gather another soul to their embrace.
A decade later, and he wasn’t scared anymore. He knew every nook, every bend and door and alcove down here, and despite the chill of the stones he felt a sense of peace and place that was a deeply comforting counterpoint to the vistas and possibility he sought on his visits tot he top of the tower.
There was another hallway, long and straight, lit only by a single torch at the near end, and then he came to the storerooms. There was a small, circular room with doors leading in each direction: the hallway behind him; to the right were the preserves, their number still growing rather than shrinking at this time of the year as they were built up against the coming winter; tot he left was the flour and other grains, a small amount compared to the silos and warehouses along the outer edge of the capital’s walls, but accessible and ready to be used; and ahead of him the roots: onions, garlic, and the potatoes he’d been sent to fetch.
There were huge mounds of sacks, built up like snowdrifts, with no clear rhyme nor reason beyond their height, determined by how high a strong man (usually him) could lift them when bringing them down here. Now he walked to the nearest pile and gathered two sacks, one balanced each on a shoulder. They were heavy, weighing more than most could carry comfortably, even one at a time. But he’d been doing this sort of work–stocking the storerooms, then slowly emptying them as the kitchens called for them–for years now, ever since he’d outgrown the other scullion boys and the serving and cleaning he’d done as a young boy, and he was used to it. He shifted them a few times, making sure they were balanced properly, then started back towards the door.
As he entered the small circular room leading to the hallway and stairs back up to the kitchen and beyond, the light from the torch at the far end went dark.
It hadn’t gone out–a second later he saw its light again, and then it flickered in and out again and again–there was something between he and it, blocking its light. His breath caught for the briefest of seconds as old childhood fears awoke, but they blew away just as quickly as they’d came, as he realized that the shapes moving towards him were just people, three of them.
A far more adult fear rose up in him as he realized who they were, moments before the one in front spoke.
“Henry,” he said, “I’ve been looking for you. I have something for you.
“Justin, I told you, it’s yours, you deserved it. You can keep it.”
“Oh no, my friend. You deserve this. Your fair share. You really, really do.”
The three shapes stepped into the circular room, just ten feet or so away from Henry, and he could make out the faces in the reflected torch light. Justin was in front, in the lead, as he usually was when with his friends. And behind him were the brothers, Alex and…he couldn’t remember the other’s name. They were always together, and almost following close behind Justin, wherever they went. The three of them, like so many others, had been on the paving crew until that project had finished early in the year, and these three had somehow managed to find work in the castle’s forges. They weren’t especially bright–if they’d had even a hint of real intelligence, they’d have found a home with the smiths, or even the engineers–and that, combined with the bitterness they obviously felt (they made it clear many times a day, to anyone in earshot) over their diminished fortunes, as well as a seemingly innate aptitude, had led to their getting in more than their fair share of trouble. Until recently it had been nothing too out of the ordinary: bar fights, the odd bottle missing from the kitchen, nothing that could be tied too directly back to them or worth much investigating. But two weeks ago, they’d been drunk, and low on funds, and their wind high, and they’d decided (well, Justin had, and the others had agreed it was a brilliant idea, as usual) to steal some of the kitchen’s silver and use their ovens to melt it down into coins. The result had, of course, been a bunch of missing silver, no coins, and two major ovens with fairly significant damage; the boys did, to their credit, know how to build a fire to properly melt silver, they just hadn’t known that the kitchen’s ovens couldn’t handle it, and after the first had suffered a large crack through it’s masonry, they’d decided (with the genius insight that only a late-night drunk can bestow) that the fault had been with that specific oven, and the one next to it would do a better job of not failing them. It had, and the damage had been substantial, the evidence–they’d been found alone in the kitchens, soot on their faces, in front of the second damaged oven, silver falling out of their pockets and piled around their feet–indisputable.
