DargonZine 18, Issue 8

Out of the Rubble Part 1

Sy 12, 1018


This entry is part 16 of 27 in the series The Black Idol

“That’s not fair!”

“So what?”

Oriel recognized the voices as those of Briam and Finn as she turned the corner of the house on Murson Street. Her excitement fled as she stopped and took in the scene. The boys stood less than two cubits apart glaring at each other, both shaking with anger.

Briam, the shorter and stockier boy, had his fists clenched at his sides. His brown eyes shone with anger. A strand of his chestnut hair had fallen towards his nose, serving to emphasize the vein that stood out on his forehead. Finn was waving his hands in the air. He was half a head taller, but so slight that he looked small compared to Briam. A fleck of spittle trailed from the corner of Finn’s clenched jaw.

Oriel had been so happy before she rounded the corner. Mayda, the cook at Dargon Keep to whom she had been apprenticed, had given her the afternoon off to spend with her adoptive family. On the way home, Oriel had heard news that she wanted to share with Briam and Finn.

The two boys started arguing again before Oriel could make her presence known.

“It’s a dumb game! You made it up,” Briam said.

“It’s better than your favorite game: find-the-rat.”

Both paused to catch their breath. Oriel was about to jump in when another voice, one that spoke with authority, broke in.

“Briam! Finn! What is going on here?” Sian Allyn, their guardian, stood on the small porch of the house, her hands on her hips, and her hazel eyes ablaze. Kerith, the youngest of the orphans, hung onto the back of Sian’s skirt and peeked around her side. Oriel could tell from the dirt streaking the seven year-old’s face that she had been crying, probably chased inside by the boys’ argument.

“I’m waiting, boys. Which one of you is going to tell me what’s going on here?”

Although she was always kind to them, Sian didn’t hesitate to scold. In the past few fortnights she had been using that tone often, always directed at Briam and Finn. The last time Oriel had been at home she’d heard Sian tell Tom Madden, their neighbor, that they were like two young bulls butting heads. Oriel found it difficult to bear, because Briam was her closest friend in the world, and Finn always made her laugh.

Sian continued, “Finn, you’re older; you speak first. Then Briam, you’ll get your chance to have your say. If either of you speaks out of turn, you’ll be doing everyone’s chores for a sennight and I might even make up some new, entirely unpleasant ones. Am I understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” both boys replied in unison.

“Finn.” Sian crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back to listen.

Oriel walked over and stood next to Kerith, putting her arm around the younger girl, as Finn prepared to speak.

In a rush, Finn said, “We were playing the new game I made up. It’s called ‘Reach the Keep’. One person gets to be a guard. He stands in the keep.” He pointed at a large square scratched in the dirt.

“He closes his eyes and the other people try to sneak up on him. If he hears them, he has to point at them. If he catches someone, the person has to go all the way out of the yard to start again. If the sneak reaches the keep, he gets to become the guard and make a new rule for the game. The only rule that’s not allowed is for the guard to open his eyes.

“Briam was the guard and I crawled around from Tom Madden’s yard without him hearing me and reached the keep. Briam got mad when I made a new rule, but that’s the game.”

Sian turned to Briam. “Is that true?”

Briam looked down at the ground, kicking the dirt with his foot. “Yes, we were playing his dumb game, but his rule was that I had to hop on one leg from now on. Kerith got to run, but I had to hop. That’s not fair!”

“He doesn’t play fair either!” Finn broke in. “You’re supposed to sneak up on the guard, but all Briam does is wait in one place until a wagon comes by and I can’t hear, and then he runs as fast as he can into the keep before I can point at him. That’s not how you’re supposed to do it.”

Briam’s response was instantaneous. “Your game is dumb. I can run if I want to. You’re just mad that I’m faster than you.”

“I can run further –”

“Enough!” Sian snapped. “What am I going to do with you two?” She looked off into the distance for a moment before turning back. “This has to stop. Both of you were wrong. Finn, you must be fair to everyone or no one will want to play with you. If you make a rule, it must apply to everyone. How would you feel if someone made a rule just against you?”

