Embers



A cool breeze billowed across the countryside, and Corbray sat on his usual perch where he waited for Elisa. He had not seen her since before his first job with Halcombe, and nearly a month had passed. Corbray reflected on how much they had done since that day, and how much he had changed. But as Corbray changed, so too had his fortunes, and he was fast becoming a wealthy man, at least by Combe’s standards. Still, he often heard the cries of the boy at night, and saw the shining crimson on the blades of grass. 

“Hey ya!” exclaimed Elisa, plopping herself next to him on the stone wall, and Corbray snapped back to the present. He grinned; it had been too long since he had last seen her, and his words stumbled from his mouth as an incoherent mess.

She rolled her eyes with a playful smile. “Are y’always so eloquent?” she teased, and the two of them laughed. 

“It’s been a while,” he said with a shrug. “I missed you.”

She smiled, and wrapped an arm around him for a hug from the side. 

“How is work at the lumber camp?” she asked.

“Good,” answered Corbray, but he did not know. He had hardly visited the lumber camp since he started working with Holcombe. 

“That’s good,” she chimed. “Maybe soon, you will be able to have a house and a family of your own.”

Corbray grinned. He liked that thought. Though the more he thought about it, she was the only family that he still had. And now that he realized it, he never wanted to lose her.

“Yeah,” he agreed, and gulped as he tried to summon the courage to ask a question he had not before intended to ask. “Now that you menti-”

The sound of hooves treading along the nearby road interrupted his question, and a small company of men on horseback rode past. There were three in total; the two at the flanks each wore a green tunic and wore a sword on their belts. Their left hands held tight their horses' reins, while their steel-chained fists carried ashen-shafted spears. At the head of the small party rode a young man with hair the color of flax, who waved at Elisa as he passed. She returned the wave with an eager smile, but his attention had already returned to the road. 

“Have you met Henry yet?” asked Elisa.

Corbray nodded. He had met Henry Hollyford only once, when he and Halcombe were visiting Archet. It had not been a pleasant exchange; Hollyford was the son of Albert Hollyford, who was preparing to open the Archet branch of Bree’s bank, and the heir to the banking dynasty did not respect anyone unable to afford clothing trimmed with fur. “He’s an ass,” said Corbray.

“He is not!” replied Elisa with a playful smack. “He is so kind and noble, and he writes poetry!”

“Poetry?” scoffed Corbray.

“Yes! Oh, how did it go…’She wears her hair of raven-’ oh, I don’t remember it. But you should have heard it!”

“He sounds like a true wordsmith,” teased Corbray.

“Hush, you! It was beautiful, and thoughtful, and...it made me feel special. Like a boy ought to make a girl feel. But people from Combe wouldn’t understand the beauty of poetry!”

“Well, I’m glad he made you feel special,” spat Corbray, and slid off of the wall. 

“Where are you going?” asked the girl.

“How should I know?” replied Corbray with a shrug. “I’m from Combe! We are too simple a folk to know what we do!”

 

_____________

 

The sun hung low on the horizon when Halcombe and Corbray arrived at the camp. Towering columns and crumbling walls of stone stood all around them as mute remnants of an age long past. Dozens of men scurried about the camp, some with weapons, others with timber. Handlers and their hounds drilled dog-attacks. A tall man who carried a large sword on his back approached Halcombe and Corbray.

“Sir,” said Halcombe with a slight nod of respect, and swatted Corbray’s shoulder. Corbray nodded as well.

“It is good to see you again, Halcombe. It has been too long,” responded the tall man. “I see you brought fresh meat with you.”

“And it is good to see you as well, Skunkwood. This is Corbray, a friend of mine from Combe. He is young, but he has spirit.”

The tall man flashed a smile at Corbray.

“It is always good to see young men willing to fight for the riches that ought to be their own. It is a pleasure to meet you, Corbray.”

“And you, as well, Mister Skunkwood,” chirped Corbray.

“Please,” said Skunkwood with a laugh. “Call me Will. We will be shedding blood together tonight. There is no need for formality.” Corbray felt his heart sink in his chest, but he held his chin up. These were no men to accept cowardice, he reasoned.