Justin and his boys knew Henry worked in the kitchens, and had tried to tell the castle’s guard that it had been Henry’s idea, he was the ringleader, they’d just been following his orders with no sense that what they were doing was wrong. It was feeble (the only punishment he’d received had been a stern lecture from Lucy–one he’d heard a hundred times before, just as divorced from reality this time as all the previous–about getting caught up with the wrong crowd), and now they were on the brink of being cast out of the castle, just as the weather was starting to turn. Ever since, Justin had been looking for Henry, sure that if he’d only stood up for them, everything would be okay now. And since he hadn’t, and it wasn’t, he wanted to share some of the bad times with Henry.
Henry’d spent the last two weeks waiting for the final verdict to be passed and these three to be tossed out of the castle and beyond where they could get to him, trying to avoid them, knowing what was likely to happen if they caught up with him, especially alone.
Like they had, and he was, right now.
There was no use hollering for help; there was no way anyone would hear, this deep in the castle’s underworld, and in any event, his stubbornness was rising; he’d never run from a fight (and as an orphan in the castle, he’d seen plenty over the years), and despite having tried to avoid this confrontation, he wasn’t going to run now.
In the few seconds it took the three of them to cross barely half the distance between them, Henry’s mind slowed, and he made an appraisal of his situation. The room they were in was no good for a fight; it was too small, no room for him to work and evade, and they’d pin him against the wall and pile on easy, no matter what he did. Which meant retreating into one of the other rooms. The room with the preserves was out: the three of them weren’t carrying weapons, which meant that they intended to have their fun beating on him, but this wasn’t an assassination, and he wasn’t about to risk breaking even one jar of Lucy’s preserves unless he was sure he’d be safely dead before having to face her wrath. The room behind him, the potatoes, was a possibility; they were large but hand-sized, and heavy, good for throwing. If he could rip open one of the sacks fast enough, and get enough distance from them for the missile to do any damage, which likely wouldn’t happen. Which left the roots, and the more he thought about it–in between one step and the next–the more he liked it. The onions in particular. They were loose, and while his eyes had adapted pretty well to what happened when you cut or broke one open after years in the kitchen, he was pretty sure these three were as vulnerable to the fumes as most folk. Yeah, that was the best: get in the room, get an onion in each hand, crush them, then aim for the eyes. With any luck, he could have all three of them blind and stumbling about, and he could escape with minimal damage to any of them.
All of this, calculated in just seconds; Justin and his crew were closer, but still in their approach, not yet committed to the attack. He backed towards the door to the root cellar, and as he passed through the doorway, he dropped the two sacks of potatoes in the frame: not only would they only be able to come at him one at a time, but they’d have to climb a bit too, earning no momentum with a charge. Another advantage for him, though the most important one was still with them: numbers.
They saw what he was doing, too late, and paused, Justin holding his mates back with outstretched arms.
“What do you think you’re doing, my love?” Justin asked.
“Finding fairer ground,” Henry said. He quickly reached to the pile of onions next to him, gathering one in each hand, and crushed them in his strong hands and he stood back up and faced his attackers. “So come on, then.”
Justin glared for a moment, then cocked his head quickly in Henry’s direction. Alex and his brother started forward, stopping for a moment at the door, trying to figure how they were supposed to charge in side by side, then giving up the effort. Alex was first through, and took a powerful but clumsy swing at Henry’s head. Henry dodged it easily, moving his head back barely an inch or so, then dodged forward, reach out with his hand, not in a punch, but to wipe his fingers and the crushed onions clinging to them across Alex’s face, especially his eyes. As he did, he felt the brother grab him from behind, and without waiting to watch and see if his idea had proven out–Alex’s yelp and sudden disengagement was proof enough, he didn’t need to watch him spin away, bringing both his hands to his face to try to stop the burning–he threw his right elbow back, high, aiming for the brother’s head, connecting solidly with the side of it. It wasn’t enough to make him let go, but Henry was able to turn enough in his grasp to get his other onion-covered hand in the brother’s face, with the same result: a shout, then a stumbling away, all the fight gone out of him.
So far, this was going amazingly well. And then Justin hit him in the side, knocking his wind out; he’d decided the best way over Henry’s impromptu barrier was to fly over it, and had taken a running start before diving through the doorway, colliding with Henry in a percussive bearhug, tackling him to the floor.
