So, Chapter 5 is done, 5220 words. And I’m thinking I need to rethink my plans. Initially I had planned for 10 chapters per character per book, 30 per book total, with 3 little interstitial bits after chapters 9, 18 and 27. But if I extrapolate that out from my current production, Book 1 would be close to 160,000 words when finished. And if I want this thing to have a chance out in the real world–and I do, I think it’s got some legs–160k words will not do for a first published novel, especially when it doesn’t tell the full story. That’s like 700-800 pages.
So, despite how much of a cliché it is, I think this may end up a trilogy. Oh well.
Anyway, here it is, back with Henry, henceforth known as “onion boy”. Which makes sense when you read it.
Henry woke to feel someone shaking him, lightly at first, then stronger when he tried to ignore them and go back to sleep.
“Wake up, Hal.”
The voice was female: Lucy. She was the only one who called him by that nickname. He opened his eyes, twisting his head around in the direction of her voice, and found her hovering over him. Right over him, her face just inches away from where his own ended up. He gave a slight yelp and flinched back, then rolled over, straightening his body out, hands reaching down to his ribs. He was getting better, much improved compared to the condition he’d been in right after the fight, but any sudden or strenuous movements would send a spike of pain shooting through his chest.
“Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry, are you alright?”
“Yeah,” he groaned, trying to stretch out the rest of his body and see if his ribs had calmed enough for him to consider sitting up. “Just woke up a little too fast there.”
As though it had relented, accepting that Henry actually was going to get up, his mind started kicking into gear, and he immediately realized two things.
First, Lucy hadn’t asked if he wanted the doctor. Which was very odd. Despite working in the kitchens for years, where a day without a dozen burns and bleeding cuts–at least one moderately debilitating–was a day where nobody had shown up to work, and even the rare serious injury was treated with butter, some wraps, and then back to work again, Lucy had always been fanatical about calling one of the castle’s doctors at the slightest hint of a bruise or sniffle when it came to Henry. It had to do with their history, the bond they shared.
She was the closest thing to family that he had. She’d had her own child, once, but he’d died as an infant, a sudden fever that the doctors had said they could have cured, had she brought him to them sooner. And just a few weeks after she’d buried her baby son, someone had abandoned another infant at the capital’s gates, an orphan, Henry. Since she was still physically capable of feeding an infant, and well known to the guards (the unidentified father of her own child had likely come from their ranks), the guard had given Henry to Lucy to care for. She’d been as much of a mother to him that she could ever since.
She talked about that time often, how Henry was a blessing, how they’d been brought together in their times of need, and and had to take care of each other as best they could, to honor the memories of her lost son and his lost parents, whoever they were. It was only recently–a few nights in the last few years, when Lucy had helped herself to a bit too much of the leftover wine after the kitchens had closed for the night–that she’d let slip the rest of the story to Henry.
Turns out he’d come down sick too, right after Lucy had begun caring for him. This time, the doctors had been able to save him, but it had been a close thing. They’d tried to take Henry away from Lucy after that, fearing that once was a sad reality of life, but twice–two infants becoming sick, deathly so, while in her care, only weeks apart from each other–meant that something was wrong with her, not the children. There had been a priest who’s spoken for her, in her defense, and eventually they’d relented and allowed her to keep watching over Henry. She wouldn’t say who the priest was, or why he’d done what he’d done…though a smirk tended to creep across her face when she got to this point in the story, as though she was enjoying the fact of the secret she held as much as any other part of the story. Henry thought sometimes of trying to find the priest, and thank him for what he had done…and maybe ask him why, but it was well beyond him to think of a plan to ever find him.
And so this filled in the gaps in the story, and why, since that first fever, Lucy had called for the doctors at the slightest hint that something was wrong with Henry. He’d wondered–in a flash of insight that was rare for him–if his infant fever had damaged him somehow, and that was why he wasn’t as smart, couldn’t think as well as everyone else. He wondered if Lucy sometimes thought the same thing, and if that was another reason she was always so quick to call for the doctors when something was wrong with him.
