Footsteps in the Dark

Shadows flicker against the wall, but it is the barred wooden door that pulls my eyes. I crouch with my back to the wall, only the straw-strewn floor between me and the door.

My ears sift through the whispers of the night, searching for one sound: footsteps. My heart echoes with the knowledge that someday they will come.

Someday they will come for me.

“Sleep, Brune,” my mother whispers, but her eyes, too, watch the door. Alvira lies huddled in her skirts, sleeping fitfully.

Footsteps grind against the gravel, and I tremble. A voice cries out like a shard of glass.

“Someday—!” Alvira cries, beginning to thrash.

“Hush!” Mother lays a hand on her mouth.

The nearby noise subsides to thuds. I cannot tell if I tremble from fear or relief or exhaustion. Slowly I fold onto the floor, and shadows take me away to the darkness.

The creeping morning light reveals a red mark down the side of Madame Baker’s face and neck, a banner almost as red as the one that flies from Lord Protector Le’Tragone’s peak. Mother pushes us away as the women gather for work.

“Widow—Baker?” someone asks. I dance back, hauling Alvira by the hand. Her eyes look red, too.

Guardsman Rory sits at his usual corner outside Robin’s Tavern. Le’Tragone’s crimson claws flap from the second story. Brigitte bounces in and out, serving the soldiers loitering in the street. They’re not allowed into taverns while on duty—except when on order to raid. Still, they want their ale, and Brigitte is here to oblige. Her scarlet curls flip to and fro with her laughter, even brighter than the Lord Protector’s banners.

I hold tightly to Alvira’s hand and duck my head to shuffle forward. Brigitte flashes a sideways glance. She knows us from Before, when she would watch us for Mother. She knows our secret. Today she smiles encouragement. Guardsman Rory is in a good mood right now. I push forward to get our daily task before his temper changes.

“Look, a pair of sniveling waifs, looking for some meaning in life. Lucky for you, I’m handing out meaningfulness today.”

By Alvira’s frown, my guess is that he followed up by flirting with Brigitte. Guardsman Rory must not notice the frown, though, because he only gives us errand running for the 4th regiment.

They want breakfast. They have bread—every day they have bread—but they want more. They want sweetbread with nuts.

I remind Alvira to look down, but she keeps forgetting. Her feet start to drag, and my heart stutters as I realize she’s looking at the Bridge. I yank her forward, hoping no guards notice.

“Look, someone’s on the Bridge!”

I clap my hand over her mouth before any more treacherous words can come out.

“Hey! Boy!”

I drag Alvira into the shadows and push her behind me before looking to see who calls.

A soldier strides toward the bridge, red cloak flapping. A boy a few years older than me stands on the edge of the Bridge, looking into the river.

“Shirking you duties?” The soldier shakes him. “Get back to work, and I won’t report you this time.” He shoves him into the street, and the boy ducks down an alley.

We have just gotten far enough away I am ready to leave the shadows when a hand grips my shoulder. The air around me freezes. I drag my eyes down and pry my fingers loose from Alvira. Instead of bolting to safety, she squirms around to put me between herself and the stranger.

“Could you help me?”

Alvira peeks up at the person behind me. My tongue will not move to tell her to look away or flee.

“I dropped something into the river. Is there a way to get it back without the soldiers noticing?”

I turn and risk a quick glance. It is the boy from the bridge. His clothes are a plain brown, but of good cloth and not much worn. Not assigned to the quarry, then. I back away, pushing Alvira with me. It is never good to mess with Uppers, and their children are the most dangerous of all. Even older boys like this, who have outgrown daily task assignments.

“Ask your father,” I say. “Or your captain.”

“My father is—not in the city.”

Alvira is staring up at him. I push her head down, but I want to stare as well. Protector Le’Tragone only sends his most loyal men on errands without the city, and this boy’s clothes do not look rich enough for one of those families. And for one’s father to be sent to the mines is a sentence on the whole family. Either this boy is borrowing clothes, or he has done something to make the Protector think he should have a chance to show his loyalty. Either way, he is not someone to trust.

“We are on an errand,” I tell him. “I’m sure your captain would know what to do.” I push Alvira forward.

“Would your captain?” he asks.

“I’m not old enough.” I walk faster, but he keeps pace.

Alvira holds my hand but watches the stranger. “Is your father with the king?” she asks.

