The din of the bell calls across Mayfaire, ringing and bellowing and dragging the sleeping masses into the cold air of consciousness. Many wake like newborns, fumbling blind and confused and caught in their cauls of sheets and blankets. Rising in the cold. Running hands across the walls. Touching the mirror, the gilt frame of a painting, hard edge of a bureau, then finally, blessedly, the shuttered window. But they are not greeted by the dawn. Only a deeper night, a keening bell.
Now struggling into clothes they can barely see. Hands and heads and legs in search of stubborn openings. Buttons and belt loops missed. Shoes on the wrong feet. Tentative steps in lightless hallways. Searching the yet darker kitchens for food. The stagnant smell of cold ashes in the oven, the even stronger scent in the hearth. Memories of hot meals and warm nights of laughter and stories beside the fire. Now searching for coats and quilts to fight the cold and now the children are crying. The bell tolling all the while.
The roads are filling. Ash grey before the dawn. Huddled families crawl nearly sightless from the caves of their dark homes. They gather in the streets. They point towards the East Gate and shamble toward it, neighbors nodding to one another in shared misery, but remaining quiet. They are all afraid.
Silent too are the crowded, twisting streets of the Reaches, but there is no fear in the air. Here there is only the silence of reverence, though it is thrumming with a feverish excitement. The faithful walk the roads in in the clothes they slept in. Some drag filthy blankets, some are near naked. There is no time for dressing, no time for food, or thought. They gather and move as one. A migration of ragged birds. A blissful flock of souls crawling towards the rising sun.
Breathless from running, Dace reached Cosmin’s house and pounded on the door. She called his name between deep breaths and wondered if her voice was loud enough to carry past the tolling bells. Above her, unseen in the darkness of the eaves, a silent and slender figure shifted and dropped within striking distance of her throat. Its blade drawn, its cold eyes watching her every move.
She pounded on the door again, then stopped to listen. Some small commotion sounded just beyond the door, a stumbling in the dark, a turning latch, and when the door finally opened it was Petra, not Cosmin, who stood in the doorway.
“Dace?” Peta hissed. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I have to speak with Cosmin.”
Petra turned to look into the dark house behind her. “He’s coming,” she said.
“Can I come inside?”
“No Dace, goddamn it. You can’t come inside. You can’t fucking come inside.”
“Look, Petra just—”
Petra slammed the door shut. When it opened again Cosmin stood alone in the doorway. “What is it?” he said, his voice urgent and strained.
Dace nodded to the dark house. “That was pleasant,” she said.
“What is it Dace?”
“I was at the wall.”
Cosmin stepped forward and grabbed Dace by the shoulder. “What did you see?”
“It’s not the Congregation… It’s a damn army. Isaac called them the Veng.”
If fear came to Cosmin he did not allow it to show. “How many are there?” he asked.
Dace shook her head. “I can’t say, but they filled the damn road all the way through the forest. We couldn’t see their end.”
Cosmin paused. “They weren’t in ranks?”
“No. A single line, two abreast. When they reached the trench the line split and they marched to either side of the road and just stood there.”
“They stopped at the trench?”
“Well they certainly weren’t going to jump into it…”
Cosmin did not hear these last words. He was staring off into the darkness. He shook his head.
“What is it?” Dace asked.
“They came within range of the wall…” Cosmin said. “You said they split and walked to the sides of the road?”
Cosmin covered his mouth with his hand and rubbed at the stubble on his cheeks. He stared at the ground and then up to the sky. The bell continued to call throughout the city but Cosmin no longer paid it any attention. “If they meant to assault or siege us they wouldn’t have come marching to the damn wall,” he said. “They wouldn’t stand in range of my archers… No, this is something else. They’ve created a path.”
“A path for what?”
“The Congregation, possibly.”
“Then why bring soldiers?”
“I don’t know… Leverage, maybe. They could be planning some negotiations with the Magister…”
“And you’re willing to risk that?”
“What choice do I have?”