So if she was worried about him now, especially when he was still clearly hurting after the fight with Justin and the brothers, but she wasn’t immediately calling for the doctors again, wasn’t even mentioning them…well, that was odd.
As was the second thing he noticed: she was whispering.
He managed to roll onto his right side, the one that hadn’t been broken in the fight, and pushed himself to a sitting position.
He was in his room, a small chamber near the kitchens, just down the hall from where Lucy and the other cooks lived. There wasn’t much in the room: an old bed, small enough that his feet hung over the bottom edge now when he was fully stretched out (and at fifteen, Lucy kept reminding him that he could still grow another few inches past his already-tall height), with a faded and lumpy goosedown mattress on it that once might have been quite a luxery, but probably should have been thrown out and burned years ago; two small chests, one for his clothes (which were doing a better job of keeping up with his growing height than the bed was, but not by much), one for things that were important to him, odds and ends he’d picked up over the years, gifts from Lucy when she’d been able to afford something for his birthday or the winter holidays, that sort of thing. And that was it. There was a small window high on the wall over his bed, letting in a thin ray of the morning light…this was definitely his room, no reason to think he was anywhere else…so why was she whispering?
He reached up and ran his hands through his hair, scrubbing at his face to make the last of his sleep go away, only wincing slightly when his left arm pulled at his hurting side again.
“Is it time to get to work?” he asked, assuming that the doctors had decided he was healed up enough to go back to his job in the kitchens. He wasn’t looking forward to all the lifting he’d have to do, but it had definitely been getting boring just sitting here all day, occasionally taking a walk, now that he was able to get up and move around, however gingerly.
“No, sweetheart, you’re not…I told them you weren’t…” And now Henry wasn’t just curious by the way Lucy was asking: he was getting a bit scared. She was clearly upset, and had glanced over at the door of his room a couple times so far, urgently, as though she were waiting for something to come through it, something she very much wished wouldn’t do just that. And her appearance…she had never been the most attractive of women, she’d left “plump” behind years ago and dressed her appearance more for convenience in her work than for impressing anyone. “No point dressing this up as anything more than what it is,” she’d say all the time, pointing to her body and the heavy, flowing dress she’d have on it (usually well-patched and carrying more than a few stains). And even her rare attempts to “put on the dog” (which is what she called it when she’d put on a nice, non-work dress, and wash her hair and put make-up on…though Henry had no idea what that had to do with a dog) weren’t all that successful: there was only so much she could do with what she had and what she was. She was sweet, and kind, and usually happy and quick to laugh, and a wonderful cook, and had taken Henry into her life and loved him like a mother…but she had never and would never now turn men’s heads.
Yet this morning, she was more disheveled than Henry could ever remember seeing her. Her hair stuck out in random angles, tied in knots on top of her head, and there were dark bags under her eyes. She was in one of her older dresses, and from the look (and, unfortunately, smell) of it, hadn’t changed it in a couple of days. She looked, frankly, awful.
Henry’s slow-turning mind began assembling all of this, and finally returned to a thought he’d carried prominently in the hours and first few days after the fight, but which he had pretty much put away until just now: had they decided he was at fault for the fight after all? Was the guard coming right now for him, and that’s why Lucy was so obviously scared and worried about him?
He leaned forward and took one of her hands in his own, trying to get her attention, which was still whip-sawing back and forth between him and the door.
“Is something wrong?”
She returned to his face, focusing on him, and she tried to put on a look of confidence, one he recognized from so many other times in his life when something was, in fact, wrong, and she was trying to shield him from it. And one that now wasn’t capable of completely covering the clear panic she was dealing with.
She opened her mouth to speak, paused as she tried to decide where to begin, reassurance or explanation or none of the above, and that pause cost her, prevented Henry from ever hearing what she had to say. A booming voice came from the hallway, just outside his open door.
“Is this the one?”
