The Freedom of Navid Leahy

Sevenna City simmers with tension between the ruling elite known as the Zunft and the working-class cottagers. Hoping to regain control, the Zunft cracks down on the cottagers, but their brutality just fuels the flames of rebellion. A cottager boy tries to navigate the dangerous currents of the city but finds himself on a collision course with both the Zunft and the people who want to bring them down.

“The Freedom of Navid Leahy” is set in the world of Jenna Helland’s debut novel, THE AUGUST 5. 

 

Eleven-year-old Navid Leahy awoke to darkness, his dream of slaying giants still rambling through his mind. It was a sweltering summer morning even though the sun was just beginning to rise. Navid’s skin was sticky with sweat, and his hair was so damp, it felt like he’d been caught out in a summer storm. At some point during his fitful sleep, he’d kicked off his sheet and dropped his stuffed rabbit, which he wouldn’t admit to anyone that he still kept with him during the night.

The eastern sky was rose-colored just above the ragged rooftops of South Sevenna. Through his open window, Navid could see the towering masts of the ship rising above the rooftops several blocks away in Mast Square, and his heart lurched. Today was the day he would confront Aron, his former friend and current enemy, near the square. In years past, the two spent many happy hours playing around the grounded ship and even more hours debating the mysterious circumstances that might have brought it so far inland from the harbor. But Aron had turned spiteful and mean, and Navid refused to be the target of his hate anymore.

Navid slipped out of bed, pulled on his too-short trousers, and ignored the wash basin in the corner of the tiny room. He thudded down on his knees to search under his cot for his woolen socks. They made his feet itch in the heat, but without them, his leather boots rubbed his heels raw. Someday, he’d like a pair of the canvas Litball shoes like the Seminary Lads wore. But such things were only sold in North Sevenna to the wealthy sons of the ruling class, and anyway, Navid knew he should be grateful to have his boots. Most cottager children spent the summer barefoot, but Navid didn’t want to cut his foot and have it get infected from the filthy streets, like his friend Will, who was stuck inside for weeks and almost lost his leg.

“I bet Kilkeer didn’t wear shoes,” Navid whispered to the dark house as he crept down the hall pretending he was the ranger from the giant-slaying saga, the most important story to the cottager people—Navid’s people. Their teacher, Mr. Baine, had been telling them the story at the end of their lessons. Kilkeer was the greatest cottager that ever lived: wise as a spider, fierce as a wolverine, and cunning as a wolf. Unexpectedly, all the other students already knew Kilkeer’s heroic exploits by heart, and while Navid knew the gist of the story, he’d never heard the details before.

As he stealthily approached the kitchen, Navid unleashed an imaginary bow and silently crept into the Great Northern Forest, just as Kilkeer did at the beginning of the saga. His people were being tormented by the Giant of Red Lake and only the bravest—

“Ah!” Navid yelped, surprised to see his father, Brian Leahy, sitting at the table, sipping a mug of coffee and reading a newspaper.

“Good morning, Navid,” his father said, nonplussed by his son’s dramatic entrance. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Navid surveyed the tidy kitchen, which was his favorite room in the house. There was a large wooden table where they could host friends at mealtimes and two rocking chairs in front of the open fireplace, which was always cold during the summer months. A small fire was already burning in the cookstove and a pot of porridge bubbled on top. The back door was cracked open to let in a nonexistent breeze.

“Am I late?” Navid asked with dismay.

It was Navid’s morning chore to fill the wood box for the cooking fire. Usually, the 6 a.m. chimes from the Seminary bell tower across the Lyone River woke him up. But sometimes, especially if he’d run a lot of errands during the day, he slept through the bells.

“I did it for you today,” Brian said. “I’ve got to meet Michael, and I needed coffee.”

“Thank you, Papa,” Navid said, feeling slightly guilty. His father ran a pub, the Plough and the Sun, and often worked until the wee hours of the morning. Brian had dark circles under his eyes, which probably meant that he hadn’t been to bed at all.

“Is that Michael’s paper?” Navid asked, catching a glimpse of the smeary headline emblazoned on cheap paper stock: Shore Plots Coup! Hywel Retains Support in the Zunft Chamber! Their friend, Michael Henry, published a newspaper, which was an illegal activity for a cottager. If Michael were caught, he would be arrested by the Zunft, the ruling class who ruled Seahaven, a collection of islands where only the elite were free to do what they pleased. Navid and his family lived in Sevenna, the sprawling capital city, but as cottagers, they had no rights at all.

Brian nodded, crumpling the paper and tossing it into the fire. Just possessing a cottager newspaper could land a man in the Zunft prison compound north of the city.

“Can I come with you and see Michael?” Navid asked as Brian finished the last sip of coffee.

“Not today, son,” Brian said. “I’m sorting out a touchy problem.”

