Men roared and screamed at each other. The boat shook as though in a storm as the soldiers hurled themselves out and met the first mudlark defenders. One of the men holding the grappling ropes passed them to Berren. ‘Make yourself useful boy! Tie this off!’ Then he was gone. By the time Berren had tied the first rope around one of the rowing benches, the commotion of fighting had died down. By the time he’d tied off the second and clambered ashore, the soldiers had already moved on. He could hear where they were from the shouting, and always over the top of it all, Master Sy’s voice. ‘On, lads! Fast now!’
There were bodies. Fallen off the walkway, lying in the mud under three feet of water, waiting to be rolled away up the river with the rising tide. Berren had to squint and peer at them to see who they were through the lapping waves. Two soldiers, almost lost in a haze of swirling silt. One of them had the harpoon that Berren had seen in him. The spear was buried so deeply that the point poked out the other side. The second one had an arrow in his neck. As Berren watched, a slow string of bubbles popped out of his mouth and climbed their way to the surface. Then a crab scuttled up from out of the murk and started crawling across his face. Berren shuddered. Fifty, maybe sixty yards away, the second boat full of Justicar Kol’s soldiers thumped in against another hut. These ones had an easy ride. The mudlarks who’d been waiting to meet it had already run.
Berren glanced into the hut. There was another body there, a mudlark, cut down from behind. Not much else. Nets and fishing lines hung out to dry, that was all.
Something thunked into the wood not more that two feet away from his head, the noise so sharp and sudden that he almost fell into the water in surprise. When he turned to look, he saw an arrow, quivering there. He looked back the way the arrow had come, but all he saw was water and huts and more water and more huts, all jumbled together. Whoever the archer was, they’d ducked into hiding. With a gulp, he ran off, around the walkways, racing for Master Sy and the soldiers.
He caught up with them rampaging through a collection of larger huts. Most of the mudlarks who’d lived there had obviously run away before the soldiers had come, but that wasn’t stopping the Justicar’s men from smashing everything that would break. Master Sy was in the middle of a shouting match with one of them. In another corner of the hut, one of the soldiers had carefully made a pile of rags and quietly dropped his torch onto it. Master Sy didn’t seem to have noticed.
‘Master! Master!’ Berren waved frantically. The thief-taker dropped whatever argument he had with the solider and ran to try and put the fire out. Except he didn’t make it, because one of the soldiers stepped in front of him.
‘You get paid for getting your man,’ said the soldier. ‘We get paid for every hut that burns.’
The thief-taker snapped something back in a language Berren didn’t know and strode away again. He grabbed Berren’s arm, livid.
‘This…’ He snarled and seethed, too furious to speak for a moment. ‘You stay here, boy. Stay with these idiots.’ He ran outside. Berren took one look and followed. Armoured men setting fire to wooden huts built over the sea didn’t seem like such a good idea. When the huts came down and dumped them all into the water and then the mudlarks with the bows showed their heads again, Berren wanted to be somewhere else. He ran after the thief-taker and found him standing outside, hands on hips, teeth gritted.
‘See,’ he hissed. ‘See?’
Berren didn’t dare say a word. He had no idea what he was supposed to be looking at.
‘There!’ Master Sy pointed into the water. A dozen yards away was another hut. The bridge that would have taken them there had been cut at the other end. There was no way across. ‘See that hut there, lad? That’s where the Bloody Dag hangs his hat. See how close we came?’
As if in answer, a small group of mudlarks emerged from the hut across the water. Several of them had bows, and one of them was carrying a flaming brand.
‘Hey, Deepies,’ waved one of the bowmen. ‘Got a goose and pheasant for you.’ With that he touched an arrow to the brand. The arrow caught fire at once. Then he quickly took aim. Master Sy kicked Berren’s legs out from under him and they both dropped to the floor as the arrow shot across the water and hit the wooden wall behind them. In a flash, the thief-taker was back on his feet.
‘You needn’t bother with that, Dag,’ he shouted back. ‘They’re already doing it for you.’
‘Aye aye. Well we always knew you Deepies were soft in the head. Hope you can sing a hymn, matey. Going to get mighty wet or mighty hot.’ He lit another arrow. Master Sy hastily pulled Berren back inside. The soldiers had moved away. Master Sy stamped the fire out. At least the hut was only burning on the outside now.
‘Go back to the boats, lad. Wait there.’
The thief-taker’s face grew dark. Berren winced. ‘Boy…’ He stopped. ‘Can you swim, lad?’
Berren shook his head.