Turning to the stouter boy, she said, “Briam, if it is Finn’s game, he makes the rules. If you want to play with him, you must obey them. If you don’t agree with them, getting angry isn’t going to solve the problem. You need to come to me, or stop and ask Finn how he would feel if the rule was only for him.”

Both boys nodded sullenly.

“Now,” she continued, “both of you are going to do all of the chores together for the next four days. If this behavior continues, I’m going to increase your work until you have absolutely no time to play. Is that clear?”

Again, both boys nodded. Oriel could tell that neither was happy with the situation, but arguing with Sian would only make the penalty worse.

“Your first task will be to go with the girls to the market and fill my orders. You will get no extra money and must come straight back.” Sian turned to the two girls. “Oriel, what brings you home today? It’s good to see you.”

Oriel explained how Mayda had let her go for the day. She omitted the news she’d heard on the street, feeling guilty about it, but after seeing Sian so mad she told herself that she was afraid of what Sian would say about gossiping.

“Would you go to the market with the boys and Kerith?” Sian asked.

“Yes!”

“Finn, you are in charge of Kerith for the day. You’re the oldest and you have to take care of all of them, straight?” Sian gave Finn a stern look.

“Straight.” Finn grinned. He always managed to shrug off rebukes quickly.

Sian shook her head with a wry smile and handed some money to Oriel, who repeated the list of items to buy. “Be sure to get fennel and verjuice, and Jur-fish for dinner tonight.”

“Mayda says you can’t eat the inside parts of the Jur-fish.” Oriel winced as the words came out of her mouth. The last time she’d been home, Sian had voiced her frustration with Oriel’s new habit of prefacing most of her statements with “Mayda says”. Thankfully, Sian didn’t seem to notice this time.

“Straight. Run along now. Be back at midday for lunch.”

“Can we have leftwiches for lunch, please?” Kerith asked.

“Is there any bread?” Oriel asked. “I could help make some.”

“Sian baked some this morning,” Kerith said.

“Thank you for the offer, Oriel, but you can go with the others to the market.” She looked at each child appraisingly for a moment, and then turned and headed back into the house.

The three older children loped off together, followed by the little girl. Predictably, it was Briam who slowed down and Oriel who held out a hand to Kerith. Finn only paused when he realized that no one was right behind him.

As they rounded the corner out of sight of the house, Oriel let the pent up excitement inside of her bubble out. “Briam, Finn, do you want to know what I heard on my way from the keep? I heard that they found a dead body in the river by the causeway. Someone sent a runner to fetch the keep guards as I was leaving.”

Both boys stopped in their tracks. “Why didn’t you tell us earlier?” Finn asked. Immediately, he realized why. “Oh … Sian wouldn’t have let us leave.”

Briam’s eyes widened in excitement. “We should go see what’s happening. I bet Sergeant Cepero will be there.” Briam loved watching the guards in action. During the festival last Seber, Rebecca, a healer and fortune teller, had read a flinger for Briam. Throwing flingers was a common method used to divine someone’s future. Rebecca had told him that he was destined to join the town guard. Since then, he had taken every opportunity to watch them work.

“What about food for leftwiches?” Kerith looked imploringly at the three older children.

“We’ll have plenty of time later to go to the market. We’ll have to rush, but Sian will never know we made a side trip.” Finn had taken two steps away before he finished his last sentence.

Briam’s response was similar. “Straight, we’ll make you two leftwiches if you go with us.”

Kerith looked at Oriel last as if hoping for support, but she turned away and looked off into the distance, unwilling to oppose the boys. After the earlier argument, she wasn’t about to question any idea that they both agreed on. Even more, some fascination drew her to the commotion at the causeway. What harm could come of it? “Kerith, I’ll hold your hand,” she finally said.