Navid was disappointed. Michael was a leader to the cottagers, and when he spoke, he always drew great, cheering crowds. And best of all, he was a regular at Navid’s house for dinner. Navid believed that his friendship with Michael was part of the problem with Aron, who was obviously jealous that Navid knew the most important cottager in all of Seahaven.

“But you can meet us at East Ash Garden around noon. Michael will be speaking against Hywel.”

“I thought he liked the chief administrator,” Navid said. Michael’s incendiary speeches against the Zunft were legendary, but Toulson Hywel had been the most tolerant Zunft leader ever, or so Navid had heard many people say, including Michael.

“Well, he did. But now he doesn’t think Hywel is going far enough.”

His father was worried, which meant there might be a fight or a riot or, worse, soldiers making raids in the district.

“Is there trouble coming?” Navid asked. “I mean, more trouble than usual?”

“Not if I can help it,” Brian said. He sighed and rubbed his weary eyes with a callused hand.

Navid didn’t bother his father with any more questions, but he would plan his day around the speech. His mother might have errands for him to do, and if not, he would swing by Piper Leaf Market to see Will. Maybe Will would go with him to fight Aron. Navid wasn’t supposed to meet Aron until—

“Navid?”

“What?”

“Did you hear me?”

“I’m sorry, Papa,” Navid said. “I was thinking about something else.”

Brian motioned for Navid to sit across from him.

“Is something bothering you? Something I should know about?”

Navid squirmed in his seat. He didn’t want to tell him about Aron. Brian Leahy was considered the peacemaker of South Sevenna. Cottagers, even from far-flung districts, came to him with problems concerning their kin and neighbors. And Brian would not be pleased if Navid had an issue with a boy from their own street, particularly someone who had shared meals under their roof. But his father didn’t know what Aron had been saying about their family. Navid couldn’t let it stand.

“I was thinking about Mast Square and how the ship got there,” Navid said. It wasn’t a lie, exactly. His showdown with Aron would be near Mast Square where the now-defunct conveyor stretched from the cobblestones to the roof of the three-story building that overlooked the Mast Ship. Navid and Aron had played on that roof many times, but no one had ever dared scale the dilapidated conveyor.

His father squinted at him and then relaxed. “It’s a great mystery, I agree. Don’t you have school today?”

It wasn’t real school, but Navid knew what his father meant. The Zunft only allowed cottager children to attend school through age ten, but one of his father’s friends, Gavin Baine, held classes for children in the neighborhood several hours a week.

“Not today,” Navid said. “Mr. Baine had a conflict.”

Gavin was also a journalist and helped with the newspaper. Navid liked him as much as Michael, but he wasn’t as famous or as bombastic.

“He’s certain to be at Michael’s speech,” Brian said. “What are you learning these days?”

“Mr. Baine’s been telling us the Kilkeer Saga, and we’re at the part where he ventures into the Great Northern Forest in search of the Giant of Red Lake.”

Brian seemed disappointed. “I’m surprised that’s what he’s teaching you.”

“Well, only the last ten minutes of the day and only if we did everything else well.”

“Good,” Brian said. “Focus on your numbers, Navid. One day, we will need engineers as much as the Zunft.”

“You don’t like the saga?” Navid asked incredulously.

“I like the saga well enough,” Brian said. He picked up his flat cap and adjusted it on his head. “But I like it in the evening after chores, not during the work day when the sun is out.”

Brian was fortunate not to work directly for a Zunftman, and he tried hard to keep the pub going—and therefore keep his freedom. Industriousness mattered more to him than grand stories of heroism. Still, Navid couldn’t resist jumping to his feet and brandishing an invisible sword at his father. Brian hesitated and then raised an invisible sword of his own.

“Kilkeer had only just entered the forest when he was set upon by the Zunft,” Navid said, lunging at his father.

“The Zunft didn’t exist back then,” his father said, dodging and offering a counterstrike.

“Bandits, then,” Navid agreed, although in his head, they were still the black-uniformed soldiers that he took great pains to avoid whenever he was out in the city. “You must not distract me from my true battle with the giant.”

Their swords clashed around the table until Katherine Leahy appeared in the kitchen doorway. Brian dropped his play-sword, kissed his wife, and waved goodbye to his son.

“Did you eat?” his mother asked as his father headed out the door, so Navid called after him, “See you at noon!”

“Where are you going?” Katherine asked.

“To hear Michael speak at East Ash,” Navid said.

“Can you run an errand for me?” his mother asked.

Navid nodded. He loved running through the city more than anything else. He knew all the shortcuts and alleyways on both sides of the Lyone River. If he wanted to, he could make it from the Plough and the Sun to the Grand Customs House just by traveling from rooftop to rooftop.

“Good boy,” his mother said, smiling down at him. “Take this to Gavin first, and then you can go see Mr. Henry.”

When Navid took the sack, little bits of metal rattled inside the cloth. He looked quizzically at his mother.