There was no wait for an answer–either the response had been a quick, silent nod, or the question hadn’t really been a question, and thus not requiring a response–and the moment the last word completed, a large man walked into Henry’s room. He was dressed in the guards’ livery, with impeccable attention to detail…Henry could see insignias, badges and medals all over the vest that he couldn’t recognize, and there were no frayed hems, no off-center creases… It wasn’t a stretch to guess that this man was an officer, someone of importance. And from his size, and the way he moved, Henry’s particular brand of genius could tell that he wasn’t important because of family or favors: the man knew how to handle himself, and had earned all the shiny bits with sweat and blood. It was evident in the firm, relaxed level of his shoulders, the unconsciously straight back, in his stride and the careful, deliberate steps he took, in the way his left hand rested easily in the small gap between his belt and the hilt of his sword, protruding from the scabbard, more at home there than anywhere else, and in the confident, easy way the revolver hung in its holster on his right side.
That last detail shocked Henry right out of his brief appraising reverie. The man had a gun. There were only, maybe less than fifty people in the entire world who were allowed to carry guns: the king’s personal guard, and the crown prince’s personal guard. Plus the king and prince themselves, naturally. And that was it.
Henry’s breath caught, but only for a moment. He had a few wild thoughts of fighting back, resisting whatever they’d come to do with him, and allowed the detailed plans to fly through his head, discarding all of them as they passed. They all ended with him lying dead or nearly so on the floor, and the worst of them had Lucy laying right next to him, suffering a similar fate. Henry was a fighter, and knew how good he could be, the particular gift he’d always had…but this man was a professional, probably the veteran of more fighting than Henry had ever dreamed of, was armed and armored, and Henry was still injured. No, as much as it was his initial instinct, there was no fighting his way out of this.
The man took three steps into the room, completely dominating the tiny quarters with his massive, assuming presence, and looked Henry right in the eye, Lucy discounted and not even acknowledged.
“How’re the ribs?” he asked.
That wasn’t necessarily what Henry had been expecting, but there was only the smallest of noticeable pauses before he replied. “Sore, sir.”
“Can you walk?”
“Then get up and get some clothes on.”
It was an order, from someone clearly used to giving them and never having to resort to any kind of “or else”, and he wouldn’t have to in this case either. Henry found himself jumping to his feet, hiding the wince that came when his side was pulled by the sudden action, and kneeling quickly by the chest where he kept his clothes. He opened it, rummaged through until he had a shirt and pants, and began dressing. As he did so, Lucy turned her attention to the guardsman, a pleading look on her face.
“Please sir, he’s really a good boy, there’s no need–”
“Lucy, isn’t it?”
“Yes sir, and this is Henry and he’s just–”
“I know who he is. Please, calm yourself. We’ll take good care of him.”
She started to reply, to try some different tact that this time would win him over, make him listen to her reason…but he stilled her with a glance. Not an unkind one, just one that brooked no further discussion of the matter. He turned back to the boy.
“Are you ready?”
Henry gave one final pull, and his foot popped into the boot. “Yessir,” he said, and got to his feet.
“Good. Follow me.”
With that, the man turned and walk from the room, not sparing a glance behind him to make sure he was being followed. Lucy reached out and grabbed Henry by the arm, readying herself with a, “Henry, I–” but he cut her off with a kiss on the cheek, shrugged once, told her he would be alright, then ran out the door, trying to keep up.
The man was already several yards down the hallway, and moving quickly. Henry jogged to catch up, then fell into place behind him, his legs moving much faster and occasionally returning to a jog just to keep up with the much-taller man and his long strides.
“So, Henry,” the man said without looking behind him, “You fought off five men at once, did you?”
It didn’t even cross his mind to lie and agree to the exaggeration. “No sir. Just three of them.”
Henry thought he noticed a small reaction from the man, the slightest of tilts to his head, but was too busy trying to keep pace with him to pay it much attention.
“Three, then. How did you do it?”
“Well, sir, it was the door.”
There was a beat of silence from the man, and so Henry continued, answering the unasked question.
“I was able to get myself on one side and them on the other, so they couldn’t all come at me at once.”