The children started to walk but then began to jog, and Finn pulled ahead right away. Briam followed at a leisurely pace, turning back every once in a while to make sure the girls were close behind him. Soon they were on the causeway, where a crowd had already gathered. Finn raced ahead and squeezed in between a buxom matron and a stocky man. Briam held onto Kerith’s other hand, and he and Oriel leaned over the stone railing on the side of the bridge.

At first, she didn’t see anything unusual. A short distance away, a barge was making its way down the river. Beneath the causeway, some workers stood on scaffolding above another barge anchored in place against the river current. They seemed to be performing repairs on one of the central stone arches of the bridge.

Then she noticed about half-a-furlong upriver, on the banks, were various members of the town guard. Two of them were in a boat, fishing around in the reeds. As the children watched, something large and heavy was dragged out of the water and maneuvered onto a waiting cart.

“Is that a body?” Oriel stared down, squinting.

Briam stared for a while before answering. “It could be. If it is, he’s dead.”

“Lift me up so that I can see.” Kerith was jumping up and down in excitement, trying to see over the railing of the bridge, but Oriel and Briam responded abruptly.

“Stay put.”

“Wait, Kerith.”

Briam pointed to one of the distant guardsmen who was limping slightly as he accompanied the cart towards the road. “Look, I think that’s Sergeant Cepero.”

“I want to see,” Kerith said.

Oriel ignored her. The barge they had originally seen had crept close to the causeway by then. As they watched, it turned awkwardly to one side, then straightened, and then immediately spun again in the opposite direction. The people on its deck scurried about in confusion.

A shout of warning went up from someone on the causeway. The barge was still moving forward, and as the spectators watched in open-mouthed shock, it crashed with an explosive bang into one of the middle pylons of the bridge. All around her, Oriel heard gasps and muffled yelps.

The entire causeway rumbled under her feet as if a giant hand were shaking it. The stonework shrieked as it cracked right where the children stood. Oriel frantically turned to look for Kerith, but the girl had vanished. Around her the crowd stirred to panicked action. Some strained forward to look, others rushed back towards the ends of the bridge, many shoving and pushing as they ran. Some started speaking or calling out, and a few even began to scream in fright.

Oriel’s heart sank as she scanned the chaos, searching. Then she saw the younger girl, clinging to the rough stonework of the railing right next to the crack. As Oriel moved, she saw pieces of the upriver side of the bridge break off and fall. The gap in the stonework widened, extending in little tendrils towards the younger girl. Kerith saw it too, her eyes wide with terror.

“Kerith! Give me your hand. Now!”

Before Oriel could do anything more than yell, Briam sprang out of the crowd and pried Kerith’s fingers from the railing. Scared, but realizing that he was helping, the little girl let go of the structure. Briam wasn’t prepared for the sudden lack of resistance and stumbled backwards, falling heavily to the bridge surface with Kerith in his arms. As Briam lay panting on the roadway, Oriel leaned over him and pulled the smaller girl away. Kerith was crying but otherwise seemed uninjured. She reached over and clung to Oriel, and she felt tears streaming down her own cheeks as well.

Another tremor shook the causeway. Oriel held Kerith tightly to her chest and found herself stumbling into a sitting position on the undamaged roadway. She stared in horror as the crack next to the girls began to widen. Then the road surface beyond it began to cant away from them, leaving Briam lying on his back on the sloping surface.

“Briam!” Oriel screamed.

He tried to scramble up, but before he could find his feet, he slid downwards as the broken part of the bridge tipped toward the river. Arms flailing, he tried to grab something, but the roadway was tilted at too much of an angle for him to find a grip. An older man and a guard reached out to grab Briam’s hand, but the bridge was tipping too much, and he was sliding too fast. As Oriel watched, screaming, Briam reached the edge and pitched out of sight.

Another crack sounded from the damaged roadway as more stonework split off and followed Briam down. The rumble picked up speed and roared ferociously. Nearly the entire sloped span broke off and fell. A resounding crash echoed from the river below.