“It’s letters for the printing press,” Katherine said. “Stay off the ground and don’t let anyone see you.”

“I won’t, Mama,” he said. She didn’t need to worry. He hadn’t got caught by a Zunft patrol yet.

“And Navid, don’t go to Mast Square today,” his mother warned.

“Why?” Navid asked.

“I heard about another arrest there, just yesterday,” Katherine said. “Someone is vandalizing warehouses in the area, and the Zunft is are watching carefully.”

“Most of the buildings are abandoned down there!” Navid said. “Why do they care?”

“Mast Square is contested ground, Navid,” Katherine said. “Both sides claim it as their own heritage.”

“How could the Zunft claim it?” Navid sputtered. “We brought the ship here. We—”

“The Zunft don’t see it that way,” Katherine said.

“Who cares what they say!” Navid said, indignant that the pompous, well-dressed, fat cows were stealing yet another thing from the cottagers.

“Navid, promise me you won’t go to Mast Square,” Katherine said.

“I promise, Mama,” he said. He was meeting Aron at the old conveyor, which was near Mast Square, but he wouldn’t really be breaking his word.

“And be back in time for dinner,” she said.

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything!” he called as he charged out the door and into the city, already steaming under the new-day sun.

 

Navid ran down Killough Street and slid down into the large culvert at the north corner of the road. With no grate, it was easy to drop through the opening without getting muddy as long as he got a running start and didn’t hesitate on the way down into the cool darkness. Just like Kilkeer stepping into the shadows of the ancient forest, he thought as he landed in the cone of sunshine that filtered down into the subterranean world.

There was a layer of muck at the bottom, but Navid had laid out broken cobblestones to keep from sinking into the mire. He hopped from stone to stone until he came to an old, wooden door that hung from its lower hinge. Beyond was one of the many dusty but dry tunnels that ran beneath the city. Navid had explored most of them and knew how to avoid the occasional swarm of rats. He always carried a scarf, which he tied over his mouth, to ward away the noxious dust that bloomed around his boots as he ran.

Navid lit the stub of the candle he kept in his pocket and moved quickly as the firelight cast jagged shadows that lurched in time with his footfalls. When he heard the cacophony of horse-drawn carriages and rover engines growling above him, he knew he was under Connell Street. Navid blew out the candle, pulled himself up through the drain, and emerged in a narrow alley lined with wooden bins. He sprinted toward the gate at the end of the alley, and when he reached it, he leapt as high as he could. His fingers grasped the top of the rattling planks, and he braced his feet against them. Kicking up with his legs allowed him to hurdle the top of the wall. Like Kilkeer leaping over the back of the fire-breathing horse and slam! He landed unscathed on the other side.

Scrambling up a large pile of discarded crates next to an abandoned factory, Navid ducked through a hole blown open by a Zunft cannon during the riots of last summer. Inside, he swung up into the rafters and walked across them with no fear of the drop to the ground. “I am the spider. The wolf. The wolverine,” he sang to himself as he effortlessly pulled himself onto the roof through a gap in the shingles. “And today, Aron—and everyone else—is going to see it.”

Now under the open sky, Navid hooted at the sun and sprinted toward the edge of the roof. Easy jump, he thought, and he sprang into the air toward the building on the other side of the alley. Landing lightly on the neighboring roof, he dropped into a graceful shoulder-roll just because he could. He slowed to a walk—as causal as you please—and whistled as he opened the roof door to a derelict tenement. Two flights down, and there was the inconspicuous door to the corridor that opened onto Gavin’s rooftop shack. It was unlocked, so Gavin must have known he was coming.

Gavin lived in a former maintenance shack on the flat roof of a one-story building squeezed between two taller buildings. There were no windows on either of the neighboring buildings, only redbrick walls towering on either side. Although the one-room shack was rustic, Gavin craved privacy in crowded, noisy Sevenna. Navid had helped him turn some old crates into garden boxes, and now the vegetables were thriving in the midsummer heat.

Gavin was reading on a bench near his shack. At the sight of Navid, he pushed his spectacles up on his nose and waved the boy over. Navid dropped the bundle triumphantly on the bench and then sat down next to his teacher.

“Thank you, Navid,” Gavin said. “You’re a great help to the cause.”

“Did they bust up the printing press again?” Navid asked. A few months ago, Michael’s secret office had been raided and the press destroyed by the Zunft. The journalists, including Gavin, had barely escaped arrest.

“No, thankfully,” Gavin said. “Are you going to the speech?”

“Yes, Papa said I could,” Navid said.

“Is Aron going to be there?” Gavin asked.

Navid shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Are you two having problems?” Gavin asked. “I heard something about a fight.”

“We didn’t have a fight!” Navid protested.

“No, I mean—”

“He doesn’t like me anymore,” Navid interrupted. “And I don’t like him.”