I gasp and snatch her up to run, but the stranger grabs my arm. “Peace, peace, I mean no harm.” He speaks softly. “Please, give me aid. No harm will befall you sister for helping. This I promise.”

He is pulling me around to face him. I cannot speak. Alvira looks him full in the face and smiles. He smiles back. He sees. He knows. What will he think? What will he do? I cannot keep my own eyes from looking up at him, searching for a hint. Is there shock? Surprise? Triumph?

His gaze pins me down as he takes both my shoulders. “What do you say?”

What can I say? He knows our secret. If I say no, how long will it him to find someone to turn us over to for our traitorous eyes?

“We do have an errand.” My voice is almost a whisper.

“I’ll walk along with you. Right now what I need is a plan.” He lets go. “Do you have any ideas?”

I keep walking, but do not put Alvira down. “No one is allowed near the Bridge.”

“No one ever goes down to the river? At all?”

“One time we went down to the river when we were assigned the trash run,” says Alvira. “We found a frog.”

“Did you pick it up?” He smiles at Alvira again.

“No, silly, the frog wasn’t trash.”

“We weren’t anywhere near the bridge,” I add.

“Still, you may be able to get close enough to pick up my box. That would fit in perfectly with picking up trash. I’d do it myself, but the soldiers know my face now. Will you do it?”

I hug Alvira tighter. “Our errand,” I protest. “We still need to get the sweetbread.”

“Collect your bread, and collect trash on your way back. I will hold the bread for you if you wish.”

“But we would need sacks.”

“I’ll find those while you—no.” His face sharpens into a frown. “I should be able to find sweetbread, but I don’t even know where to look for sacks. If you can find sacks, I’ll get the sweetbread. I’ll meet you back here.” He dashes off.

“With nuts!” Alvira yells after him.

“How does he expect to get them,” I grumble. “We didn’t give him the Regiment Token. They won’t put anything on the soldiers’ tab for some stranger’s say so.”

We should just leave. He wouldn’t know where to find us. This is our chance to be free. I let Alvira slip to the ground. If we go to get sweetbread now, though, we risk running into him there.

“Come on,” I say. “Mona probably has some sacks we can borrow.”

When he comes back, his hands are full of a warm smelling paper bundle.

“I hope a score is enough.” His grin slips out sideways. “I forgot to ask.”

“Is that more than seventeen, Brune?” asks Alvira.

I nod my head, eyes tight on the package.

“Seventeen? It’s perfect then.” The stranger reaches in and pulls out a sweetbread to hand to Alvira. It has nuts.

“They’ll be angry we stole one.” I pull Alvira back, my mouth watering.

“How will they know? It isn’t stealing, either. They weren’t the ones paying for it, and I want to give some to you and your sister. Here.” He takes out another little loaf.

He payed for them himself? His father must be one of the highest Uppers.

Anna reaches out her hands for a loaf, and I do not stop her. Mine I leave with her while I walk the river, collecting trash. It is better that the soldiers do not see her.

I walk quietly up the river side, letting the hum of the river hide the sound of my movement even as the high riverbank hides the sight of my movement. Sometimes my feet splash, sometimes ridges and banks give them a dryer place to rest. Near the Bridge the bank dives steeply, and I must cling tightly to the side of the bank and scrimp along to keep the water from swallowing me.

The box lies just beyond the Bridge. I see it bobbing, caught between the fingers of an old, broken branch. I creep closer, through the shadows, and stretch out.

“Hey, you! What are you doing down there, boy?”

“Trash run,” I call up. My fingers snag the box free and pull it floating over.

“Come up!’ The soldier lowers his pike to fish me out of the water. I slip the box into my coarse sack and comply.

At the top I get a cuff and a scolding for following the river too near the bridge, but keep the bag in my grip when he throws me into the street. Scrambling away, I twist through several corners to lose myself from sight. No footsteps follow. I slow to a stop, wondering where to find Alvira.

Soon she appears, holding the hand of the stranger. He gives me the food while he opens his box. Inside, swaddled in a layer of the thinnest of metal, are oiled packets sealed with wax. He breaks a seal and pours a powder into his hand, still as dry as dust. A sigh leaks from his mouth as he carefully pours it back in.

“I thank you. You have done a great service. And yet I find myself asking for another. You seem to know the city well. Could you show me where I could find the bases of towers that are not well guarded? And…I would love to meet any…friends you have…that may feel…trapped…and have quiet tongues. Around your errand running, of course.”

“Brigitte is our friend,” says Alvira.