“Briam! Briam!” Oriel couldn’t stop calling. She was still clinging to Kerith, who shook and cried piteously. Around the two girls, people were running. Most were moving away from the center of the causeway, but a few people stepped carefully towards the gap.

Kerith let out a sudden wail, and only when Oriel heard the younger girl’s voice did she realize that she herself was still screaming Briam’s name.

Someone grabbed her arm. “Hush! Come away from there, child. You can’t do anything to help him.” The older man who had tried to help Briam pulled Oriel away from the edge.

She retreated with Kerith still clutched to her. Tears streaked the faces of both the girls; Kerith continued to sob while Oriel’s weeping was now silent, but no less panicked. As she stumbled off the causeway, Finn came rushing from the crowd that had gathered where the roadway met the riverbank.

“Oriel! Kerith! Come with me. We must get home before Sian finds out that we were here.” He caught Kerith’s arm and began marching her off.

“No, Finn. No!” The small girl struggled in his determined grasp, but couldn’t seem to break free.

His brisk words had caught Oriel off guard, but they helped her tears stop. She hurried after him, calling, “Wait, Finn. We have to get Briam. Wait!”

By this time Finn and Kerith were on the ground on the new city side of the river. He turned to face Oriel and his eyes darted from her to Kerith and beyond. “Where’s Briam?”

“I’m trying to tell you,” Oriel cried, wiping the tears off her face. She felt as if her world was as tilted as the roadway had been when Briam fell. “We have to go back. He’s down there. Look!” She turned and pointed to the rubble-filled gap.

She began to move back toward the crack when Finn grabbed her hand. “No, someone has to go back to tell Sian. You have to take Kerith home. I’ll go and look for Briam.”

“I can’t just leave him!” Oriel tried to shake his hand off, but he would not let go. “He would never leave if I needed help.”

Finn said, “Oriel, it’s not safe here. I’m the oldest and Sian put me in charge, so you have to do what I say. You have to go home.”

Enraged at being ordered, Oriel snapped, “Where were you when this happened? Sian told you to look after Kerith, and if you had been there, Briam wouldn’t have fallen off.”

Finn blinked and looked at his feet for an instant. Then he met her gaze. “Look at Kerith, Oriel. She needs Sian. And I have to go look for Briam because I’m the one in charge. I wasn’t there when the bridge fell, but I’m here now.”

Before Oriel could reply, a guard she did not recognize came up to them. “What are you kids doing here? You’re Mistress Sian’s children, aren’t you?” When Kerith nodded, he continued, “She will be looking for you. You need to go home. Now.”

Finn said, “Yes, that’s what I was just telling them. I have to go and look for Briam.”

The guard was shaking his head before Finn finished his statement. “No, no, you too. Aren, is it?”

“No, I’m Finn.”

The guard said sternly, “Well then, Finn, you have to take care of the little one. I want your word that you will take the girls home.”

“You can’t tell me what to do. I don’t even know you.”

The guard gritted his teeth in an expression of frustration. “Cepero was right; you are a handful. Listen to me, all of you. I’m a sergeant; my name is Griebel, and I work with Sergeant Cepero. Now you know me too, and yes, I can tell you what to do. Give me your word, young Finn, that you will go home with the girls. Now!”

Sergeant Cepero’s name seemed to return some sense to Finn, and he nodded reluctantly.

“Straight home!”

As the sergeant watched them, Finn led the way, still holding Kerith’s hand. He didn’t go very fast, and Oriel guessed that he was fuming about being forced to give his word. He was probably just as worried about Briam as she was. Her mind was a whirl of thoughts, but her concern over Finn seemed oddly clear to her now.

“Are you angry about having to go home, Finn?” she asked.

“He made me give my word.” Finn was brusque.

“He’s right. It’s dangerous out on the bridge. Kerith almost fell, and Briam –” Oriel’s voice was stopped by tears that just seemed to come out of nowhere.

“Oh, stop crying, would you?” he snapped.