“And where did you learn that from?”
“I’ve been in lots of fights, sir, what with having no parents and…and not being so smart. I just…you get hit less when they’re coming one at a time. Doesn’t that make sense?”
The man had reached a set of stairs that led down to the castle’s main entrance. From there you could get to the Great Hall, the central courtyards, and the main gates. Henry knew these stairs well, though he’d never been all the way to the bottom (nor to any of the places you could get to from there); he was barred by birth and station from entering the Great Hall and courtyard unless directly summoned–which had never happened before–and servants did not use the main gates to enter or leave the castle, they had their own small entryway off the side wall of the inner keep. But, as a curious boy of six or seven (he couldn’t remember exactly), he’d begun wandering down these stairs to see where they led, despite having been told he wasn’t allowed. One of the cooks’ helpers had caught him partway down and dragged him off to the kitchens, where he’d told Lucy what Henry had been up to. It was the first and only time that Lucy had ever beaten him, smacking him about the head and shoulders and back with a long-handled wooden spoon she’d been using for its proper purpose only moments before, all the while cursing at him and making all manner of nonsensical threats. Henry couldn’t remember any of them now, but what he did remember–aside from that he was never, ever allowed down those stairs–was that Lucy hadn’t sounded angry, she’d sounded scared, and all of her yelling and wailing on him with the spoon hadn’t been to punish him as much as it had been to make sure that all of her fear–whatever its source–was driven into him, fully and permanently.
Henry wasn’t nearly articulate enough to clearly express all of those notions, even to himself, but the core outline of it had deeply resonated with him, and it was one of the first memories he had where he began to recognize Lucy as someone other than his mother.
All this is to say, when the man started heading down the stairs, Henry’s first instinct was to stop and call out to him, “Hey, we can’t go down there!” He thankfully caught himself before speaking and making a fool of himself, realizing that this man could probably go wherever he wanted in the castle, whenever he wanted to, and mumbled a quick apology to Lucy under his breath as he began to follow him down.
The stairs switched back and forth a few times before coming out in a narrow archway at the side of the castle’s nave. To their right were the main gates, nearly twenty feet high and three feet thick, strong enough to serve a serious defensive purpose, but heavily decorated as more and more years passed without a need to use them for their primary purpose. Two guards stood on either side of them, ceremonial, their uniforms even cleaner and sharper than the man Henry was following (which wasn’t an easy feat), and they wore matching mirror-polished helmets, and carried actual rifles, one end on the ground near their feet, the barrel extended formally out, held in place by a white-gloved hand.
As much as he wanted to, Henry didn’t have a chance to stare at them, nor to take in any of the other multitudes of interesting details that tried to catch his eye: the open doors to the Great Hall, to his left, similarly flanked by ceremonial guards; the incredible rugs under his feet and tapestries hanging from the ceiling; the few officials and other important-looking people dressed casually in clothes that to Henry looked as unreal as all the other decorations around him. The man he was following walked through the archway without stopping, crossing the nave, and entering another archway on the other side. Henry shook his head, trying to stay focused, and hurried to catch up.
They went down another short hallway, then turned left through an open archway and came out into a courtyard. It was mostly empty, with no ornaments and only a few patches of sparse grass. Along the walls were an occasional barrel, as well as two wooden posts the height of a man and nearly as wide, chipped and dented all over. There were a few groups of people already there, all men, some in the uniform of the guards, some just in pants and loose shirts. Two men on the far side were circling each other, and as Henry watched they charged each other, grappling, one managing to get his leg behind the other’s and force him to the ground. As soon as the second man hit the ground, the first stood up and backed away, giving him room to get to his feet. Then they began circling each other again.