“I’m sure there’s more to it than that,” Gavin said. “Do you want to talk about it?”

There was more to it than that, but nothing he wanted to share with his teacher. Aron said that the Leahys were Zunft sympathizers because they ran the Plough and the Sun. He’d called Brian a foul name because he wouldn’t host some political meeting in his pub. Navid couldn’t believe that Brian’s friendship with Michael didn’t protect him from such talk, but apparently, it didn’t. He had to shut Aron up, or everyone might start saying lies about his family.

“You know that Aron’s father is ill, right?” Gavin said. “His family has been through a particularly difficult time. They’re living with the Neil family now—that’s a lot of people in one row house. Sometimes, a bad situation can make people meaner than they would be normally.”

“But why take it out on me?” Navid said.

“He shouldn’t do that, I agree,” Gavin said. “Just try to see things from his perspective. Which shouldn’t be too hard—you two came from the same place in the world.”

“Yes, sir,” Navid said halfheartedly.

The two sat in uncomfortable silence until Gavin asked, “Do you like the Kilkeer saga?”

“Yes, but can you spend longer on it?” Navid said eagerly. “In ten minutes, we barely get to hear anything.”

“What happened in the saga yesterday, Navid?”

“Kilkeer fought the Zunft, I mean, bandits,” Navid said. “He was about to slay the lot of them single-handedly.”

“I didn’t get a chance to finish the scene,” Gavin said. “Kilkeer never actually fought them. He saw that they were motivated by fear, not selfishness, and he helped them find safe passage out of the forest and away from the giant.”

“Oh,” Navid said, disappointed. “But they all had their swords out, ready to kill each other. What happened?”

“Kilkeer was clever,” Gavin said. “Instead of fighting, he spotted something that he could use to his advantage. He used his talents instead of force.”

“What happens to Kilkeer after that?” Navid asked.

“I’ll tell more tomorrow,” Gavin said.

“Please!” Navid begged. “Does he find the Giant of Red Lake?”

“Not right then,” Gavin said.

“Just give me a hint. Who does he fight next?”

“No one. He’s lured into a life of complacency.”

“What does that mean?” Navid asked.

“He spends more time satisfying his desires than pursuing the Giant of Red Lake.”

“Who lures him?” Navid demanded. “And for how long?”

“By the people of Nordefell Falls,” Gavin said. “The saga says he lived among them for a hundred years.”

“What!” Navid exploded. The image of his hero being duped was too much. “How could that happen? He’s the strongest cottager the world has ever seen!”

“It wouldn’t be a good tale of everything went right for Kilkeer,” Gavin said. “And remember, Navid, no matter what the cottagers feel about the saga, it is just a story.”

“I suppose,” Navid said. “I’ve just never heard the details before. I knew he killed the giant, but the rest is new to me.”

“Brian doesn’t tell you the saga?” Gavin asked.

Navid shrugged, embarrassed.

“Well, you’ll hear more of it tomorrow,” Gavin said. “And remember, it’s not a simple story. And I’m not telling it to you for simple reasons.”

“All right, Mr. Baine,” Navid said.

“Let’s take different paths to East Ash to avoid any patrols,” Gavin said. “Not that I could keep up with you, anyway.”

“No one can,” Navid said, and sprang to his feet, eager to go hear Michael speak.

“Wait, Navid,” Gavin said. He reached into his coat pocket and took out a silver coin. He flipped it to Navid, who missed catching it, and it fell near his boots. He reached down and picked it up. It was a heavy coin with the face of one of the old, jowly chief administrators on it.

“It’s worth too much,” Navid said. “I can’t take it.”

“It’s not just payment for bringing the letters today,” Gavin said. “It’s for all the errands that you run. And for being courageous. And for helping me plant my garden. Hauling crates of dirt up here was not easy.”

Still, Navid hesitated until Gavin said, “You can give it to your mother. Tell her it was your wages from the past year.”

So Navid pocketed the coin, waved goodbye, and then scaled the drainpipe on the neighboring building. With the sun beating down on his back, he tried to imagine what cleverness had allowed Kilkeer to best his attackers without needing to use his sword at all.

 

By the time Navid arrived at East Ash Street, throngs of cottagers had already gathered. Michael hadn’t made a public appearance since he started printing his new paper, Henry’s Herald, and people were eager to see their hero once again. The crowd had engulfed the corner and spread up the road to the entrance of East Ash Garden, a community plot where Navid often worked. The garden’s steward, Nova James, wouldn’t be happy with the commotion. She said her seedlings needed peace to grow.

His friend, Will, waved to him from the edge of the crowd. “Navid! Over here!”

“This feels like a street party,” Navid said. “I can’t wait to see Michael.”

Will poked Navid in the arm. “I heard you’re going to fight Aron today.”

“That’s right,” Navid said. “After today, he’s going to shut his mouth for good.”

