For the first hour, they walked mostly in silence, and Three was uncomfortably aware of an ethereal dullness that seemed to surround and follow him like a personal fog. Whether he hadn’t fully recovered from his wounds or instead had lived in comfort for too long, he wasn’t sure. But out here in the open, he knew in his gut that he’d lost his razor-edge. He hoped it’d come back quickly.
Mr Carter led them east and south, through squat ruins and gutted shells of structures that may once have been homes, or schools, or shops. If the Strand were the unbroken sand after a recent surge, these were the remnant sandcastles along the fringe, rounded and bowed by the tide, but not completely destroyed. Though Three had passed through the Strand before, he had forgotten how similar the landscape was on either side. It was perhaps a redder brown here in the east, as opposed to the more dominant, cooler blue-grays of the west; some of the faded fonts and markings were rounder. But by and large, taking it all in at once left one with more or less the same impression. Urban. Decayed. The corpse of a once-unbroken cityscape.
As they walked, shadows receded, the air lost its bite, and the landscape gradually grew around them. Buildings stood taller, scattered bits of tech remained intact, signs of other travelers began to reveal themselves. By midday, they were well clear of the borders of the Strand, and on into what would relatively be called civilization proper. They stopped to rest, taking shelter from the sun in a rusted-out kiosk that may once have sold the day’s latest technical fashion, and now stood gaping and gutted. At least there was no broken glass on the floor. They ate from their rations, but before Wren was halfway finished, he began nodding off.
“How much farther to Morningside?” Three asked.
“Three, maybe four hours,” Mr Carter answered. “The child has time to sleep.”
Three nodded and Wren needed little encouragement to curl up with his head on his pack. In short time, the boy’s breathing was deep and regular with heavy sleep.
“You’ve been before?” Mr Carter asked.
“To Morningside? No,” Three said, shaking his head. “Heard the stories, of course, but never had much need.”
Mr Carter nodded.
“Are they true?” Three asked.
Mr Carter stroked his beard along his jawline with the back of his hand, tilted his head slightly from side to side, weighing his response. “Some yes, many no. It is a place of great wonder. And mischief.”
“Have you been often?”
“I lived there for many years. Before I met Chapel. I have not gone back.”
“Too much mischief?”
“It is a safe place, of a sort. But it is also difficult to live life on one’s own terms there. A certain exchange of freedom for security, which I could not continue to pay.”
Three nodded and sipped water. He let his eyes rove the surroundings, scanning for whatever might catch his attention. The fog was still there, but he felt it thinning. His senses were sharpening, focus returning. Being on the move stirred their awakening.
“How will you find the boy’s father?” Mr Carter asked.
“Shouldn’t be too hard. Name’s Underdown.” Mr Carter’s eyes widened slightly at the mention of the name. “You know him?”
“If you mean the Governor Underdown, yes, of course.”
“What do you know of him?”
Mr Carter glanced off at his surroundings, took a long pull of water. Shook his head. “A hard man to know.”
He trailed off, as if that were all he had to say, but Three saw the man’s eyes flicking back and forth over the landscape as he again drank from his canister of water. Three waited.
“Things changed when he arrived. Better, in many ways. Order. Safety. He is the reason the city flourishes. Its savior. But in some ways, its captor as well.”
“Savior’s a pretty strong word.”
Mr Carter looked back to Three then.
“The Weir…” he paused, searching for the word, “fear him. If they can feel fear. Before he came, Morningside survived because of its size, like Fourover. But now… it’s like a strong light turning back the darkness. Night still comes, but the light keeps it from the city.” He shook his head again. “I’m sorry, I’m not making any sense. I don’t really know how to explain it.”
Three glanced at Wren, sleeping peacefully nearby. Memories flashed: how Wren sensed when the Weir were close, how he knew that Three wasn’t wired, or the night Cass fell, when the boy’s cry for his mother seemed to steal the very life from her attackers.
“I know what you mean,” said Three. And for the first time, Three felt a certainty that this was all going to be alright. A man like that, a man like Wren, but who understood and could control his gift… well, surely such a man was better equipped and able to raise and protect this boy than Three would ever be. He felt a pang then, at the thought of leaving Wren. In spite of himself, he’d grown fond of the little guy. But knowing he was safe, with his own real father, that would be enough. Time would heal the rest.
“We’ll move on in an hour,” Mr Carter said, interrupting Three’s thoughts. “Give the child time to rest.”
Three nodded, took another long drink of water. Another hour, and they’d be on the move again. And by tomorrow, he just might have his life back.
The sun had just begun to blur the border between late afternoon and early evening by the time the trio reached the outskirts of Morningside. Here, the urban landscape took on a striking contrast to the surrounding sprawl. Order, it seemed, extended even beyond the walls of Morningside. Clearly great pains had been taken to clean, repair, and in some cases even reclaim the remnant city that surrounded the thriving township.
“We’re very close now,” Mr Carter said. “We’ll start seeing people soon. Don’t be alarmed.”