“He doesn’t mean her,” I say, glancing at him. “She—made her peace with the soldiers when her father died.”

“He was a loyalist?” Somberness fills his face.

I twitch, looking about for listeners. “Smith.” My voice lowers. “Anghus Kingsmith.” He had stayed behind because of a lame leg. As the king’s smith, he would likely have been purged, but bolting  the door on Le’Tragone to give the king’s party time to escape had sealed his doom.

The boy bowed his head. “It is sorrow to hear. For her father’s sake, I hope we can do something for her. But you’re right, not now.”

After delivering the bread and getting our next errand, I show him where to find a hidden corner at the feet of one of the outer towers. Our city has more towers at its edges than walls. With the river, walls are not as needed as they are inland. Since the building of the Bridge and the towers, it has only fallen once, and that was due to a traitor within.

I do not stay long while the boy pokes around at the base of the tower. Later I swing by on the way back from the laundress to see if he is still there. A small crowd is gathering. He is showing them the inside of a packet.

“Sounds risky,” says a bent old man.

“But is it worse than what you have now?”

“If we get caught.” A woman glances nervously behind her.

“I cannot promise no danger. But I can promise reason for hope.”

“We are too weak.”

“You need not fight alone. All I ask for is a distraction when help comes. Give Le’Tragone’s men more places to run.” His eyes light on me. “You need not answer now. Think on it.” He strides through the cluster of people toward us I back up, but he falls in beside me.

“Another tower?” he asks under his breath.

I should not have returned. Next time I will leave him to his devices and lose myself in the streets…only now he knows where I run errands to today. It will not be hard to find us while the day’s work lasts.

“Is the prince coming back?” whispers Alvira.

I stagger, a cry twisting in my throat. Le’Tragone hates that story of the prince stopping on his way over the Bridge to turn around in his stirrups and shout that he would return. If getting too near the place where the king took his retreat and the prince took his vow can get one seized, what would the punishment be for speaking of the vow itself?

People have been deported to the mines for naming the king, and Protector Le’Tragone hates the prince even more. I shudder away from the thoughts of what torments might lie in wait for such offenders.

The boy lays a finger against Alvira’s lips.

“Yes,” he whispers back. “He promised.”

I push toward the second tower as fast as I can walk. Alvira’s skips are a mere echo to my heartbeat. The stranger’s long legs easily match my speed.

At the cart road I realize Alvira is behind. I spin around. “Vira,” I call. Her eyes shine like a summer sky. Her smile is as bright as the sun. She looks as happy as a child of an Upper on Feast Day as she starts running to me, leaping over loose stones.

An arm snakes out and grabs her.

“Playing on a workday? We’ll see about that.”

I open my mouth in warning, but it is too late. Alvira looks up, eyes wide, into the face of the man who caught her. His fingers twist tighter around her.

“Fancy catching a treasure like you,” he purrs. The red embroidery of his badge gleams against his rough sleeve. Commissioned, it smugly announces. People scuttle out of his way, faces averted.

“What’s he doing with her?” The boy grabs my arm.

“She’s—conscripted.” My voice breaks.

He looks from me to Alvira. “What are you going to do?”

“I can’t—I don’t have the money—”

He is shaking me.

“It’s your sister! You’re just going to let him take her?”

I shove him. “She’s conscripted! The Protector’s agents have full power over anyone they catch with traitorous characteristics. Does it look like I have the money to offer to buy her?”

“Traitorous—”

“Her eyes, you idiot! The royal color is illegal.”

“Illegal! How can you outlaw a color?” He flings his hands out and throws his head back. “Does Scar Le’Tragone think he can ban the sky?”

“As long as he has power and money, why should he care?” My heart hurts too much to care what my mouth is saying. “We should never have gone with you.” I turn away and close my eyes. A roaring in my blood blurs the world’s sounds like tears blur sight. I try to push thought away, too. At least confine it to the breath that keeps thrumming through me.

“Brune!” I thought the stranger had left. “Quick, do you have a knife?”

I will not answer.

“Hurry. He says he will sell her for a double plid of gold, but I need a knife.”

“Gold!” I gasp. Gold is a metal of legends. Some is said to still be in the palace and homes of the highest Uppers, where it is used for the highest tokens of office, but nobody uses it as money. Not since Before, amid the rich.

“A knife!” He is up in my face, nose to nose.

I gulp, and then swallow again. “Would a cobbler’s knife do?”