“Huh,” Will said.

“What?” Navid asked, annoyed by his friend’s lack of enthusiasm for his upcoming battle.

“You’re gonna get in trouble,” Will said. “With Mr. Baine and your father. What if they don’t let you come to classes anymore?”

“You think I should just let him call me a traitor? Call my father a—” Navid sputtered. He was too furious to even repeat the insult. Even worse, the possibility of being banned from Mr. Baine’s school was a wrinkle that hadn’t occurred to him before. He loved school, and it would be a disaster to lose the privilege.

“Speaking of your father—he’s right over there,” Will said, pointing toward the front of the crowd. Brian was near the stone wall that enclosed the community garden.

“Do you want to come with me when I fight Aron?” Navid asked hopefully.

“My mother’s here,” Will said. “She’ll make me go home with her.”

“Navid!” Brian was calling to him.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Navid told his friend, and ducked into the crowd as the spectators began to sing a ballad about the Battle for Aeren Island. The familiar tune made Navid’s pulse quicken, and he felt proud that so many of his people had turned out to see Michael.

“Where’s Mr. Henry—“Navid asked his father, but the crowd roared the answer as the thirty-five-year-old street speaker climbed up on the wall with feline agility. Michael was taller than Navid’s father, and with his shaved head, someone might mistake him for a ruffian until they heard him speak. Once, Katherine joked that Michael didn’t say words during his speeches but instead, he spoke golden coins that the people couldn’t help but gather for themselves.

“Welcome, brothers and sisters!” Michael called. He surveyed the crowd with a wide smile. His gaze fell on Navid, who was standing just below him near the wall. He crouched down and offered his hand. Navid reached up and took it, his boots scrabbling on the stone wall before he settled down by the feet of the great man himself.

“Have you looked at Grand Customs House, friends?” Michael said to the now-silent crowd. “I mean, really looked? Seen its gilded windows and felt the yoke of its authoritarian presence? It’s from there that the Zunft take your coin, tell you where you can go and what job you can have. Sure, it’s the Zunftmen in the Chamber with their tailcoats and their soft fingers that make the laws, but it’s from the Grand Customs House that the fist comes down upon us. Well, no more!”

The crowd erupted into cheers and whistles, and Navid clapped his hands as hard as anyone else.

“I am not allowed to write an article expressing my opinion! We can’t own our own homes. Our children have no rights!” Michael laid his hand on Navid’s head, and the crowd cheered even louder. As the speech went on, Navid felt a tug on his trouser cuff. His father motioned for him to jump down. Navid frowned but complied.

“We thought Hywel was an enlightened man,” Michael continued. “We thought he was going to help us right the injustices—”

Michael continued talking, but his father crouched down and whispered in Navid’s ear. “Go to the roof of the trade-shop,” he said, pointing to the two-story building on the other side of the street. “Watch the speech from there.”

“Why, Papa?” Navid protested.

“Do. It. Now.” Brian spoke with such emphasis that Navid complied without further questions. He maneuvered through the crowd to the other side of East Ash, ducked into the alley, and took the easy route up the shabby wooden fire escape. When he reached the roof, something in the distance caught his eye. A line of rovers crawled down the road from the Zunft compound on the ridge at the north side of the city. They were still far away, at least. It would take a while for them to traverse the avenues of North Sevenna, even though they were paved compared to the muddy swamps that passed for streets in South Sevenna.

Navid headed back down to report the rovers to his father even though everyone expected the Zunft would show up eventually—that’s why these speeches were advertised by word of mouth and fairly brief. By the time the noisy rovers roared into the area, everyone was usually long gone. But as he scrambled back over the railing, he saw something that took his breath away. A phalanx of black-uniformed soldiers was amassed on the other side of the Lyone River. At least a hundred soldiers, armed with long guns, descended on the bridges. They would arrive in minutes.

Navid rushed back toward the East Ash side of the building and leapt up on top of the railing, oblivious to the precariousness of his perch, and began waving his arms frantically. The only person facing his direction was Michael, who saw him immediately and pointed toward him. As if of one mind, the crowd turned and stared up at him.

“They’re coming!” Navid shouted, surprised how his voice echoed loudly. His words had an instant effect and people scattered quickly. He saw Michael jump down from the wall and gesture frantically to Brian. Navid waited on the roof in case his father tried to find him there. He flopped down on his belly near the edge to watch the soldiers converge on the now-empty street. Navid felt satisfied, like he’s tricked the trickster. The Zunft thought they could leave the rovers behind and sneak up on them on foot, but they weren’t as cunning as the cottagers. Maybe Kilkeer was as outnumbered by the bandits as the cottagers were by the approaching soldiers. Navid decided to forgive the ranger for avoiding the battle with the bandits in lieu of a clever plan.

Michael and his father appeared behind him. The two men crouched down and watched as the soldiers milled around in the street below.