Kerith, whose sobbing had abated to quiet hiccups as they started on their way home, glared at him. “Don’t you yell at Oriel. It’s all your fault because you ran off. Sian said you were in charge, and –”

“Hush, Kerith,” Oriel recovered her voice at the younger girl’s spirited defense of her. Thinking of Briam had made the tears come back just for a moment, but she wouldn’t weep now when she knew that Kerith needed her. Even though Sian had put Finn in charge, he and Kerith never got along, and Oriel knew she needed to make peace between the two of them.

“No, it’s his fault,” Kerith insisted. “He should have stayed with us. I’ll tell Sian on him, and –”

“No, you won’t.” Finn shook his head vehemently. “It’s not my fault. You should have kept up with me. And now I can’t go and look for Briam because I have to take you home.”

Kerith stopped dead in the street, and Finn, still holding her hand, tugged. “Come on. I have to take you home and then go search for him. Come, you little git!”

Kerith began to wail loudly. “I hate you! Briam fell down because you weren’t there.”

“Finn! How could you say such a thing?” Oriel knelt in the street, putting both arms around Kerith. “Don’t cry, Kerry, please. He didn’t mean it.”

Two voices said as one: “Did too.”

In the midst of her worry and fear and tears, Oriel suddenly felt very tired. “Look, we have to get home quickly. Finn, you didn’t see what we saw. Kerith’s scared and so am I. You have to stop arguing with her. Kerith, hold my hand, and please, walk as fast as you can.”

Oriel rose and this time there was no conversation amongst the three children. The image of Briam sliding down the causeway into the river was stuck in her mind. Her stomach clenched. Would Sian make her feel better? No, Oriel decided; she would only feel better when she saw Briam.

She remembered her mother leaving her in the warehouse. She had never seen her mother again. A soft sob escaped her. Briam had helped her then. He had come to see her at the warehouse every day, and she had agreed to live with Sian only because Briam lived there too. And now he had disappeared into the river. Would she ever see him again?

“We’re almost home.” Finn’s voice was flat. Oriel realized he looked pale. The older boy was transferring his weight back and forth between his two feet. “Oriel, you go in and tell Sian. I’m going back to look for Briam.”

“No, you’re not,” Oriel said. She could taste the fear in her mouth, and knew that it would be very bad if Finn went to the causeway. “The sergeant told you to go home, and you gave him your word. Sian will be able to find Briam.”

“I gave him my word that I would take you two straight home, which I have done,” Finn pointed out. “I said nothing about going to search for Briam after taking you home, so there!”

“Sian, Sian!” Kerith let go of Oriel’s hand and ran through into the yard where Sian was hanging sheets on a clothesline. The little girl hugged Sian’s legs and the words spilled from her. “Finn left us all and Briam fell into the river, and the guard made Finn promise to come home, and it’s all Finn’s fault, and now he’s yelling at Oriel. Make him stop! Briam’s gone, and I’m so scared! I hate Finn!”

Oriel and Finn stopped arguing in shock as they listened to the torrent of words.

Sian looked at the two of them, and her face tightened as she looked at Oriel. “Hush, Kerith. What happened, you two?”

Finn was silent, and Oriel glanced at him before she turned back to Sian. “A barge hit the causeway and broke it in two.”

Sian’s eyes widened and her voice was incredulous. “What? That can’t be right.”

“She’s right. I saw it.” Kerith nodded.

Sian didn’t answer at once but bent to loosen Kerith’s grip on her knees. “Start from the beginning, please. Where’s Briam?”

At her mention of his name, Oriel groaned and began to cry again, and Sian looked up at once, her eyes crinkled as she frowned. “By Celine! What happened? Tell me quickly.”

Finn remained silent, so it fell to Oriel to explain what had happened. He didn’t speak until she finished.

“Sian, we have to go look for him,” he said.

