The hall was pitch black and silent, save for the occasional creak of a wooden bunk as soldiers stirred in their sleep. Wex slowly pushed aside his wafer-thin blanket and tried to peer through the blackness, his heart pounding in his chest. He swallowed, before whispering across the cold air.
"Pssst! You ready?"
There was a long silence, so drawn out that he he thought there would be no reply.
"Aye", came a woman's voice.
Okay. This was it. Time to carry out the plan.
"Alright then. Here we go", he hushed, and slipped off his straw bunk, boots gently clumping onto the floorboards. A similar sound from the other end of the barracks told him that Gretna Appleworth was doing the same. She would also be fully dressed and ready to travel, having avoided the scrutiny of the duty sergeant before candles-out. It should have been after midnight by now, perhaps even closer to dawn. Wex had lost all track of time as he had lain, staring up at the shadowed ceiling and running this scenario over and over again in his mind. He'd assumed that at some point he would have bottled out and cancelled the whole scheme, but no. After waiting in silence for hours, he was still committed to wrongdoing, against his better judgement. There would be no turning back after this. He would have to be dragged back.
He crept along the side of his bunk and cautiously prized open his wooden foot-chest. His possessions were all arranged and ready to go - keepsakes, ammunition and whatever rations he had been able to save and hoard over the past week. He stuffed them into his satchel and pulled it over his shoulders. He was wearing his uniform. While he had a sackcloth shirt and poorly-kept trousers, the garb he had been issued by the regiment was sure to keep him warmer out in the cold night air. He could hear the tinny rattle of the Mountaineers' ill-crafted armour, and he knew Gretna was therefore similarly inclined to take whatever she could with her.
They met in the centre of the room, as he focussed on and moved towards her dark silhouette. He could hear her breathing, open mouthed and shaky.
"Are we gonna do this, Wex?"
He shivered and nodded, not that she would have seen it.
"Yeah. C'mon, hopefully Traskie is waiting for us in the concourse."
The brazen pair snuck down the length of the black hall towards the double doors.
"Hawl", came a gravelly voice, and they froze. "Where dae ye think you're goin'?"
Although they couldn't see him, Guardsmen Renfrew was sat up in his bunk, with his arms crossed leisurely behind his head. Appleworth waited for Wex to answer, but the boy stood in silence. Renfrew carried on regardless.
"You'll ne'er get away with it. Ye'll be hauled back by yir wee hairless balls. Again."
If Wex's best friend was anxious to see him leaving, he certainly didn't show it.
"We're gonna do it. I'll never fight another battle again", Wex hissed back.
"Aye, sure ye won't", tutted Renfrew. "Ye'll be peelin' potatoes for the rest of yir days once they slap you in irons."
Wex stood there for a while, until Appleworth tried to move him on with a hand. He struggled to make the effort to say something meaningful to his old, beardy friend. Whether the foul smelling veteran believed it or not, Wex did intend to turn his back on the service for good. The skinny boy settled for a mumble instead, given his comrade's lack of support.
"Well... Be seeing you."
"Hmph, aye", Rennie chuckled. "Ye surely will."
Wex hesitated at the door as Appleworth quietly drew it open. He looked back one last time, despite the darkness, before following her out into the dimly lit corridor. There were candles and sconces lining the walls, illuminating the paintings displayed there, though most had burnt out by now. Appleworth stood to one side and Wex tiptoed past, taking the lead down the stone passageway.
"This way. Bolger and Corny should be on the door. I bloody hope so, anyway."
Appleworth followed close behind, holding her belongings tightly about her person, until Wex stopped abruptly in his tracks and pressed himself against the wall.
"What is it?"
Wex held a finger up to his lips.
Just around the corner at the end of the corridor, the green shoulder of a uniformed guard swayed. Someone was leaning there. Wex continued to hold his index finger aloft, and Appleworth stayed where she was as he crept up to the corner. However, the contents of his satchel suddenly rattled together, prompting whoever was stood there to spin around.
"Gods!" Wex exclaimed with a start, to see Guardsman Trask, who looked equally on edge.
"Wex! Gretna!" he whispered. "You're just in time. Sergeant Brewer's gone to the outhouse, now's our chance! Are we still gonna do this?!"
Wex nodded resolutely and peered around Trask to look down the hall, before looking back up at the younger lad's wide, blue eyes.
"No turning back now. Is anyone else coming, Jerrek?"
"N-no, just me."
"And you're sure you want to do this? Appleworth queried. "It's a flogging if we're caught. Or worse."
"I'm sure", he sighed. "I've had just about enough of this. It's no life at all!"
"No..." Wex echoed. He had plenty to say on the matter, but it would have to wait. "Right. Ready? Let's go."
The trio slunk down the corridor, keeping low and taking care when passing open doors. One in particular hung open and revealed the warm glow of a candle. There was also quiet chatter coming from within. Wex was first up to the doorway, and he hugged the wall again, his eyes peeking around and into the room. Two officers were sat by a card table, which was strewn with the remains of a long night's gambling session. Empty bottles of brandy littered the floor around them. The officers were murmuring drunkenly to one another, and none of it made much sense.