 

_____________

 

Corbray paid little attention as Skunkwood explained the plan to attack the town. The boy knew that he would stick with Halcombe, and that was all that mattered. So long as he did that, it did not matter whether he knew the other men’s jobs or not. The rest of the evening was much a blur as they tramped through field and mud puddle toward the town. At last, as night fell, the attack commenced. 

In his youth, Corbray’s mother told him many stories about ancient heroes and glorious battles. But there was nothing glorious about this battle. Brigands and watchmen spilled one another’s blood into the streets, and though mercy was much-requested, it was never once given. 

“Come,” whispered Halcombe, “Our mission is to push westward and circle through the town to the square, and draw as many of the watchers away as possible!” Corbray nodded with understanding, and the two of them dashed alongside many of their fellow brigands through the gate into Archet. 

Not far into the town, they met their first group of watchers. The brigands sprinted forward, and each gave battle to one of the watchers. Corbray went for a young one, a fresh-faced boy who must have been new to the town’s militia. The other boy carried a sword, but the blade was warped and rust spotted its steel. The watcher swung his sword, but Corbray hopped back, just out of reach, and then brought his hatchet down on the boy’s outstretched wrist. 

CRACK! And the boy fell to his knees. His hand still hung from his wrist, but it was mangled and misshapen and blood spurted from the wound. The boy’s sword fell to the cobblestone of the street below. He raised both his hands in surrender, and pleaded “Mercy! Mercy!”

But it was a battle, and Corbray banished all mercy from his heart. 

 

The band of brigands pressed further into the town, past the second stable. There, they met a pack of townsfolk armed with naught but clubs and pitchforks, hatchets and hammers. Behind them, a few men from the hunter’s lodge fired their deadly darts at the brigands. The two companies smashed together in a great din of violence and wrath. Again and again, Corbray hacked until none of the townsfolk remained. What few of them survived the brigands’ onslaught broke rank and fled further into the town, but the brigands had lost many from their number, as well. 

“Corbray!” came a voice from behind. The youth looked about himself, and all around him lay the mangled bodies of the dead and dying. Among them lay Halcombe, from whose breast protruded two arrows. Corbray rushed to his comrade’s side as the battle raged around them, and they took each other by the hand, but the boy knew not what to say.

“You’re a good lad,” spoke Halcombe between coughs of blood. “You made me proud tonight. You made me proud.” To Corbray’s surprise, no tears fell. There was a battle to fight.

 

The boy continued on his own. All around him, the battle raged, and men and women on both sides let out a great shout and clamor as the Mad Badger burst into flames. The flames cast a foreboding glow upon the grim and glowering faces of the wooden houses. Corbray was deep into the town now, and before him he saw a wild brawl raging in the town square, and though for a moment he raised his hatchet and readied himself to push into the fray, it was an unexpected voice from above that stopped him.

Corbray?” cried her voice in shock, “What are you doing?”

He looked up, and just above the sign of the bank he saw her standing in the window. She was clad in nothing but a bedsheet. The boy’s heart went cold, and like a mighty wave rising up inside him, a fury washed over him, surging forth from his belly to his breast, and from his breast to the rest of his body. He turned away from the battle, and headed instead for the door to the bank, the only door to the bank. He smashed the hinges off from the door with his hatchet, but froze as he faced the staircase. Rage filled him, but he did not want to see her. He never wanted to see her again, her hair, her eyes, her smile. And then he saw it, the oil lamp lying on the table nearby. Corbray seized the lamp, and hurled it at the staircase. The shattered lamp and splattered oil erupted into a column of flames that licked the ceiling above, sealing the staircase and the young lovers’ fates.

The heat kissing his face, Corbray turned himself away and stepped back out through the doorway; he would not burn this night. As he stepped outside, he felt the gentle billow of a nighttime breeze, and the air was cool against his skin. The breeze reminded him of a stone wall, of waiting for a girl and...of the wooden figure in his pocket.

A roar arose in his breast as fury swept through him once more. He thrust his hand down into his pocket, where the figure had waited to be given as a gift, to make her feel special. Corbray recoiled at the thought. 

Do you feel special now? he thought to himself, and tossed the figure behind him, into the flames.