“You did good, son,” Brian said softly.

“We can’t keep running, Brian,” Michael said. He sounded angry, and Navid worried that he’d done something wrong. “Someday soon, we’ll have to stand and fight like men.”

Brian motioned for them to move to the center of the roof, out of sight from the street, where they talked quietly.

“You know how I feel, Michael,” Brian said.

“You’ve done great things for our people,” Michael said. “But they’re quiet things.”

“I’m a quiet man,” Brian said, laying his hand protectively on Navid’s shoulder.

Michael glanced down at Navid. “Let’s ask Navid, a young man who represents the future of the cottagers. Should we stand up and fight, son? Or let ourselves be crushed by lesser men?”

“No need for speeches now, Michael,” Brian said. Now his father sounded angry too.

But Navid felt honored by Michael’s attention. “It’s like Kilkeer,” he said. He felt his father’s fingers tighten on his shoulder, but he wasn’t sure why. He glanced up for more instructions, but his father’s face was unreadable, so Navid continued. “I mean, Kilkeer knew that he had to fight the giant, to stand up for his people.”

“Was it that simple, Navid?” Brian asked. “Kilkeer believed he would just walk into the forest and kill the giant. But he spent years finding the right path.”

“In the end, he slayed the giant,” Navid said.

“But do you know how he did it, Navid?” Brian asked.

“Mr. Baine hasn’t gotten that far,” Navid said.

“In the end, he slayed the giant,” Michael repeated forcefully. “Navid’s right. We’ve done enough cowering. It’s time to face up to our enemies!”

“Don’t do something rash,” Brian said to Michael. “Think of your family.”

“This is the time when good men can no longer be idle,” Michael fumed. “You’re a good man, Brian. You must see that I’m right!”

Brian started to speak and then changed his mind. “Navid, why don’t you head home? Michael and I will stay and watch for a while. I’ll see you at dinner.”

Navid nodded, but he felt confused. Why didn’t his father want to fight? Maybe a face-to-face scrap wasn’t the smartest approach, but not fighting meant the Zunft did whatever they pleased, unchecked. Was his father a coward, just like Aron said? Navid felt ashamed that the thought even crossed his mind. With one last glance at Michael’s angry face, Navid scurried away, but Michael’s words kept echoing in his mind: We’ve done enough cowering! It’s time to face our enemies!

 

After dodging a patrol of three soldiers, Navid reached the warehouse near Mast Square just as the bells chimed the top of the hour. Navid ducked through the broken slats of the gate and stepped into the shabby courtyard at the heart of what had been a grain dispensary but was now a burned-out husk. His eyes traveled up to the red sun shimmering just above the roof at the far end of the courtyard. The ship was on the other side of that building, and the tops of the masts were silhouetted against the sunset. The wood-and-metal remains of the conveyor connected to the edge of the roof and extended down into a trough that once flowed into to the canal. People had scavenged metal scraps from the conveyor, and the belt itself was long gone. Now just the slanted planks and scaffolding, bowed by rain and heat, remained. With his eyes half-shut against the glare of the sun, Navid squinted at the structure while his hand closed protectively around the coin in his pocket.

Aron and two of his friends waited near the trough. The other boys didn’t take classes with Mr. Baine, but Navid recognized them from gatherings in his neighborhood. The sandy-haired boy was Shaun, but he didn’t know that other kid’s name. Navid strolled up to them like he had all the time in the world, but he was really assessing Aron’s size. For the first time, Navid noticed how stout he was. Navid had a few inches on him, but Aron looked like he could haul a log up a mountain.

“I thought maybe you’d bring your Zunft-loving father to hold your hand,” Aron said.

“Don’t talk about my father,” Navid said.

“I heard he’s spying on Michael Henry for the Zunft,” Aron said. “They busted up his press because of information from Brian Leahy.”

“And you brought two of your friends,” Navid said. “You really think three on one is a fair fight?”

“If you had any friends, you would have brought them,” Aron said. He set his fists like a boxer and stepped toward Navid, who raised his hands in response.

“This is stupid,” Shaun said unexpectedly. “Remember what happened the last time you were caught fighting, Aron?”

“Shut up, Shaun,” Aron growled.

Bolstered by even the slightest hint of an ally, Navid lowered his arms and stepped back.

“This is stupid,” Navid said. “I don’t want to fight you.”

“Because you’re a coward,” Aron said.

“Instead of fighting, let’s make a dare-pact,” Navid said. “If I complete the dare, you’ll shut your mouth about my family. And if I don’t make the dare, I’ll give you this.”

Navid pulled the silver coin out of his pocket, and the boys gaped at it.

“Where did you get that?” Aron scoffed. “Payoff from the Zunft?”

“My wages for a year,” Navid said. With Aron’s family in dire need of money, Navid knew the promise of getting the coin would be more appealing than a fight that might land them all in hot water with their parents.