At once the bells stopped. The last ring held in the air for a long moment in echo against the waking city. Profound silence followed, not even the morning birds dared to break it. Cosmin looked towards the east, then to Dace standing in the dark and the cold. She looked suddenly frail to him, unfamiliar lines of worry webbed across her face. A door opened behind her and a pale face peeked out and then a figure emerged and shuffled down the road. Another followed. Petra called for Cosmin from the shadows of the house. Her voice was cold.
“You better get back to your sweetheart,” Dace said.
Cosmin ignored her. “You said you were with Isaac?”
“I was. He went off to the Barracks. He said something about getting everyone there.”
“Good. You need to go there as well.”
“I’d rather not,” Dace said. “That place smells like an old boot.”
“Please? Why Cosmin, I’ve never heard you say that word. You almost sound desperate. I don’t know what to say.”
“Just get to the Barracks.”
“Thanks, but I can take care of myself.”
“Yes you can,” Cosmin said. “But that’s not why I’m asking. We may need your help… I may need your help.”
“Oh I’m sure you will,” Dace said. “I hope you’ve tucked away some coin.” She peered once more into the house then winked at Cosmin. “Give my love to Petra.”
“I’ll be sure to do that.”
Cosmin watched Dace vanish into the slow greying streets. When she was gone entirely he whistled, short and crisp, and the shadow among the eves fell without a sound and stood before him. “You heard all that?” Cosmin asked.
“I did,” Sasha said. “She’s a foul thing.”
“You heard what she said about Isaac?”
“He’ll be at the Barracks for the next few hours. I need you to stay with us.”
“You aren’t going to the Barracks?”
“No. We’ll be expected at the Procession… all of us.”
“And you intend to go.”
“I do,” Cosmin said.
“Do you think that’s wise?”
”They wouldn’t have come to the Gate if they came for war. This is something else.”
Sasha nodded. “You’ll be on the Magister’s platform.”
“I can’t get there without being seen.”
“Get as close as you can.”
Sasha vanished without another word. Cosmin looked after her a moment, then watched the huddled groups as they came and went. The pale greying of the predawn held inverse in reflection upon the dew covered street and the silhouetted figures, silent and hesitant, seemed to Cosmin to be wading a dim river rather than walking upon a road. They shuffled head down like penitents, cloaked and miserable and stalking towards some judgement at which they could only guess. And there appeared to be no end to them. They spoke in hushes or not at all and the sounds of their feet on the stones were lonesome and frightful and Cosmin found himself longing for anything, even the damn ringing of the bell, to cure the dismal silence.
He closed the door, and fell back into his lightless house.
Emine dreamt of a horse.
A camargue, dapple grey and standing in the forest alone. She walked to the animal, patted it, and buried her fingers within the course hair of its mane. It made no movement, no sound, and when she removed her hands from the animal they were sticky and red with blood. And the horse began to tremble. And looking once again she saw the spear which pierced the beast’s length, the mirrored blade jutting out between the ribs and just below the spine. She saw also the golden bell which had been hung upon the haft of the spear. She reached for the bell but as she did so the horse’s trembling turned to a shudder and the bell began to ring. She stood beside the horse and held it and wept for it and tried to speak but her voice was no comfort at all but something loud and frightening that caused the horse to shake harder still and the bell rang louder and louder. And now she was far beyond the forest. Now in the midst of the Barrens, on a road she had never known, and the bell was ringing so loud and so clear that it echoed against the deadfall and sang out across the world. And clutches of hungry, vile things were listening. They hid in the wracked trees, desiring the flesh of the horse and the bones and all the soft warmth beneath and they were wild with the smell of the blood and they sucked at their teeth and clamored closer. And the horse began to cry. It stamped at the bloodwet ground where a book lay torn open and filthy. Beside it a broken cane. The reins now in Emine’s hands and she pulling hard against them but without strength to move the beast and the bell is ringing and ringing and she could save the horse if only it would stop shaking but it is scared and so is she and it will never stop shaking and the hungry things are creeping closer and closer to the sound…
Her mother’s voice. Far away. The dream faded, leaving only some lingering sense of dread and the memory of the bell. She gasped the cold morning air. She opened her eyes.