‘Come here.’ He jumped to the middle of the hut and kicked away the wreckage that lay there. Underneath was a little door. Master Sy opened it. ‘They all have these in Siltside,’ he said grimly. ‘I hope you learn quickly. Stay here.’ Then he ran out of the hut back towards the boat, calling for the Justicar’s soldiers. Berren peered cautiously out of the hut back towards the Bloody Dag. He was still there with his gang, arrows at the ready, watching. When they saw Berren they jeered and one of them popped another arrow at him. Berren ducked back inside. He could smell smoke now. The outside wall of the hut was definitely on fire. He opened up the door in the floor. About two feet below, the swell of the estuary water rolled gently up and down.
By the time the thief-taker came back, Berren’s hut was burning merrily. Flames were licking through cracks in the walls and the smoke was starting to be choking. Master Sy had three soldiers with him. Without hesitation, he jumped down into the sea, holding on to the edge of the trapdoor with one hand.
‘The rest of you, you know what to do. Keep their eyes on you and away from the water.’ He looked at Berren. ‘Come on, lad, jump in. This won’t work without you.’
‘What won’t…?’ He didn’t get to hear an answer. Master Sy snatched out a hand, grabbed his ankle and pulled and the next thing Berren knew, he was toppling through the trapdoor and into the water. His arms flailed wildly. ‘I can’t…!’ he started to shriek, and then his head went under.
‘Get up!’ His head burst into the air again. He took a huge breath, waiting for the next plunge, and clawed at the hut roof, just out of reach.
‘Get up!’ snapped the thief-taker again. ‘Get on my shoulders, boy. Now.’
Once Berren had his arms wrapped around the thief-taker’s neck and his legs locked like a vice around his waist, he realised that Master Sy was actually standing on the bottom, with the water rising and falling around his chest. With his chin tipped up, the thief-taker’s face stayed mostly out of the water, even when the waves came. Every time he moved, Master Sy swore at him, but other than that and the constant certainty that the thief-taker was about to lose his balance and tip them both into the sea, he felt perfectly safe. Until Master Sy started to walk out from under the hut, wobbling precariously with every step, straight towards the Bloody Dag and his men.
‘Right lads,’ he roared, ‘let them have it!’
He waited, just under the edge of the hut they’d left. Berren could see the men of the Bloody Dag; or rather he could see them from the waist down. The rest of their bodies were still obscured. Then he heard a shout and a scream and one of them fell and toppled into the sea. The others ran for cover.
‘Now.’ The thief-taker sounded grim. ‘Hold on tight, lad.’ He waded out, meandering towards the Bloody Dag’s cluster of huts. Berren clung on, eyes screwed almost shut, waiting for the moment when one of the mudlark archers would come back and spot them, exposed and helpless in the water right in front of him. Knowing that the thief-taker would die first was little comfort. Yet somehow none of those things happened, and before he even knew it, they were easing under the walkway around the Dag’s hut, and into the shadows beyond.
‘Keep your voice down now,’ whispered the thief-taker. He spat out a mouthful of sea water. ‘I can’t see too well. There should be another trapdoor. When you see it…’
‘I see it,’ hissed Berren. ‘It’s right here!’
The thief-taker stopped. ‘Climb up. Stand on my shoulders if you have to. Then open it.’
Berren did as he was asked. The trapdoor had a big wooden peg running through one edge of it with a catch and a handle. He reached out, touched it, and then paused.
‘What if someone’s up there?’ he whispered.
‘Then you’d better hope they don’t notice you.’
The thief-taker tensed. ‘It’s that or be dumped in the water while I try to climb one of the piles, boy. Take your pick!’
As gently as he could, Berren pushed the trapdoor up so that he was taking its weight. He turned the handle. It moved easily, without complaint. He pushed a little more, then stretched up, pushing the door open with his head while steadying himself with his hands. Below him, he heard Master Sy grunt.
The hut, or at least the half of it he could see, was empty. He pushed the door open some more, trying to convince himself that it would make a decent enough shield in case someone was standing right behind him.
They weren’t. The rest of the hut was empty too. Berren hauled himself up. He sat on the edge of the hole, dripping and panting, scared witless and tingling with exhilaration. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so sure he was going to die. Not even when One-Thumb had had him cornered. But this was what he was here for, wasn’t it? This was what thief-taking was all about. This was what he’d come to learn…
A soggy length of rope landed in his lap. ‘Come on, boy, tie that to something and make it snappy. That is, unless you were thinking of taking on the Dag and his men on your own.’