“What’s the dare?” Shaun asked.

“Yeah, it can’t be something easy,” Aron said.

Navid took a deep breath, knowing that what he was about to say was risky. “I’ll climb the conveyor,” he said.

Shaun’s mouth dropped open while the other two boys turned to consider the rickety, twisted remains behind them.

Shaun and Aron spoke at the same time: “It’s not going to hold your weight, Navid.”

“You’re lying,” Aron said.

“Lying?” Navid asked. “How can I be lying? Don’t you know what a dare-pact is?”

“Of course I do,” Aron said, crossly. Their childhood had been riddled with such pacts, and the rules were well known, but usually the dares were harmless pranks, not something that could get someone killed.

“But I’m not going to risk my neck and then have you keep spreading your lies, Aron,” Navid said. “If I make it to the top, you’ll never talk about my family again. You have to swear it.”

“Fine, I swear it,” Aron said, his eyes flicked to the coin, which Navid tucked safely back in his pocket. “But you’re never going to make it.”

Navid pointed at the other boys. “You’re witnesses. He took an oath. And if he breaks it now, he’s a filthy liar.”

Navid felt an absurd sense of relief, given the foolhardy thing he was about to attempt. But if he made it to the top, his family’s reputation was safe. Stepping to the edge of the trough, he hesitated at the sound of rovers in the distance.

“The soldiers aren’t coming here,” Aron said impatiently. “It’s leftovers from East Ash. Come on, Navid, you said you had no equal. No one could run the city like you, remember? Let’s see it, then.”

Navid felt a rush of shame for having spoken those very words, which sounded much worse when Aron repeated them back. He gingerly picked his way across the rubbish, but when he stepped onto the conveyer, the entire structure swayed dangerously. He took a few tentative steps up before a loud crack echoed between the buildings. Navid froze, but nothing crumbled under him. He glanced over his shoulder. Shaun was worried, but Aron had a twisted expression that could have been glee.

As Navid moved cautiously up the teetering structure, he remembered the time a roof began collapsing under him in the butcher’s district near the harbor. He’d launched into a run as the boards crumbled behind him. He recognized the same give in the boards beneath his boots. There was no stability in the planks. He was basically walking up a spider web made of rotting timber. Already twenty feet above the cobblestones and there were no handholds or ledges to escape to. He decided it would be better to rush for the roof than crash down to the pavement from this height.

The timbers shifted under him again and Navid lunged forward. He’d noticed joists that had support beams under them. If he landed only on those intersections, he had a fighting chance of survival. He sprang off the nearest joist and leapt to the next one. He was jumping more than running while the wood splintered and crashed to the ground behind him. The entire conveyor shuddered beneath him, and there was another final, explosive sound. Navid was just feet away from the roof. He scrambled upward frantically as the boys shouted at him from below.

With one last surge of energy, he made a desperate jump and grabbed the rough edge of the roof as the entire conveyer crashed to the ground. Navid pulled himself up and turned to face Aron and his friends.

I am Kilkeer! he thought. He raised his fist triumphantly, impressed by the amount of rubble he’d created in the courtyard. Aron and his friends were still yelling, and at first, Navid thought they were applauding him, but then he realized it was a warning. He whirled around just as two Zunft soldiers grabbed for him.

Navid dodged and ran for the opposite edge, where he could see the ship in Mast Square. There was a wooden barrier at the edge, and if he could just reach it, maybe he could flip over and scale down to safety. Maybe he could leap from the edge to the mast—

But one of the soldiers snatched the back of Navid’s jacket and yanked him down onto the gravel of the roof, knocking the wind out of him. He struggled to breathe as they loomed above him. Navid was trapped. He couldn’t see the sky, their hands were plucking at him, and there was no direction that he could run. When he sucked in a desperate breath and screamed, they dragged him to his feet roughly and shook him violently.

“Scream again, and I’ll break every tooth in your filthy mouth,” one of the soldiers said.

Navid clamped his mouth shut as they turned out his pockets. One of the soldiers found Mr. Baine’s silver coin and stole it for himself. Navid turned his face to the sky and thought of his mother waiting for him to come home to dinner. With the ship in sight below him, he’d broken his promise to her after all.

“Let me see your hands,” a solider demanded. “There’s paint on your fingers. You’re the vandal destroying Zunft property.”

There was no paint on his hands, but Navid didn’t say a word.

“You know what we do with vandals?” another soldier asked, shaking Navid so hard that he bit his tongue as his hand bobbed around.

Some workmen had left a pot of glue and some brushes nearby. A tarp had been laid neatly over the worksite by whatever cottager would be returning tomorrow to finish the job. The soldiers dragged Navid over to the edge of the roof. He wished he could sprout wings like an albatross, fly down, and perch on the prow of the stately ship. Instead, the soldiers pressed his hands against the wooden barrier that protected people from falling off the edge. They slathered his fingers with the thick, toxic glue that burned his skin. The paste hardened quickly and Navid couldn’t pull away. He struggled like a fox in a snare and when he screamed again, the soldier punched him and everything turned black.

