The storm that passed through Thaos that night was the worst of recent memory. It was all anyone in town could talk about. It felt as if the wrath of the Gods were upon them, with rainwater flooding the streets and thunder roaring in the sky.
Wrath of the gods or no, however, Elise Brewer had a job to do.
The storm had driven a lot of people to the family tavern, that night. They were a rowdy bunch, as always. Singing, talking, laughing. She’d grown up with most of the men who filled the place on a nightly basis, especially the three generations of Coopers who sat at the bar.
“What do you think this storm’s all about?” Keller, the youngest of the bunch, asked. He wasn’t much older than her twenty years, and had always been a good friend to her younger brother Milo, despite the age difference.
“What do you mean?” Aimes, Keller’s grandfather, grubbed. Every inch of his body was gnarled, as if he were made of tree roots. “It’s spring, ain’t it? You’re old enough to know that it gets like this every year ’round this time.”
“I don’t know.” Keller looked up at the roof. They’d fixed the roof just the other day, patching and replacing the old shingles. It still leaked, and Elise had no doubt that she and Pa would be right back on the roof once that storm let up. “It seems way worse than normal. Like the Gods are angry with us.”
“Ah, yes: and the Blight is going to grow out of the shadows and drag you away while you sleep, tonight,” Persh, Keller’s father, snorted as Elise filled his tankard. “Relax, Keller. Times is right: yeah, it’s a little worse than normal, but are the Gods going to strike us down? Punish us because someone forgot to give them the right kind of bread? No.”
Just as he said that, thunder boomed nearby, closer than it had been, before.
“Why did you have to say that?” Keller demanded. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Persh let out a loud, barking laugh. “Kid, you’re too funny. You know that?”
Elise smiled to herself as she walked away, listening to their joking. They never failed to put a smile on her face.
Which was good: she needed a reason to smile, that night, and not just because of the rain and the storm.
As she listened to the storm and watched rainwater drench the windows and distort the world outside, her thoughts drifted to her brother. Milo was at his first military posting that night. They’d allowed him to visit home for a few days before he’d had to report to his assignment, and he’d left that morning as the sky thickened and grayed in preparation for the storm. She’d been worried sick about him ever since. Was he going to get any sleep? Did he even make it to his posting in one piece? There are far too many unknowns for her liking, and as much as she tried to, she couldn’t seem to get her mind off of what was or wasn’t happening to her brother.
But, Elise kept a smile on her face, pretended that everything was just as it should be. She was good at that.
Despite the storm, everything in the tavern was pretty much as it had always been. She and Pa ran around, filling tankard and bowls with ale and stew. The usual groups were in their regular spots, Torben strummed on his guitar while singing ballads of long ago heroes and lovers by the fireplace, the habitual drunkards snoozed in the corners, still holding their tankards; for most of the evening, things in Thaos’ only tavern progressed just as they had for generations.
The stranger walked into the tavern as some of their less frequent patrons were beginning to leave. He was soaked from head to toe in rainwater, his black greatcoat dripping rainwater onto the floorboards as he dragged himself to the barstool closest to the fire. He looked like he’d been outside for hours: his boots were caked with mud, and he couldn’t stop shivering.
That wasn’t the thing she noticed the most about him, however. What Elise noticed the most were the knives shoved into his boots. One for each leg. There was only one kind of person in the world who’d have those knives.
Persh snorted when he saw the Watchman. “Speak of the Blight. Haven’t seen one of those things in a long time.”
Aimes smacked Keller on the back of the head. “Quit gawking like an idiot. He ain’t worth a grain of your salt, boy.”
Elise shook her head and went back to filling up tankards. She hadn’t even realized she’d been staring at the Watchman, herself.
“Is it sure that they get powers from the devil?” Keller asked. “I always heard that they sold their souls, became unholy demons.”
“Who the hell is filling your head with that sort of nonsense?” Aimes demanded. “Those sorts of stories are about as real as the Blight. They just signed up for the Watch to get out of going to the front: everybody knows that.”
The conversation made her heart hurt. Her thoughts went right back to her brother, the shameful secret that was his joining the Watch rather than the regular army. She and her father had done everything they could to keep anyone in Thaos from finding out: nobody would come to the tavern if they knew what Milo had done, and they would lose the business that had been in the Brewer family for generations.