“You are not going anywhere,” Sian said sternly. “You have behaved completely irresponsibly, and I have had quite enough. You’re fourteen years old and should know better — ” She interrupted herself. “Never mind that. I’ll deal with you after we get Briam back. And hear me, Finn, you are going to be doing chores with no time off for sennights, months even. This time, I’m putting Oriel in charge, and if I hear that you didn’t do what she asks you, then you will understand what punishment really means. Am I clear?”

Finn nodded, face glum.

“Oriel, take care of Kerith. Fix leftwiches for lunch. Finn, finish hanging these sheets, then go inside the house. I expect to find the whole house swept and mopped when I return with Briam.”

***

Sian decided to go to the guardhouse first. She wanted to see if Lieutenant Darklen or Sergeant Cepero were there. The children’s story of the causeway falling into the river was unbelievable. Why were the children even at the causeway? Where was Briam? Oriel was responsible beyond her years. She was familiar with death and loss, so seeing her so upset made Sian worry.

By this time Sian had reached the guardhouse, which seemed deserted. There were two pages sitting in the lobby, but that was it.

“Where are all the guards?” she asked one.

The small boy replied, “Oh, a runner came, missus. Seems the causeway broke. Hey, Enid, what did you see?” He addressed the other page, a little girl.

The girl, about eight years old, spoke in a high-pitched voice. “Oh my, it was terrible. It broke in half, and fell into the river. All the people fell in the river too. I was there with Sergeant Cepero, and he sent me over to fetch everyone else. They’re saying that lots of people are dead.”

Sian gulped. “Thanks, children.” She left, heading toward the causeway. It sounded incredible, but it was true. Her stomach clenched at the thought, and her breath stuck in her throat. No, she wouldn’t think the worst based only on the story of a child. Without conscious thought, she increased her pace.

Within a couple of menes, she had arrived at the causeway. The sight that met her eyes was as unreal as any dream or nightmare she’d ever had. The huge stone bridge that had been a part of the cityscape for all her life was no longer intact. Near the center of the river, a large bite of stone was missing from the upriver side of the bridge, leaving only a narrow span connecting the two sides of the city. Even this slender width appeared fragile and Sian could not see anyone venturing across it. Below the causeway, she could see rubble sticking out of the water. Rescuers scurried back and forth between the broken stonework and a large barge.

The chaos was almost worse than the destruction of the causeway, some people milling around, gawking and gossiping, others with anxious expressions on their faces trying to get to the scene of the disaster. On the keep side, she could make out groups of people on the riverbanks. On her side, guards were pulling people and things from the river. A few aid stations had been set up, with the town guard carrying victims from the banks to the healers.

Someone pushed her aside from behind. “Make way for a healer.”

A stout guardswoman held Sian aside as a middle-aged matron hurried toward the river, a satchel hanging from her arm. She glanced back as she passed, catching Sian’s eye. The healer looked as shocked as the rest of the crowd. Her unkempt hair and the deep bags below her eyes seemed to suggest that she’d just woken up and it only helped to further emphasize the look of fear on her face. Even as the woman hurried on, Sian wondered if a similar look was etched on her own features. The healer was soon lost from sight amid the tumult of rescuers closest to the causeway.

The woman who held her arm spoke gently, but firmly. “Miss, you need to go home. You can’t stay here. All of you in this crowd are hindering the rescuers.” Her tunic showed her to be a member of the town guard. “We’ve got enough help; now what we need is space.”

“I can’t leave!” Sian almost wailed, her voice breaking as she struggled to speak calmly. “One of my children is here somewhere. A young boy.”

“We’ll look for him,” the woman said. “But you have to go home.”

Sian swallowed her fear and tried to speak with a level voice. “Fine, I will.” She made as if to leave, projecting calm acceptance, while inside, her gut clenched. As soon as the guard turned away to break up another group of gawkers, Sian ducked around the corner of a small building and made her way back towards the first aid station upriver of the causeway. She paused just outside the grassy strip and surveyed the scene.