"Officers!" he mouthed to the others. They all peered in. Appleworth's eyes glinted at the sight of a pouch dangling from one of their belts, causing Wex to quickly tug her arm.
"Don't even think about it!" he warned.
She gave him a scowl.
"We'll need everything we can get if we're going to make it on the outside."
"Or we all get caught here and now, and get ourselves flogged raw!"
Appleworth rolled her eyes. Wex may have been a Chosen Man, but already his rank was meaningless. She ducked into the doorway and crept inside. Wex turned away, inwardly cursing and praying. He couldn't watch.
"She's... She's got it!" said Trask, eyes wide and full of wonder.
"Well, she needs to get a move on!" Wex growled. "Or we're all shafted!"
Appleworth returned after a few tense minutes, parading her ill-gotten gains. Not only had she pinched the officer's coin purse, she'd also managed to lift a fine sword in its sheathe, and the fine hat and peruke of one of the esteemed gentlemen! Wex nearly exploded, his cheeks puffed up and enflamed. He gestured wildly at her.
"Wha-… What are you doing?!"
"These will fetch a tidy price", she hummed, grinning and wiggling her eyebrows.
"We'll get the gallows!"
"We'll get rich", she promised, shoving the white, powdered wig into Wex's hand as a souvenir. She only wanted the hat. "Now shut up, and get us out of here."
Wex snatched the wig and shook his head irritably before focusing on the task at hand. It was time to get out into the garrison courtyard.
"Alright, let's go for the door", he said, rubbing his chin nervously and beckoning for the others to follow.
They hurried along the corridor, their pace quickening all the more as they heard the scraping of chairs from one of the side rooms, and the slam of a door from somewhere else. They stayed low and tried to limit the patter of their boots on the stone surface. The main entrance lay ahead – a large, armoured metal door that couldn't be opened without the watchman's key. Wex hurried up to it and held his fist up against it. He looked back down the hallway cautiously, before knocking a distinctive rhythm with his knuckles. Tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap. He leant back, breathing heavily. Corny and Bolger were on the door... Weren't they? The clunk of the door's lock was his answer. It swung open to reveal two guards – one with a big belly, the other with a big nose. Cold air nipped at the escapees' faces as they slipped out and into the drill square.
"Evening, lads", Wex greeted, somewhat solemnly, but neither of them responded. They faced forward and waited expectantly. Wex drew something from his pocket and placed it into the waiting hand of Guardsman Bolger, whose fist quickly tightened around it and stowed it away.
"Thank you kindly", he muttered, clearing his throat and stepping aside.
Guardsman Cornthwaite stood on the other side.
"Best of luck, m'friends."
"Mhmm. Six be with you."
"Thanks fellas", Wex replied, ushering the others across the dark, empty square. Appleworth came alongside him, trying to hold him in conversation.
"What the heck was that? How much did you pay them?"
"It doesn't matter", Wex bit back.
"You could have just taken the money from the card table!"
"I'm no thief!" he barked, irritable with the stress and fear of their escape. Appleworth blinked. Trask tensed up on the side lines. Wex looked left and right, suddenly aware of the noise he had made, and mumbled quietly,
"I'll do this off my own back. Don't want to owe nobody nothin'."
The easiest part of the garrison wall to scale was on the south side, so they quickly hurried across the parade square. The green flag planted in its centre was flapping and swaying, helping to mask the echo of their footsteps. Against the wall was a row of wooden outhouses, carefully located as far from the officers' easily offended noses as possible. That was their way over. Wex rushed up to one of the latrines, but the door suddenly flew open to reveal the formidable Sergeant Brewer tightening his belt. The muscle-bound Mountaineer paused as he took in the three open-mouthed guardsmen before him.
"Well-well! Mister Wexer!" he snapped. "Miss Appleworth! Mister Trask!"
They stood there, like petrified children.
"Nice to see you all breaking curfew – that's a whipping for a start." He reached back, unslinging a rifle that hung from a hook without taking his eyes off them. "And what's this? Pinching officer property? I've seen a few pranks in my time, but none that would see a man hang. You're all angling for a strangling." He began to march forward. For whatever reason, he expected to simply be able to walk forward and take back the stolen items. But he'd misjudged the situation. They meant to escape and couldn't let the sergeant stop them. Appleworth was the first to act, quickly twirling the pilfered sword and jabbing the hilt towards Brewer's gut.
"Oof!" he groaned, doubling over and clutching himself.
"Come on!" she cried, any pretence to stealth now completely out of the window. Wex and Trask stood there, dumbfounded, until she snapped them back to their senses. Appleworth vaulted up, hopping onto the stricken sergeant's back and hauling herself up onto the top of the outhouse. Trask was next, his boot forcing another grunt from Brewer. Wex snatched the rifle from Brewer's hand to prevent him from using it and slung it over his shoulder. He skipped up, his boot pushing down on the sergeant's bulky, square head, and leapt up onto the outhouse with the others.
"Aanngh-…! You're dead fookin' meat!"