As Henry was taking this in, he realized that the man he was following had stopped, and was looking around the courtyard himself, an appraising expression on his face. He seemed to find what he was looking for, as he waved his hand, just slightly, and nodded once. One of the men along the far wall dressed just in his shirt and pants began walking over towards them. He was short, at least a couple inches smaller than Henry, but just as wide, and from what Henry could see from how he walked and carried himself, he was all muscle, maybe the strongest-looking man Henry had ever seen. His hair was short, just days removed from having been shaved, and only covered the back half of his head. And his face carried a number of scars, the most prominent one his nose, which bent to the left and bulged ominously.
“This is Henry, the one I told you about.”
“The onion boy?” Gabby turned his attention to Henry, giving him a once over without letting any sign of his impression cross his face. “You sure?”
Gabby looked at Henry a moment longer, then backed up a few feet, stretching out his arms and rocking his head back and forth. Henry could hear the snaps and pops as his neck cracked from the movement.
“Alright then. Let’s go.” And with that, Gabby moved effortlessly into a fighter’s crouch, arms slightly extended, palms facing up, his body turned just off center from Henry, left foot forward. Henry turned to the man who’d brought him here.
“I don’t…I don’t know what this is.”
“I wouldn’t waste your time with me, son,” the man said, and cocked his head slightly in Gabby’s direction. Henry looked back at Gabby and discovered that he was advancing, still in his fighting stance. Henry hopped back a couple of steps, increasing the distance between them.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Seeing what you do. C’mon now.” And Gabby continued to advance, Henry backing away at the same pace.
“But– I’m hurt.” Henry still didn’t have any idea what was going on, but Gabby’s intention was very clear, and Henry was too caught off guard to worry about sounding like a child with his protests.
“You got your feet, doncha?” Gabby asked, “so let’s go.” And then Gabby charged.
He hit Henry right in the chest with a tackle that knocked him from his feet. He was barely able to bring his arms down to cover his sides, blocking Gabby’s kidney-seeking punches, as they fell to the ground. Henry hit first, with Gabby on top of him, and he nearly lost his breath, both from the force of the impact and from the cratering pain in his side. He lay there, arms still at his sides, rocking back and forth in pain, as Gabby got up, looked over at the other man, and gave him a questioning look. The man nodded at him, once, and continued to watch.
Gabby stepped forward and reached down, grabbing Henry’s right arm and dragging him back to his feet. He set him there, hands on Henry’s biceps, then reached up and gave Henry a light slap on the cheek.
“You in there, onion boy?”
The pain in Henry’s side was easing, and he straightened up, trying to shake loose the muscles that had tensed with the pain. He noticed that all of the men on the far side of the courtyard had stopped their sparring and conversations and were watching them now. Gabby backed up a few feet, returned to his crouch, and then charged again.
This time, Henry wasn’t as surprised, and the pain had driven away most of his questions. His mind clicked into place as it did when a fight went from possible to happening, and everything slowed down, and his normal flailing attempts to think about things like everyone else got out of the way. He saw Gabby advancing, leading a bit with his left, and could tell from the tension in his right shoulder that the left-facing charge was just the first half of what he was planning to do: the shoulder would come first, then, depending on Henry’s reaction, the right arm would come around, seeking either Henry’s face or his side, whichever was left open. There were a number of ways that Henry could deal with this, and he chose the simplest, mostly to see what Gabby would do in response.
Just as Gabby was about to connect with his shoulder, Henry crouched low himself, lower than Gabby, twisting his feet in the dirt, digging in, forming a straight, solid line from his right shoulder down to the ground. The moment Gabby’s shoulder hit him, he allowed the hit to push him even lower, letting his knees absorb the initial contact, then pushed back, spinning away to his left. Gabby didn’t have a chance to react and adjust his plan–he spun himself, feet lifted off the ground by the impact, and flew right past Henry, though he managed to keep his balance and land on his feet.
Henry continued his spin, coming around to face Gabby, and found the man looking back at him, for the moment out of his fighting stance, a questioning smile on his face.
“Well. Okay then, onion boy. Let’s do this.” And he charged again.