There were two healers here: a young man and an older, graying one. Both were working on the same man, the younger one splinting the patient’s leg, and the other occupied with a badly wounded arm. Two guards carried a woman into the area. She was unconscious, and her face was covered with blood. The younger healer finished tying the splint in place and left the patient to the older one’s ministrations. He went to the woman and began to clean her face. A guard came in carrying a bucket of water. Three patients who had already been tended to sat, blank-eyed, on the other side of the two healers, and Sian’s quick glance confirmed that Briam was not among them: they were all adults.

She clenched her jaw, trying to remain calm. She had to keep looking. She moved to the next aid station that was set on the riverbanks on the downriver side of the causeway. The same picture repeated itself, except there were half a dozen healers and physicians here, and more patients, a few children among them. Sian hurried to a few boys sitting together. As she focused her gaze on one face after another, her heartbeat faded and relief filled her. She didn’t recognize any of them.

“Get me a stick to splint this,” a healer snapped at Sian. She didn’t hesitate, and hurried to do as she was bid. When she returned with a stick, she was instructed to hold it.

The healer began to splint the arm of a young man, saying, “Hold it just so. Yes, thank you.”

Sian saw the healer glance at her before continuing, “Are you a guard?”

“No. I’m here looking for my boy. My girls say that he fell from the causeway into the river. I’ve searched in the other aid station and I can’t find him.”

“Hmm. He could have been rescued on the keep side of the river, you know.” The healer stopped talking, focusing on the last step of the splint. As Sian watched, the healer tied the last knot and then asked softly, “Have you checked the bodies?”

“Bodies?” Sian whispered.

“Yes. See there,” she nodded further south a few paces away where a few guards were placing bodies pulled from the river. “Go check before you continue searching. Be brave, mistress, and may Saren spare you his blessings!”

The healer turned away to attend to her next patient, and Sian walked away, hearing the tolling that marked the seventh bell of day. She could not help but think of the healer’s words. Saren was the god of suffering, and his blessings were considered to be unlucky.

She moved to the next section on the riverbank, an area that was a makeshift morgue. A pair of guards dumped a body of a young woman, her limbs flopping loosely as she struck the ground. The weary pair went back into the river, where one of their compatriots was wading along the bank. Sian stepped up to the latest corpse in the row, and quickly adjusted her limbs, trying not to look at the young woman’s features. She began to step around the bodies in her search, the thundering of her heart threatening to overpower her. Occasionally, she would stop to roll over a body or adjust the limbs on another. Her tears would not stop, and she constantly had to wipe her eyes as she looked.

She estimated there were nearly two dozen bodies in the row. The smell of the river, always a slightly acrid odor of water and fish and feces, was mixed with the scent of blood here. The horrific injuries to some of the dead made her want to gag, but the dread of finding Briam in that press of corpses was enough to make her ignore everything and continue her search. The wounds had rendered some of the bodies grotesque, and the next three, a man whose skull had been cleft open, another man whose legs were crushed, and a woman whose corpse was twisted half-way around at the waist, were enough to overpower Sian’s resolution; she had to turn away to throw up.

Wiping her mouth, she returned to the line of bodies and she saw a small boy’s corpse, nearly hidden under a large man. Her heartbeat was loud enough to overpower the pounding in her head. Tears filled her eyes too fast for her to wipe off, and a giant sob seemed stuck in her throat, neither disappearing nor coming out. She reached out a hand that trembled violently.

“Hey, what are you doing?” One of the guards had come back, this time with no bodies.

She swallowed, trying to push back the moment when she would know for sure whether or not she would find Briam’s body here. “Looking for my boy,” she said.

The guard’s face softened. “Is he here?”

“I don’t know.” She looked back at the pile, and the guard moved to it. Sian watched as he gently moved aside the adult corpse. She recognized the body of the boy underneath! But it was not Briam. It was Nolan, a young boy who lived down the street from her house. She sobbed aloud.

“I’m sorry, mistress.” The guard paused for a moment. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Sian shook her head, trying to form the words. “No, this isn’t my boy, but I do recognize him. He lives on Murson Street. His mother is in the guard. Her name is Treya Ludon.”