Three just nodded. He felt Wren move closer beside him, and felt the boy’s tiny hand slip into his. Within ten minutes, it was just as Mr Carter had said. Here and there were signs of people living out here, beyond the wall. Soon enough, they saw the people themselves. Those they encountered responded in their own way; some with flat stares, some with a nod of greeting, others with indifference. But none seemed hostile, or even surprised.
“Squatters,” Mr Carter explained. “Most of them have been expelled. Underdown allows them to stay, under his protection.”
“As I said. Within Morningside, it can be difficult to live life on one’s own terms. During the day, the gates remain open, these here are free to do trade. But come evening, they return.”
“And if they don’t?”
They continued on in silence for another fifteen minutes, until there before them loomed the wall of Morningside. Standing there under its lengthening shadow, even Three couldn’t help but feel the awe the place inspired. He’d been to the largest of towns west of the Strand: Fourover, Swingbridge, Greenstone. Now, even Greenstone’s fortress-like design seemed childish by comparison.
The wall itself ran nearly thirty-feet high, but unlike Greenstone’s prison-inspired structure, Morningside’s wall had been built with an eye for aesthetics. There were no watchtowers, no mounted weapons. At least none that could be seen. Instead, fiberlights ran throughout, enmeshed with the steel fabric of the wall, so that the entire barrier seemed to glow with an internal, vibrant green-blue that shifted like the sea. Like Greenstone, Three could see people moving along the tops of the wall, but they were no guards. He realized they were citizens, walking along as one might expect in a park.
Beside him, Wren stood with his mouth slightly open, eyes wide and drinking in the astonishing display before them. From somewhere atop the wall, there was music, tumbling down with the faint but unmistakable raw emotion of live players, supported by a crowd singing along, nearly in time and almost on key. A large gate stood open, tended by a trio of guardsmen, and a handful of people trickled in or, if they were among the unfortunate, out.
“I trust you can find your way from here,” Mr Carter said abruptly.
“You won’t come in?”
Mr Carter shook his head, but offered no explanation. His eyes were on the wall, but unfocused. Thinking of something beyond, or within. Three noticed a thin, dark shimmer along the front of Mr Carter’s shirt, guessed his bandage had bled through.
“Why don’t we camp together tonight, then? We’ll see you on your way in the morning.”
Mr Carter smiled and turned to face Three and Wren. “A kind thought, but one I must refuse. Talk to the guards at the gate. They should be able to help you.” He knelt and placed a hand on Wren’s shoulder. “Wren, you are fine boy, and you will be a great man. Maybe one day you could come visit us again.”
Wren nodded and surprised Mr Carter by wrapping his arms around the man’s neck. “Thanks, Mr Carter. I’d like that.”
Mr Carter patted Wren firmly on the back, and then stood, and shook hands with Three. “The same stands for you as well, Three. The village is as much a home to you as you choose to make it.”
“I appreciate that, Mr Carter. Just may take you up on it some time.”
Three looked down at Wren and gently slapped him on the shoulder with the back of his hand.
“Come on, kiddo. Let’s go see if any of these stories about Morningside are true, huh?”
Three looked back up and exchanged final nods with Mr Carter, and the three parted ways.
After they’d walked about halfway to the gate, Wren spoke in his quiet voice. “Why won’t he stay?”
Three glanced back over his shoulder, saw Mr Carter’s silhouette in the fading light, shook his head. “I don’t know, Wren. Every man’s got a story. I’m sure he has his.”
Wren didn’t respond. Just slid his hand into Three’s again. Three tried not to think about how natural it had become, holding that tiny hand in his own. Tried not to think about what it might be like to let go of that hand a final time. Deal with it later. When it’s done. They walked those final steps towards Morningside, together, in silence.
As they drew closer, the sounds of the town grew louder, more distinct. The music became more apparent, bits of conversations became discernible: vendors making last minute deals, friends calling to one another. The atmosphere was pleasant, inviting, and Three wondered if they’d arrived on the night of some festival, or if this was just a typical evening in Morningside.
The guards at the gate stirred as they drew near, and one guard, shorter than the others, casually motioned for Three to stop just outside. The short guard approached with an easy smile. None of the guards looked as grim or hardened as the greenmen of Greenstone, but they all held themselves with the bearing of men of authority.
“Evening,” the guard said.
“Evening,” Three answered. He felt Wren step closer, the boy’s shoulder lightly pressed against his leg.
“Been to Morningside before?”
“No, sir. First time.”
“Where you comin’ in from?”
Three felt a twinge in his chest. The slightest knot of pressure, born of frustration, the first hint that here, even now mere inches from his goal, there was a dangerous game to be played, a chance for misstep. He dare not lie, but how much of the truth was necessary?
“A long way off, sir.”
“I don’t doubt it,” the guard said with an understanding nod. “You gents look like you’ve had a bit of a rough go.”
One of the other guards sidled up, an older man, hands behind his back. Curious, but not enough to get involved. He stood back a couple of paces, greeted Three with a dip of the head.
“What brings you out our way?” the short guard asked.
“The boy. We need to see the Governor.”