It ate her up inside, knowing that the place that had loved her brother dearly would turn on him at the drop of a hat for doing what he’d thought was right.
“Best go see what he wants,” Pa said, nodding to the Watchman.
Elise nodded, took a deep breath, and walked over to where the Watchman was sitting.
You heard Aimes: the stories about them are just stories, Elise reminded herself as she walked over. In fact, he’s probably just like Milo.
“What can I get you, love?” She asked.
He looked up at her her. That was when she realized that one of his eyes was black and swollen, and he was holding one of his shoulders under his coat. He’d been in a fight: she recognized that posture from years of breaking up brawls in the tavern.
“I just… needed to get out of the rain,” the Watchman said between breaths. He sounded like he’d taken a few too many punches to the gut. “I’m sorry… I’ll be out of here… just as soon as… I’ve warmed up a bit.”
“I’ll get you something to eat, then-” Elise began to turn.
“No,” the Watchman said. “I don’t have… any money. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” she said. “Take all the time you need.”
He nodded and looked back down at the bar. “Thank you, ma’am.”
Elise walked away. That look on his face still haunted her. When she saw that broken face and that wide-eyed look of someone who’d seen too much, all she could do was think about Milo. Was that what her little brother’s future held? A life of pain, of fear?
She walked over to where the stew was and filled up a bowl.
“That for the Watchman?” Pa asked. He was wiping down a few of their tankards.
Elise nodded. “He doesn’t have any money, but he’s going to catch his death if he doesn’t get something warm in him, soon.”
“Just that bowl, then: I don’t know that we’ll have enough for our paying patrons if we give him much more than that.”
She grabbed a spoon and walked back to the Watchman.
The Watchman frowned and looked up at her as she set the bowl down in front of him. “I don’t-”
“It’s on the house,” Elise said. “You’re going to get sick if you don’t get something in you quick.”
He looked back down at the bowl. “Thank you, ma’am.”
He took his hand away from his shoulder to pick up the spoon. Even though he was wearing dark leather gloves, she could tell that they were covered in blood.
Her face went cold, and she stayed frozen in her spot for a few seconds.
“What happened to you?” She asked softly before she could stop herself.
The Watchman looked up at her, frowning, then followed her eyes to his glove. His eyes grew wide and he hid his hand under his cloak, looking back down. Like someone who’d been caught doing something they knew was wrong.
“Are you alright?” Elise asked. “Let me go get you some bandages for that shoulder-”
“N-no,” the Watchman said. “I-I think I should get going-”
He began to stand up.
The second he did all the color drained from his face. His eyes began to roll to the back of his head.
She couldn’t grab him fast enough to keep him from crumpling to the ground.
Everyone in the tavern stopped what they were doing to see what the commotion was about. They muttered to themselves, asking their neighbors if they saw what happened. The Watchman wasn’t moving.
Elise hopped over the bar and knelt down beside the body. He was wheezing, his face screwed up in pain.
A crowd had begun to gather by the time the Watchman’s eyes opened. He began to slowly roll, groaning, grabbing at his wounded shoulder.
“Give ’em some air,” Pa ordered as Elise helped the Watchman sit up. She had to hold him up to keep him from falling back over. He kept blinking, as if he were having trouble focusing. Already, she knew that he wasn’t going to be able to get up on his own.
Elise put one of his arms over her shoulder and looked up at the crowd that had gathered. “Someone help me move him!”
Keller knelt down and put the Watchman’s other arm over his shoulders. The one that was injured.
The Watchman cursed, his entire body going rigid.
“I know, I know,” Elise said. “Let’s get you to the back.”
“The drunk bed?” Keller asked as they slowly lifted the Watchman to his feel. He tried to stand up on his own, but his legs crumpled beneath him every time.
“Alright: stop gawking, let ’em through,” Pa said. “Do you want your stew getting cold?”
Everyone parted. Some went about their business. Torben strummed a few hesitant chords. Everyone, however, kept casting glances back at Elise and Keller, curious to see how the Watchman would fare.
The drunk bed sat just past the bar, in the part of the building where Elise and Pa lived. Every once and awhile, some of their patrons would drink more than they could handle and they wouldn’t be able to get home. The drunk bed was a place where they could sleep with either Elise or Pa there to make certain they didn’t drown in their own vomit. Every once and awhile, they would use it for people who’d gotten into fights and needed to lay down.