The next few minutes were a complete blur, and afterwards Henry was unable to remember a single specific thing that happened. Each move, each feint and counter and advance existed just in that moment, to be dealt with and then discarded as the moment changed. Gabby favored a grappling approach, moving in again and again to get close to Henry, and while Henry normally preferred to get in close himself and use his size and weight to his advantage, doing so would leave his hurt side exposed, so he danced and spun and kept Gabby at arm’s length. It become obvious to him that Gabby, despite the force of his attacks, wasn’t actually trying to do any serious damage to Henry, pulling the few punches that he managed to land so they left bruises but didn’t cripple Henry, which he was sure they would have if delivered at full strength. And each time Henry hit the ground, Gabby would stop, and help him back to his feet, and give him a second or two to sort himself out before starting in again. By the end of it, Henry was several new hurts, a tingling numbness in his left hand and lower arm, a cut on his cheek that was bleeding a decent amount, and the pain in his side was a constant, throbbing reminder…but he was also beginning to enjoy it. Gabby wasn’t doing much better than Henry was: clearly laboring, with blood flowing from one nostril, the result of an elbow from Henry that had hit harder than he’d intended…but he also appeared to be enjoying himself.
Finally, after a tangling of legs brought Henry to his knees, Gabby moved in for a choke hold, one he’d tried to apply a few times already, and Henry, recognizing what was coming, tilted his head into the embrace, knowing the sweat that was flowing would cause Gabby’s arms to slip and miss their target. And the moment he did, Henry spun, pushing off with his far foot, grabbing Gabby’s neck with one hand and bringing his other hand right at his face, fist closed, in a punch that would easily have knocked him senseless and probably done some serious damage, had it landed. Instead, he pulled the punch at the last second, tapping Gabby lightly on the cheek, then falling back onto his butt, sitting there, breathing heavily. He was tired, more than he could remember being in a long time, with his legs beginning to twitch and shake in the moments they weren’t actively trying to move him around, and he was hoping Gabby would get the hint that he really needed a break, especially since Gabby was looking as done in as Henry felt.
Gabby got to his own feet, then bent over, his hands on his knees, taking a few deep breaths before hacking a few times in his throat and spitting out a wad of red phlegm. He looked up at the man who’d brought Henry to him.
“So?” the man asked.
“You were right, sir.”
“Good.” The man turned to look back at Henry. “I’m leaving you with Gabby here, but I’ll be around to check on you.” And with that, he turned and walked off, back through the archway he’d entered from with Henry just a short time ago.
Gabby walked over and extended a hand to Henry, helping him to his feet.
“Where did you learn all that?”
“Don’t call me sir. I’m Gabby. And by learn, I mean who taught you to fight?”
“No one, sir. I just… I’ve been in lots of fights, sir…Gabby…”
“Heh. Sir Gabby. Don’t say that again, least not where anyone else can hear you.
“Yes si– Yes, Gabby.”
“You’re saying you taught yourself how to fight?”
“I– I don’t really know what I’m doing. I just…fight. It’s easier than trying to run away. If you win, they usually don’t try to fight you again.”
Gabby laughed a bit at that and nodded.
“Smartest thing I’ve heard anyone say all day,” he said. “Just don’t go expecting all the special treatment to continue now that you’re here.”
“I was meaning to ask: where is here?”
Gabby stared at him for a second, and then a look of sudden realization crossed his face.
“He didn’t tell you, did he?”
Henry shook his head.
“Do you even know who that was?” There was more than a bit of disbelief in Gabby’s voice. Henry shook his head again.
“Good god.” Gabby rolled his eyes and turned away, looking off in the direction the man had gone.
“The man who brought you here is named Tynnalus. He’s the Captain of the King’s Guard, personal defender of His Royal Highness.
“And you, you poor bastard, are the newest recruit to the King’s Guard.”
Henry just stared at him, the words not making much sense. He understood their meaning, but didn’t know why anyone would be saying them to him. Gabby reached out, taking Henry lightly by the arm, and began leading him to the far side of the courtyard where the other men were waiting.
“Let’s get you cleaned up and give that time to sink in, shall we?”
Henry let himself be led, wherever Gabby was taking him.