They scrambled up and over the lip of the wall to the sound of an echoing whistle and the bawling of Sergeant Brewer.
"Get back 'ere! Bolger! Beat to posts!"
The trio disappeared from sight, slipping down the full height of the wall. Wex yelped as his palms were scraped and grazed on the stone flags, desperately trying to cling on and stop himself from outright falling. He hit the ground in a heap, his knees buckling before he fell on his side, his shoulder slamming onto the cobbles. Appleworth had sprung straight back up onto her feet, while Trask howled in pain and clutched his ankle. Wex strained to stand up and quickly help Appleworth lift the fallen boy.
"Come on! Get up!"
"A-aaah! My... my ankle! I think it's broken! Is it bad?!"
"It's glorious, now get moving!" said Wex through gritted teeth.
"You've just sprained it!" guessed Appleworth. "We've got to go!"
Trask was held aloft as the others supported a shoulder each, and they hurried across the dark street as quickly as the injured boy could hobble. Wex saw the statue of Kormir in the corner of his eye, but dared not to look at it. This wasn't his most dutiful or righteous of actions. Passers-by stopped and stared as the three Mountaineers crossed the road, then quickly stood back or retreated as shouts of alarm and gunshots rang through the street. The main garrison gate was opened, and green-clad provosts shot forth to apprehend the offenders, with Brewer at their lead.
"Down there! They're heading for the Commons!"
Appleworth steered the group towards the nearby slums as musket balls ricocheted from the ground near their feet, chipping away the stone, striking sparks, and kicking up plumes of white smoke.
"This way! We can lose 'em in the alleys!"
They passed between the ramshackle houses, batting aside washed clothes that hung from lines and disturbing packs of rats that scurried out from piles of refuse. Trask groaned and whimpered as they twisted and turned between alleyways - left, then right, then left again. He hopped along on his good ankle, the other suspended behind him.
"Down here!" Appleworth hushed, leading them to the shadows underneath a set of stone stairs. They ducked under and plonked Trask down on his rear.
"Shh! Just breathe through the pain, you big fanny!"
The others squeezed under and crouched down as comfortably as they could.
"We'll wait here for a bit, 'til they move on."
That 'bit' grew into an hour, until they were sure they could no longer hear Brewer's voice shouting orders. Water dripped onto Trask's forehead from above.
"Right. Get me up, I'm not staying under here!"
"Come on then, you bloody moaner."
They emerged from their hiding place and helped him to his unsteady feet.
"So, what now?" he asked. "Do we stick to the plan? I-I mean, do we split up?"
Wex and Appleworth looked at each other and came to a silent agreement.
"I guess so", Appleworth relied. "You got a place to go?"
"Yeah", Trask groaned, straining up to steal a brown rag from one of the washing lines. He pulled it tightly around him to keep warm and disguise his green tabard. "I'm getting the first wagon I can find back to Kessex Hills. I'm not coming back to the 'Reach again."
The others listened to him in silence until he stopped to look at them.
"Well... We did it."
"Don't relax just yet", Wex warned. "This probably won't be the end of it." He offered one of his bony hands, which Trask shook gratefully.
"Good luck, both of you", he said warmly.
Trask nodded at them before turning his back for good, limping off down the dark passageway and deeper into the Commons.
"What about you, Wex?" Appleworth asked, looking back at the scrawny soldier. He stared back with wide eyes. The silence was only broken by the dripping of water in the dingy alley until he decided to answer.
"Um, I didn't have much of a plan in place once we'd made it out."
"Tsk. Naturally", she muttered. "Well, at least we're out, that's the important thing. Do you think you'll ever come to miss it?"
He grinned and shook his head.
"Not likely. Will you?"
"Heck no. But hey, you never know. At least we have our souvenirs if we change our minds!"
She flashed her eyebrows and victoriously displayed the sheathed officer's sword, then plonked the stolen, gold trimmed hat on her head with a giggle.
Wex held the officer's fluffy, white periwig in his hands and stared at it thoughtfully.
"No. I know what I'm going to do with this..."
Appleworth raised an eyebrow and looked at him as he continued.
"Take something from a person of privilege and offer it to the grave of one forgotten..."
She frowned curiously, then scoffed as she realised what he was talking about. Some old rumour that she remembered floating around the garrison at least three seasons ago.
"You can't be serious. That's your plan? To act out a fairy story?"
"They're real", Wex said with a defensive scowl. "And they help people like us. That's what I've heard. What do you say?"
She looked as though she were about to berate him or scoff again, but she could see he was resolved. She breathed out and met his eyes apologetically.
"I'm running to the Dales. My brother can hide me for a while."
He nodded solemnly. In the end, he knew they were going to have to part ways.
"Well... I wish you all the luck in the world", he affirmed.
"You too", she replied, stepping forward. "If we see each other again, it'll probably be in shackles."
They came together and wrapped their arms around one another in a rough, soldier's embrace. They'd been friends through many battles, having seen each other at their best and worst, but this was the end.
"Take care of yourself", he mumbled over her shoulder.