The guard frowned. “Treya Ludon?”

Sian glanced at him and realized that he wore the uniform of the Dargon town guard. “She’s in the ducal guard, not the town guard.”

“Oh.” There was a long pause and the guard finally broke the silence between the two of them. “About your son — he may be on the other side of the river.” He pointed across to where the keep seemed to squat on the hill over where the guards and healers were working.

When she looked, he put a hand on her shoulder and lowered his voice, “I heard that many of those alive had been pulled to this side. There’s a lot more dead on the keep side. And we’re not sure if we managed to get everyone out of the water.”

Sian drew in a deep breath. She couldn’t believe Briam was dead.

“I’m sorry, mistress.”

She nodded. “Do you know where Lieutenant Darklen or Sergeant Cepero are?”

The guard looked back at her, surprise in his eyes. “Yes, mistress. They’re both on the keep side. We have Sergeant Caisy on this side and Sergeant Cepero just went over, not five menes past, to direct rescue operations over there. The lieutenant is with him, I think.”

“Can you send a runner and tell them that Sian said Briam is missing?” Sian barely waited for an acknowledgement before she moved away. She didn’t know whether to go over to the other side or not. How would that help? She didn’t think she could bear to see Briam’s body. The images of the broken corpses she had seen earlier ghosted past her mind’s eye and she shuddered. Glancing at the causeway, she realized that even if she wanted to cross, she couldn’t because the guards had blocked the way across. Her mind in a strange fog, she turned her feet and let them take her home.

As she plodded along, tried to face the possibility that Briam was dead. The thought reverberated in her head, growing louder and louder until she thought she could not bear it. The town bell tolled. It was the ninth day bell, and the sun was dipping towards the horizon, although the long summer evening had enough light left that it would be a while before it was dark.

She thought of Briam, the boy with the quick temper and broad smile that she had taken into her home and her heart. She couldn’t find him, but she refused to believe he was dead until she saw his body.

Soon she would be home where the other children awaited her. How would she tell them? What would she tell them? That morning they had been playing together; now their lives had been changed forever. Couldn’t they stay innocent a little longer? They’d already been orphaned. Why did they have to continue to suffer?

“Sian, are you all right?” She realized that Tom Madden was speaking to her and he held her by her upper arms.

Sian blinked. She was on Murson Street already and she hadn’t even noticed it. “What?”

“You said something. What is it? You look terrible. What’s wrong, Sian?” Tom’s voice was full of concern.

Sian began to weep. She told him everything the children had told her. She ended with, “Tom, Briam is missing. I think he may be dead.”

“What? Are you sure they’re not just playing a game?” Tom slid his arms around her, and Sian leaned into his embrace, letting her tears soak his tunic. He continued, “I don’t believe it. We need to search. Have you –?”

“Where do you think I’ve been?” Sian wailed, lifting her head to look at him.

“Sian, where’s his body?” Tom asked, staring into her eyes.

“I don’t know. I couldn’t find it.”

“Well then, he may still be alive. Tell me where you’ve searched.”

“Everywhere.”

“Both sides of the river?”

“No. They wouldn’t let me cross to the keep side.”

Tom said, “Straight, then I’ll go. You need to go and get some rest. The children are by themselves, Sian, and it’s getting late. They need you right now. I’ll find a way across the river.”

Sian grabbed his sleeve to stop him, and said, “I asked one of the guards to send a runner over to the other side. He told me Roman is over there.”

“Roman?”

“Sergeant Cepero. He’s on the keep side. Check with him if he’s seen Briam, and don’t forget to –” Sian gulped. “To check the dead.”

“Don’t think that way,” Tom said. “I will find Briam. If I know anything of him, he’ll be helping the good sergeant. Go inside, and be with the children, Sian.”

He gave her a push toward her cottage, and Sian trudged inside, hoping that Briam was alive, but beginning to doubt.

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