“Wake up, Emine.”
The room was dark and she could barely make out the shape of her mother sitting at the foot of her bed, her neck bowed low and a hand to her face. “It’s too early,” Emine muttered.
“Yes it is, but you need to get up.”
“There was a bell in my dream.”
“It was ringing from the Colosseum,” Petra said as she stood. “I’m surprised it didn’t wake you.”
“The Congregation has arrived. You need to get up and get dressed. Get your brother as well.”
Emine didn’t move. She looked at her mother without understanding. “What?” she asked again.
“The Congregation is here.”
“Get out of bed, and get dressed Emine. Wear something formal. That blue dress, maybe. The silk one.”
“The blue dress. It’s torn.”
“I don’t care.”
Emine hesitated. “It’s too cold for that dress,” she said.
“Put it on, Emine. And wear an overcoat if you’re cold. We’re expected on the platform with the Magister… in front of the entire damn city. You have to wear something nice.”
“The whole city?”
“The whole city. Now get dressed and be quick. Get your brother up as well. He’s probably been dreaming of bells too.”
“I’m sure he hasn’t,” Emine said. “His dreams are always the same.”
“Just get him up.”
Emine watched her mother vanish into the hall and the house beyond. She tossed the blankets from herself and sat on the edge of her bed with a groan. The bare wood floor was ice beneath her feet. A faint whisper of light blossomed from her window and she used it to navigate to the great lumpen pile of clothes beyond the foot of the bed. She found a single wool sock and rolled it into a ball and stalked across the hallway to the entrance to her brother’s room.
“Elias,” she said.
“Elias,” she repeated, louder.
“I’m sleeping,” he groaned.
Emine smiled. She could just make out her brother’s face in the faint light, serene and framed against the pillow and the dark blankets, a clear target. Emine gripped the balled sock, and flung it across the room, hitting Elias square in the face.
“Damn it Emine!”
“Get up or I’ll put a stone in the next one,” she said then went back to her own room.
She went to her closet and felt through the darkness for the feeling of the silk dress. She sat it on the bed, then wrinkled her nose at it. “Ugly damn thing,” she said, then dressed in the half light before finding her way to her mirror.
“Elias!” she shouted as she tied back her hair. “Are you up?”
“It’s awful quiet over there.”
Emine walked across the hall to find her brother still tucked warmly in his bed. She grabbed a handful of his blankets and pulled hard, exposing his skinny limbs to the morning air. Elias let out a yell.
“Monster!” he screamed and grabbed for the covers. When Emine pulled them out of his reach he swung at her instead. She darted away, laughing.
“Enough,” their father’s stern voice called up from the house below. “This is not a day for laughing. Get dressed. Now.”
Elias jerked the blankets from his sister’s hand and threw them onto the bed. He stumbled sullenly over to his dresser and started to choose from the neatly stored clothes inside of it.
Emine walked back to her room. “Wear something fancy,” she called as she went.
“Something nice. We have to stand in front of the whole city apparently.”
Elias appeared immediately in Emine’s doorway, leaning against the jamb. “The whole city?”
“That’s what mom said.”
“I know. She’s making me wear this awful thing.”
“Because she wants people to think I’m a delicate, pretty thing…”
“No, why are we getting in front of the city?”
“Didn’t you hear the bell?”
“The Congregation is here, dummy. Everyone has to go watch them arrive, and we have to stand with the Magister. Don’t ask me why.”
“Damn. They’re early.”
“No shit. Now get dressed.”
Petra stood in the kitchen. She watched from the window above the water basin as more and more people filled the streets, all heading in the same direction. A dusty stone sat on the edge of the sill and Petra thought of the day, so long ago, when Elias found it in the earth beyond the city wall. He brought it so carefully to her, holding it in his tiny hands, convinced it was an egg. She put it into her pocket and when they got home she rinsed the dirt away and turned it in the sun while Elias told her of all the things it would become. She set it in the window where she promised the warm sun would hatch the egg, and there it sat for a dozen years.