As they were falling, in the brief half-second before they hit the floor, Henry clenched his chest muscles, taking in as big a breath he could, and as his body hit the ground, he brought his arm down on top of Justin’s head, driving it into his own ribs. He felt sudden, clear pain, a crushing burn across his entire right side as multiple ribs either broke or separated, but in the midst of that he smiled, as he heard the crack of Justin’s nose breaking, and knew that as bad as his chest felt, Justin’s face was doing even worse.
He rolled to the side, trying to get to his feet, and the pain in his chest betrayed him. He was unprepared for how intense the pain would be, stretching from his hips to his shoulders, and his arms gave out on him as he put his weight on them, dropping him back to the floor. He tried again, slower this time, bracing himself against the pain, and as he was about to push himself to his knees, the pain in his side turned from broad and burning to sudden and sharp: Justin had gained his feet, and kicked him solidly, right in the ribs, right where it hurt most.
Henry fell onto his side, rolling slowly onto his back, his breath gone and his mind finding it hard to skip past the knives that were his broken ribs stabbing deep into his side. He did, though, have enough left to see the foot sole that was quickly coming down, right towards his face, and reflexes took over, ignoring the pain that would have prevented him from being able to do anything if he’d had to think about it, rolling his head slightly to the side, bringing his arms up to deflect the foot just enough to miss. And he got lucky, as Justin’s foot came down instead on a loose head of garlic that was rolling about, and he slipped, falling hard to the ground as Henry continued his roll away from him, keeping his mind tuned out until his reflexes had brought him back to his feet.
Justin gained his own, and the two men stared at each other, a few paces apart. Justin’s face was the most obvious damage either of them had sustained–his nose was smashed and almost an inch to the side, and his entire mouth and jaw were coated in still-running blood, like a bandit in a horrifying mask, but Henry knew he was the worse off right now: his entire chest was afire, punctuated–pun intended–with the ribs that hadn’t just broken or separated but were now stabbing their broken ends into the much more fragile bits they were supposed to protect. His limbs felt like they were tied together with shortened string, every movement pulling at every other part, painfully, and breathing came quick and shallow.
Henry knew he had only a moment before Justin charged again, and realized that there was no graceful way out left to him; the brother’s weren’t a factor anymore, still stumbling around, blind and in pain, but Justin didn’t just want to fight, had no interest in honor or proving who was the better man: he wanted to hurt, and wouldn’t walk away until he was sure that Henry couldn’t. Which made Henry’s next move much easier to accept.
Justin moved forward, jabbing with his left while winding up with his right, sure that Henry wouldn’t be able to react quickly enough to deflect or dodge both of them. Which he couldn’t, so he stepped into the first jab, taking it on his jaw, turning his head at the last moment so it deflected off instead of connecting solidly, and knowing the pain would be too great to do anything after this last move, grabbed Justin’s shirt with his hands and stomped down, hard, with his left foot on the insole of Justin’s right. He felt the small bones there crunch, felt Justin start to topple off-balance, unable to keep from bringing his right arm around in sweeping punch he’d already begun, and decided to help him along. Henry brought his left foot immediately back up, letting it bounce off Justin’s insole, and drove his knee into Justin’s groin as hard as he could.
Justin finished his right cross, weakly, and in the follow-through of it collapsed onto his side, both hands reaching down to his crushed privates, his left leg twitching from the pain in his foot, and Henry staggered away from him, trying to ready himself in case the fight wasn’t over.
It was, though; Justin lay there, rocking back and forth slightly, a chirping moan coming from his reddened face, his eyes open but unfocused.
Henry limped away back towards the door, nearly falling as he passed over his makeshift barrier of potatoes in the doorway, and made for the hallway and stairs beyond. Later there would be the castle’s guards, and Lucy serving as a kitchen medic, and testimony, and three men (Henry not one of them) wishing they were still going to be cast out of the capital instead of into the dungeons, followed by years of forced labor. But for now, as he slowly moved down the hallway, there were only the stones, cool on his face as he slid along them, unable to support his own weight, their solidity bearing him up, helping him along. A small breeze that might have wound its way all the way down here from some distant tower cooled his face, drawing him on.