The guard’s eyebrows raised slightly at that, his expression one of… what? Surprise? Something prickled in Three’s instincts, but it was too vague, to fleeting to identify.
“And why’s that, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Beg your pardon, sir, but I don’t think I can explain. It’s a private matter.”
The guard nodded thoughtfully, his lips pressed together and jutting slightly, as if weighing his options. There was something. Something Three should’ve noticed. Or was there? There was too much noise, too many things going on. His focus was dull.
“I see,” the guard said. “Well, I’m not one to pry. How long you expecting to be in Morningside?”
“Shouldn’t be long. Just have some business with the Governor, then I’ll be gone.”
Wren pressed further into Three then, hard. Tense. The thought of being left alone in this strange city with a man he’d never met must’ve been sinking in. Three wished he’d chosen his words a little more carefully.
The short guard took a knee in front of Wren, leaned forward slightly with a lowered head. Gentle. Disarming.
“And how about you, little one? Will you be staying with us?”
Wren made no answer. Three glanced back at the older guard, still standing there. Watching without emotion.
“Here, boy, lemme take a look at you,” the short guard said, reaching out with two fingers extended to raise the boy’s chin. “How old are you now? Five?”
“Six,” Wren answered. “And three-quarters.”
A ripple of thought ran through Three’s mind… he’d never thought to ask Wren’s age. Just assumed his initial guess had been correct. Almost seven, still looked five. Small for his age.
“Six and three-quarters. Practically a grown man.”
Everything about the situation seemed fine, and Three could find no reason for his unease. But he was nevertheless uneasy.
“And that’s a fine coat,” the guard said, rubbing the lapel of Wren’s coat between two fingers.
Three thought back, replayed the moment he’d said he needed to see the Governor. The guard’s expression… eyebrows up, pupils constricting, twitch at the corner of his mouth, at his temples. Not surprise.
Where was the third guard?
The realization struck in the same instant that the guards moved. The short guard snatched Wren by the front of his coat, jerking the boy away, tearing him free of Three’s leg. As he did so, the older guard brought his hands up, pointing some kind of dull metallic box at Three. He heard Wren cry his name, shrill, terrified, followed by a muffled thump.
Three twisted, reaching into his coat to draw his pistol, but something dull punched into his upper chest, sent him sprawling. He absorbed the fall as best he could, rolled to his feet. The older guard was still standing with his arms outstretched, a look of shock on his face. Three went for his pistol, but before he could get it free of his holster, massive arms wrapped around him from behind, pinning his own to his sides. Three instinctively whipped his head backwards, felt the impact, the crunch of cartilage that told him he’d just broken someone’s nose. But still the arms squeezed. He snapped back again with his head, and then again. The arms released for half an instant.
But before he could exploit the moment, he felt the vice-grip clamp around his neck, cutting off the blood flow to his brain. He had seconds before he’d pass out. Time slowed.
The older guard was running at him now. The shorter guard fought to control a squirming Wren. Blood rushed in Three’s ears. Cass flashed in his eyes. She’d trusted him with her boy. With her life. He’d come so close. Too close.
A deep redness started closing in from the edge of his vision. He fumbled, felt his fingertips brush the grip of his pistol. The red became blackness. Sound suddenly snapped to an unearthly sharpness. Wren crying out. The shouts of the guards.
There. The pistol hard in his hand. He drew it, felt it slide with intolerable slowness. Darkness nearly complete. Numbness. Was he still holding the gun? The old guard was two steps away.
A low whoosh… whoosh… whoosh. Louder each time. The last strangled rush in his blood-starved brain. Something cracked wetly. The grip around his neck fell away. Hard impact on his knees, his pistol clattered away. And as his vision returned, there were the feet of the older guard floating up off the ground, backwards, up and away from Three. And in the next instant, time returned to its proper flow, and Three saw the old guard slamming backwards to the ground, and Mr Carter there.
As the old guard impacted, Mr Carter followed him to the ground, dropping his knee into the man’s chest. Mr Carter spun, swept something up from the ground behind Three, where the third guard lay bleeding from his face and side of the head. His hammer. He must’ve thrown it.
Three’s fogged mind fought to catch up as the events unfolded before him at lightning speed. The short guard cried out in pain, and dropped Wren. As Three gained his feet, he saw the man clutching his arm, with crimson spots welling up in three separate locations. Wren crouched back, his tiny blade gripped tightly, gleaming wet in the fading light. Tears streaming down his face.
Three covered the distance to the guard in three steps and buried the sole of his boot in the man’s solar plexus. The guard buckled to the hard ground, and Three was on him the next moment, delivering a devastating fist crushing down into the man’s jaw. Three saw the guard’s eyes go blank under the impact, out cold.
Wren’s sobs suddenly caught Three’s hearing, and he turned to see the boy standing there, knife in hand, arms dangling at his sides, wailing in terror, and confusion, and who knew what other raw emotion. But there was a commotion near the gate, and Three knew that more guards were surely on their way.
“Run! This way!” Mr Carter yelled, and in the next instant, Three had Wren in his arms, and they were running, running again, away from Morningside, back into the open, back once more into the gathering night.