She heard Cosmin approach, but didn’t turn. He stood beside her and reached for her hand and held it. She rested her head against his shoulder. “Is it too late?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
They watched out the window for a long time. Sounds of shuffling and soft voices drifted down from the twin’s rooms in the upper hall.
“You think we’ll be safe with you at the Gate?” Petra asked at last. “Safer than the Barracks?”
“I want you close.”
“That’s not an answer.”
Cosmin kissed her on the top of her head, then rested his cheek in the same place. “They’re not in a martial formation,” he said. “They marched to the trench, and that’s where they’ve stayed. It’s a sign of diplomacy and it will be suspicious if we are not there to greet them. We don’t need any scrutiny.”
“What do you think is going to happen?”
“They’ll make a big show of marching into the city. Then they’ll head to the Colosseum.”
“They’ll likely call the Magister and treat with him. They’ll have their ceremonies, relight the fires in the city, then tomorrow morning they’ll call everyone into the Colosseum for the Census.”
“And then they’ll leave?”
Cosmin was silent.
The dawn edged to blue beyond the rippled panes of the window, but it brought no comfort. The city beyond filling with a cold light, a paleness. “I feel like something is changing,” Petra said. “I’ve felt it since the torch came. Like I’m seeing everything for the last time.”
Cosmin pulled Petra to him and held her. He felt the rough wool mantle draped over her shoulders, smelled the faint woodsmoke perfume of her hair. He looked briefly into her eyes but couldn’t bear the sight of them, so pale green and questing, so he kissed her instead. His hand travelling to the back of her neck to hold her. She grabbing handfuls of his coat to pull him closer. Together now with foreheads pressed together and eyes closed in waiting. There were words to say, but neither spoke.
Emine and Elias stepped down from the upper landing to find their parents in embrace. Embarrassed, they went silently to the parlour. Emine’s dress rustled against the wicker sofa as she sat. Elias walked to the shuttered window to the left of the hearth, his cane tapping along the hardwood floor. Neither spoke. Emine looked to the cold ashes of the fireplace. Elias opened the shutters to watch the slowly waking world.
“Elias,” Petra called from the kitchen. “Be sure to grab your coat.”
Elias turned from the window and went searching the rack by the door. Emine turned to her parents who now stood apart. “How long will this take?” she asked.
“As long as it takes,” Cosmin replied.
“And what are they doing? Just walking down the road?”
“Yes. They’ll all walk to the Colosseum.”
“And we have to stand there and just watch them?”
“We do. The whole city does as well.”
Cosmin couldn’t help but grin. “Yes it is,” he said. He walked to the parlour and gestured for Emine to get up. She sighed and stood and smoothed out her dress. “You look very pretty,” Cosmin said to her.
“I’d rather be asleep.”
“So would I.”
Petra walked to Elias and held his cane then helped him slide his arms into his overcoat. She brushed his hair by the light of the entryway window. Cosmin walked to them and Emine followed and soon they all stepped from the lightless house and onto the brightening road.
The sun was still hours from cresting the horizon, but the eastern grey sky had shifted to a cool purple and gave them light enough to see. They walked down the center of the road, Cosmin and Petra leading with Elias and Emine behind. Cosmin set their pace, swift and deliberate, and did not look back once to see if Elias was struggling.
Sasha crept along the rooftops beside them, her eyes on Emine and the growing crowd that surrounded her. On the blue dress that fell from beneath the overcoat and swished in the dim light with her each step, a blossom of color on an otherwise dismal sea of grey, its swimming, careless movements somehow echoing the confidence of the girl beneath. Sasha barely spared Elias a glance. His crooked gait so contrasted with that of his sister, his presence dark and nearly shapeless, head down, cane tapping along the road.
And far beyond the family, beyond the filling streets and the East Gate and the great crowd amassing there in the shadows of the wall, beyond the city itself and the New Forest and the burning miles of soldiers, at the break of the Holy Lands where the Barrens pressed against the living world, the earth began to shudder.