Elise couldn’t remember the last time someone has hurt as that Watchman had used it.
“Set him down, gently as you can,” Elise said as they slowly lowered the Watchman. Even as careful as they tried to be, he still tensed up and cursed with every movement.
“He sure doesn’t look too good, does he?” Keller was rubbing the back of his neck, his eyes wide. The look of a man who felt overwhelmed by what he was seeing.
Elise was overwhelmed, too. She’d been all sorts of injuries in her life, but nothing quite like this. She wasn’t even certain that she’d know how to help him. If there was anything anybody could do.
But, she had to try, didn’t she?
“Get my bag and a basin of water,” Elise said. “Thames should know where it is.”
Keller nodded and rushed out to the bar.
Elise took a deep breath. Focus, she heard Ma’s voice in her mind. It doesn’t matter how much training you’ve had or how long you’ve been doing this if you can’t focus.
She began to take off his coat-
He grabbed her wrist. He didn’t have any strength left in his grip, but it was still enough to make her jump: she’d thought that he’d passed out, or at the very least wasn’t conscious enough to know what was happening.
“Relax,” Elise said, gently putting her hand on top of his. “I’m only trying to help you.”
The Watchman looked around, blinking.
“Do you remember what happened?” Elise asked. “You passed out.”
He was still looking around like he didn’t understand what was happening.
He really must’ve hit his head good, Elise thought to herself.
“Who are you?” He asked.
“My name’s Elise,” she said. “What’s yours?”
“Ulrick, I’m going to need to look at that shoulder,” Elise said.
“Are you… a healer?”
She was supposed to be one. Ma had been one, as had her Ma before her. She’d been training Elise, but then the post swept through. Ma died from it. She and Milo nearly followed. Her half an education had sufficed in the years since, but she’d always had the thought that he’d be unable to help someone because she didn’t know enough in the back of her mind. Part of her wondered if that day had finally come.
But, she didn’t mention any of that. She just nodded.
“Alright,” he said with a nod as Keller came back with the basin and the bag.
“Your Pa’s wondering if you need some help back here,” Keller said. He kept his eyes fixed on Ulrick, his eyes still filled with wide-eyed horror. She didn’t have too much confidence that he’d be much help in a crisis like that one.
But, she wasn’t about to refuse help. Especially not when she needed every help and prayer she could get.
“Get the knife out of my bag,” Elise said as she took off Ulrick’s gloves. “Ulrick, are you hurting anywhere else?”
Helpful. She’d done her job with less to go on, however; she’d do what she could that night, too.
She looked back at Keller and held her hand out. “The knife.”
He didn’t hand it to her. It shook in his palm. His face had drained of all color, and he was staring at Ulrick, eyes wide as dinner plates.
Frowning, she turned back to Ulrick, following Keller’s eyeliner.
Her blood ran cold.
His hands were completely black, as if he’d dipped them in ink. Elise had seen that once, before: right before Ma had been forced to amputate Reid Stone’s leg.
“What does that mean?” Keller asked. “That’s bad, ain’t it?”
“What did you do to your hands?” Elise asked as she untucked the arm guards. “They’ve… ben like that for awhile, now.”
She ripped the armguards off, snatched the knife from Keller, and cut off his coat and shirt.
What she saw was the stuff of nightmares. His chest was a patchwork of injury. Cuts, bruises, burns; she couldn’t even tell where one injury started and where one ended. People routinely died from less.
Gods: how is he not already dead?!
She knew full well that it was going to take miracle for him to survive the night. An even bigger one than the one that allowed him to live that long. He was a dead man walking, had been for awhile, now. He would probably be dead within the hour, between the injuries and the limb death that extended to his shoulders on both arms.
She turned to Keller. “I think you need to get the priest.”
Keller nodded, then scrambled to his feet and rushed out.
Elise began to look through her bag for anything she could use to make him more comfortable during his last few hours on earth.
“You… think I’m dying?”
Guilt sat heavy in her stomach like a rock. She never did figure out how to respond to that question.
“I don’t know,” she finally said as she began to inspect his shoulder wound. He hardly even winced. “I think you’re really hurt, and I wouldn’t mind having the Gods on my side, right now.”
“I’m not dying,” he said. “Not yet. Not yet…”
Elise prayed that he was right.