3. Fire in the Rain
For a moment the hall was still, filled with silence and staring eyes. It might have stayed so: then came muffled shouts from outside, and a series of sharp thwacks, in rapid succession, against the walls of the hall—a sound like a hundred woodsmen striking a hundred trees with a hundred axes.
Black 23 shook his head as if to clear it, then shouted, “Leave by the back way. Quickly! We are not safe inside.”
The assembled Emeth seemed too stunned to argue, and hastened to depart. Laying her rebeca aside, Fiddlin’ Katy thought You would not guess, to see them, that a minute ago they seemed poised to tear us both apart. Then she glanced about for Black 23.
He had run to the wall and unhooked the chain that was secured to an iron ring there. As he did, a pulley squealed in the beams high above, and an iron kettle the size of a washtub came crashing down into the firepit, crushing out the last coal-embers. Black 23, holding fast to the free end of the chain, was pulled up into the gloom of the rafters. He twisted his body in the air to land two-footed on the broad central beam.
On an impulse she could not name, Katy undid her green kirtle and cast it aside. Longshanked in her leggings, she raised a boot high and brought it down on one of the long eating-benches, turning it up on its end. With another jingling kick she knocked it onto the tabletop, then flipped it longways once more. She sprang atop the table, then clambered up the length of the bench and launched herself from its top. Her people were no mean leapers to begin with, and Katy had grown strong and lean from walking far; her outstretched hands cleared the top of the crossbeam, and she pulled herself up, legs pinwheeling, spurs ring-tingling.
Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness. There was a hazy orange light filtering in from outside, and she could smell woodsmoke and hot metal, a smell like a skillet on the cookfire. Looking about, she saw Black 23 scrambling along the joists towards a wooden ladder that hung down into the center of the hall. He pulled himself up the rungs and vanished into the darkness at the top of the ladder. She took a deep breath, and followed.
The ladder led to a cupola set slightly above the hall’s roof—a watchtower of sorts, ringed on the inside by a platform just wide enough to stand on, and with narrow casements on all four sides. Black 23 was looking south, toward the village gates. Katy hauled herself onto the platform and squeezed in beside him. Without a word, he moved aside to let her look.
Below them, several of the cabins were on fire, their roofs ablaze and guttering in the steady rain. Those Emeth who were in the streets were heading north—probably mustering behind the hall, she thought. Looking further she could see over the palisade. Armored figures were massing on the hill just outside the village. She could not tell their clan or nation. Most of them were moving down to the plain before the gates. A clutch of them were busy at the crest of the hill, preparing another volley of flaming shot. A pair of them were trying to position a heavy arbalest; its wheels had gotten stuck in the mud.
“Will they try to take the gates?” Katy said.
“They will not need to,” said Black 23. “Red Five will do it for them.”
“She will surrender, you think?”
He shook his head. “It will never enter her mind. Not to such a small force. No, the Emeth will mass in the square, Red Five will throw open the gates, and they will try to storm the hill.”
“Have you any weapons?”
He shook his head. “Clubs. A few pikes. The tunnels are the first defense. But against these numbers, they will not defend.”
“¡Sancto Imago!” she swore. “What I wouldn’t give for an arquebus! Or even a sling and a handful of lead.”
“You can shoot?”
“You have heard my people called sharpshooters, Master Black? It’s not just because we’ll spit in your eye,” she said. “With dry powder and a proper matchlock, I could take down those arbalestiers from where we’re standing. And that’s no boast.”
“Little good it would do us,” he said. “Their fire is only to drive us out into the streets.”
His black eyes glinted red in the light of the fires. “Then the rest of them come charging over the hill. Enough to beat back the Emeth and seize the bottleneck.”
Katy’s mouth was dry. “We’ll be boxed in by the village walls. It’ll be a slaughter.”
“They must not take the gates,” he said. And suddenly he was in motion. Taking the coil of rope from his belt, he lashed up the shank of one of his rockirons; then, wedging the iron between two planks of the platform, he unspooled the rope and let himself down, sliding such that his miner’s gloves smoked.
She followed him down, hand-over-hand, wondering what mess it was that her free boots had carried her into.
More next week...