When he woke up, his head was resting on the barrier so the mast ship appeared to be sailing toward him at a strange, sideways angle. He arms were twisted from when he fell unconscious, and his hands still mired in the rock-hard paste. The soldiers were gone.

“Navid?” It was Aron’s voice.

He tried to get his eyes to focus on Aron, whose face was tight with fear. His former friend had a glass bottle in each hand.

“I’ve got vinegar,” Aron said. “I think we can get your hands free with that.”

“Thank you,” Navid said. The sun was almost gone now. He was now very late for dinner.

Aron poured the vinegar over Navid’s hands. It loosened the paste up somewhat, but they couldn’t break him free.

“Do you want me to get your father?” Aron asked.

Navid shook his head. “I’ll just pull really hard.”

“Won’t that hurt?” Aron asked.

Navid didn’t care. Panic clattered around inside his ribcage. He had to get free. He jostled his trapped hands, which intensified his claustrophobia. With all the power he could muster, he yanked his hands away and howled with pain as the skin was torn away.

“Oh,” Aron said with horror. They could see glimpses of white around the bloody raw meat that been his been his palms. “Is that bone?”

“I’m going to be sick,” Navid mumbled.

“I’ll get you home,” Aron said quietly.

“I hate the Zunft,” Navid said when stumbled back onto the street. It was dark and deserted, which was good, because Navid’s hands were dripping blood. “And my father hates them too.”

Aron nodded. “I know.”

The world faded in and out as he walked; every step jerked his hands and made him whimper. Aron took his elbow and steered him in a straight line. When they reached the Leahy house, Aron helped Navid sit on the stone steps.

“That was impressive, what you did on the conveyor,” Aron said.

Navid lay his head down on his knees. Aron rapped on the door. They could hear footsteps coming down the hall. His mother or father would be there soon.

Aron moved down the street, not wanting to be there when the door opened. “I’ll see you in school, okay?”

Navid tried to nod, but he was falling backward onto the stoop. No, it was into his father’s arms. “I’m sorry I missed dinner,” he tried to say, but no one seemed to hear him.

The next few hours were a blur of pain, his mother’s eyes brimming with tears, and his father’s jaw locked tight. They gave him root tea, which made him drowsy and took the pain away. Nova James came with garden herbs that they laid on his ruined hands. All the while, he heard the rustling of the Great Northern Forest, deep and timeless, and felt the shadow of the giant over his house.

And then the whispering trees ceased and the shadow dissipated, and he found himself under a clean sheet with his stuffed rabbit tucked beside him. His father was sitting on a wooden chair beside his bed. When he saw that Navid’s eyes were open, he smiled broadly, and Navid understood that he wasn’t angry with his son. Brian Leahy leaned forward, hands on his knees.

“You asked how Kilkeer slew the giant,” he said. “After crossing the Nordefell Falls, he finally came to the region of Red Lake. He stormed up the mountainside so he could stand face-to-face with the tyrant who had caused so much grief. And Kilkeer swung his enchanted sword—”

“And cut off his head with one chop?” Navid said hopefully. His voice echoed eerily inside his drowsy mind.

“When we tell the saga to children, that’s what we say,” Brian said. “But you’re growing up, Navid. But no, that’s not how it ends. He tried, but the giant just brushed him away. Even the greatest cottager in the world was no more than a fly buzzing in the giant’s ear. So, Kilkeer offered up his son and daughter as tribute in hopes that his people would be safe. He knew that the giant would devour his children, and he did it anyway. Before he bound them and took them to Red Lake, he covered their skin in a dusting of hemlock to make them poisonous. When the giant devoured them, he would die. But in the end, it wasn’t the monster who killed them. It was Kilkeer himself.”

“All right, Papa,” Navid said, not sure why he was weeping. His elbow brushed his rabbit, and it tumbled onto the floor. “Leave it; I don’t need it anymore.”

But his father picked the rabbit up and tucked it near his side. “You don’t have to give up the things of childhood, Navid. Just be wary of those who don’t tell you the whole story.”

“I won the dare, Papa,” Navid said sleepily. He could barely keep his eyes open. “If we have to fight, we should do it with our talents. Is there a battle coming? Will we have to go to war with the Zunft?”

“Yes, we will,” Brian said after Navid had drifted to sleep. “And the Michael Henrys of the world will sing the ballads and raise the banners, but it will be the sons and daughters who die in the streets.”

He brushed a lock of hair off his son’s face. “But not you, Navid. I won’t lose you, too.”

 

“The Freedom of Navid Leahy” copyright © 2015 by Jenna Helland

Art copyright © 2015 by Red Nose Studio

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