“Perfect.”

I dash down the street and around the corner, almost knocking over a rag picker. There it is—the shop of a cobbler Father knew. I crash through the door. “A knife—please! A knife!” Three startled faces look up at me, but the cobbler murmurs an apology to his customers and scuttles over to give me his tool belt.

I pull out the tool with the largest edge I can find.

The boy pulls out a cord from beneath his tunic. Something flashes blue on it. He whips it over his head and onto the floor. I catch a brief glimpse of gold wings and talons before the chisel slams down. The boy scoops up the glittering bits and runs out the door. I stare after him.

The customers leave, and the cobbler comes over. “Is all well?” His snowy eyebrows hover above his eyes like a cloud of worry.

“I don’t know. Maybe.” The words feel too heavy for the tiny tremor of hope inside. They will crush it.

The cobbler puts a knobby hand on my shoulder and says nothing. We watch the door together.

It creaks open. There is Alvira—bundled up in the boy’s arms. I cry out and run toward her.

My sister is in my arms. Our tears mix together.

The boy watches over us while we cling together, but time keeps pushing on. If we do not keep up with our tasks, more trouble will only follow us. I pull myself up.

The boy slips his cord and the last bit of the ring into his box. I catch a quick glimpse of a rich, blue stone with the tips of a beak and claws still attached. He meets my gaze. “I did promise,” he murmurs.

I bow my head. He has not introduced himself, but I know his name. There is only one person this could be.

“There is another tower close by,” I say.

“Perhaps we should wait.” He nods toward Alvira. “You have already used a great deal of time.”

“Leave the girl here,” says the cobbler. “I’ll keep her safe. I can find something around here for her hands to do, and give her a chance to resettle.”

I nod. With one more hug, I whisper into her ear, “Someday.”

“The prince will return,” she murmurs back.

“Prince Gilen.”

She shivers at my daring, but smiles. I would go straight to the tower, but my new friend forbids it. I must return to errand running while he speaks with the cobbler so as to avoid further trouble. He will find me when he is ready.

Red flaps all around the sodiers’ quarters, and Le’Tragone’s claws tear at the air, but they no longer pierce my heart. The blue sky is higher than they can ever reach.

As the day glides on, I show the way to two more towers, each at the far reaches of the city’s border and mostly isolated from the soldiers’ haunts. On my errands through the city, I drop hints about the meetings to weary ears when I can. Once I drop by to see Alvira. Se sits quietly, sorting leather pieces.

I am running out on a new errand when Brigitte darts forward and statches my arm.

“Bruno, where’s Vira?” she hisses.

“She had a bad scare, and a friend of Father’s offered to let her help at his place for a while.”

Her eyes narrow.

I drop my gaze, shivering as how close disaster came washes back over me. “Someone saw.” I lower my voice. “But she got away. She’s safe now.” I look up, words about her rescuer dancing along the edge of my tongue.

“Where?”

I describe where the cobbler shop is. She thinks for a moment, then her grip loosens. “Now, Bruny.” She shaks her curls behind her, just like when she minded us as kids. “Stay away from the eel market. If you get sent there for anything, find it someplace else. I know you’ll be able to find something.” She drops her voice. “There’s trouble in the air.” She liftes her chin in a smug angle.

The eel market. The tower I left Gilen by was behind the fishmongers. I sort the tangled streets with my mind. Yes, he is near the eel market.

Thanking Brigitte, I begin to run again. Before, the air had welled up beneath my feet, making me float. Now it pushes my heels like a winter gale. Trouble is coming. I must warn Gilan.

At the fishmongers’ square, I slow down enough to blend in, then wriggle my way into the back alleys. No soldiers are in view yet. Here is more of a crowd than I’ve seen. Gilan stands in front on an upturned crate. I waver, wondering how to get close enough to give him warning. I could yell, but that might kindle the threatening trouble. Someone must have told the soldiers.

Gilan sees me. I start to wave my arms, then stop. He needs a better signal than that. Shading my eyes I look around, then pull myself tall, feet apart. A hand goes to my side and unsheathes an imaginary sword, then I cup my ear as if listening to marching feet coming closer.

Gilan breaks his gaze away.

“Hold these words in your hearts and ponder them as you go about your ways,” he says. “The time is coming when you must decide.” He leaps from the box and steps into the crowd.

The crowd does not dissolve away, but lingers, milling in this barren alley way. I see a few faces I know and squeeze my way close enough to whisper, “Trouble.”

It is enough. By ones and twos, people begin to slip and scurry away.

Now I can see the boy I came for. A small knot of people are talking earnestly with him. I wend my way over and tug on his sleeve.

“Is there a place we can continue inside?” he asks. Someone nods, and they drift over to a stairway. Each footstep seems to linger. I am certain that I hear soldiers’ feet in truth now.

I am not the only one. Those lingering disappear much faster now. Those who cannot disappear down a road find a doorway to duck through. Finally the group reaches the top of the stairs and files through a door. I pull myself up onto the roof of a lean-to shed and bury myself in the thatch to watch.

Soldiers stream in from two different directions. The only people they find are two beggars, trying to be invisible. They push them around a little, but spend more time knocking things around, looking for hiding places, and breaking down some ground level doors to search inside. I hear a scream, but don’t know if they find anyone else. Ground level floors usually have two exits.

Slowly the soldiers spread out, trying to comb the area. Now is a good time to leave before they start to focus on closing the net tighter. Carefully, watching to be reading to dive into hiding again, I let myself down and creep up the stairs Gilen’s group took. At the top, I knock softly.

Silence answers.

“They’re spread out,” I call softly. I stand to the side to listen.

The door opens. A woman comes out. She starts when she sees me, but I put a finger to my lips and she scurries away own the steps. A little later an old man emerges. He is the one to put a finger up to signal quiet and nod to the door. I nod back, and he slips away to somewhere less incriminating.

Below a figure wanders in, strange in its casual, everyday attitude in this scene of covert movements. I stare down, watching. At first I do not recognize her with the rough cloth wrapped about her head, but then she looks up.

Brigitte’s yes widen blankly for a moment, and I head down the stairs. She stretches her steps out to meet me halfway up. I spread my legs out and plant myself, blocking her path.

“Brune, what are you doing here?” she hisses.

“Brigitte…I’m sorry. We should go.” I reach for her hand. She shakes me off and tries to push around. I hear the door start to open again. She pushes hard. There is a pause, and the door groans shut.

“Brune!” She is sharper now, louder.

“Please, Brigitte. Just let it be a shut door. Like your father.”

She stares at me for a heartbeat, two.

“Let me through!” she screams. The cloth over her head falls down, and her scarlet curls blaze about out.

Soldiers’ feet come running, crashing, through the street.

I try to press Brigitte back down the steps, but she clings fast. One hand points straight at the door behind me. “Stop blocking my way!”

Soldiers swarm up the stairs, a river of red. A sea of hands surge over me. I try to stand my ground, but am quickly overwhelmed.

On the ground, pinned to my knees with my arms twisted back, even my mouth is held from helping as soldiers rip the door open.

Brigitte stands a bit apart, glaring at me as tears course down her face.

The soldiers come out with only three prisoners. Gilan is not with them.

They let me talk then. “I don’t know!” I tell them. Whatever they do, “I don’t know” is all I will say.

They drag me through the streets. Now their captain is asking me about Gilan. “I don’t know,” I whisper. Blood trickles down my chin.

The captain finally sits back. “Put him in the dungeon,” he says.

I cannot move my feet as they take me away. My heart is gasping. I look up at the broad, arching sky. The western sun has swallowed the blue, filling it with blood red. Then the black shape of the dungeon house blocks all else from view.

I cannot think. I cannot cry. My body is still, frozen where it sits on the cold, stone floor. The only movement around me is the icy draft that whispers up between the moans form the grate of the cell below me. Even the dark is cold.

“Brune! Brune!” I almost do not hear the sound. “Brune!” Only when the yellow light touches me do I realize someone is calling my name.

At the top of my cell warm light throbs through a small window near the ceiling of my cell, a grate near the floor of the cell staggered above me. Gilan’s face peers in.

I stumble to my feet. “My prince!” I cry. Tears start to flow. “They—they—”

“Brune, listen. I am leaving soon. But I will come back. I will come back and take you out of this place. I promise.”

The light fades and the darkness swallows his footsteps.

Shadows flicker against the wall, but it is the barred wooden door that pulls my eyes. I crouch with my back to the wall, only the straw-strewn floor between me and the door.

My ears sift through the whispers of the night, searching for one sound: footsteps. My heart echoes with the knowledge that someday they will come.

Someday they will come for me.

Back to End Matches Beginning stories

More Stories by Stories by Hannah Christensen

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