Deadfish Run

A long piece, this time, to make up for how long it’s been since my last post.

A deadfish is a creature somewhat like a flatfish or ray. An ambush predator, it feeds by lying motionless on the bottom, concealed by its natural camouflage. When unsuspecting prey comes within reach, the deadfish erupts violently from the sea floor to capture its prey. A ‘deadfish run” happens periodically when one deadfish erupts and crosses the hunting range of another. When the second deadfish erupts, both will veer sharply and inevitably cross other ranges, causing a cascade of eruptions. Thus, the phrase is often used to refer to an action that causes a number of reactions, with unintended and usually negative consequences.

tavern 15

Joss and Jemmy Salazar shouldn’t have been there to begin with. It was just supposed to be a lark, following after big brother Dario to find out where he went after lights-out. And it only got more exciting when the trail led to the Deadfish tavern.

Jemmy, the younger boy, hung back when they realized where Dario was headed. “We can’t, Joss!” He caught his older brother’s arm, pulling him back from the corner of the alley. “Amma said never go near that place. You know she’ll be mad…” Even in a whisper, the boy’s voice was scared.

“We got to, Jemmy!” Joss whispered back. “Dario isn’t s’posed to be here either. We gotta find out what he’s doing.” He leaned forward against Jemmy’s restraining hand, poking one eye around the corner. There were no street lights this near the end of harborside, not even any cheap torches, but there was enough light from the fish-oil lanterns on either side of the tavern’s doors to see their brother slip inside. The door closed behind him with a muffled thump, sending the low late-night mist swirling.

“They’re bootleggers, Joss!” Jemmy’s whisper was an urgent hiss. “Amma said!” He tugged again on Joss’ arm with both hands, throwing his slight weight into it.

Joss pulled his arm loose easily and Jemmy staggered against the alley wall, but Joss turned and reached out to steady him. “What does that even mean, bootleggers!” His dismissive tone fell from the lofty height of his three years seniority over the younger boy. “We got boots, and we got legs. Ain’t we bootleggers, then?” He leaned again to look around the corner.

“Amma said they just a’soon kill you as look at you.” Jemmy waited, hugging his arms around himself. “Joss.”

The older boy turned at the pleading note in his brother’s voice. Jemmy had gone still and small like he always did when he was scared. ‘Like a rabbit, Joss thought, not for the first time; ‘always freeze and look away.’ He shook his head with a faint frown, wondering again why his brother was always so scared. Then he took a quick breath and came back into the alley. He caught Jemmy’s arm and pointed. “Look there, Jemmy. It butts up against the Wall along there. I bet the storerooms go right into the rock!” He grinned at his brother, white teeth flashing against his olive skin, clearly visible even in the dark. He pointed again, at a warehouse off to the side. “I bet we could climb right up the rockway over there and get inside. There’s always holes.”

Jemmy backed away, eyes wide and frightened. “Oh, nonono, Joss, please no! You can’t!

“But we got to, Jemmy! We gotta find out what Dario’s doing in there.” Joss grinned again, cajoling. “Anyway, you climb better’n me. Or—” he cocked his head and pursed his lips, watching Jemmy, thinking, then shook his head ruefully. “I guess you could wait here for me.” He suppressed a smile as Jemmy straightened away from the wall, face set in determination. It worked every time.

* * *

The rock face of the cliff they called the Wall was an easy climb here at the far end where it rose up from the Harbor. There was a space between two warehouses where it slanted back enough that the two boys went up like lizards, up the cliff face and then across over the roof of the warehouse, just as Joss had said. But when Jemmy caught sight of the small dark hole beneath the overhanging rock he balked again, and this time Joss couldn’t chance the noise to talk him through it. “I gotta go in, Jemmy,” he said, his whisper the barest breath of sound. “You wait for me here.” On the rooftop and out from the sheltering buildings the light of the rising moon was bright enough to see the quick, almost frantic shake of the younger boy’s head. “Where, then?”

Jemmy turned and looked out over the little plaza formed by the hairpin turn of the road, scanning the faces and roofs of the buildings surrounding them, and then his hand shot out, pointing to the roof of a minuscule balcony directly across from them. There was an ornamental relief carved up the building’s face, a remnant of its earlier life as a genteel waterside home; dingy, now, and perhaps crumbling in places, but still climbable by an agile young boy.

Joss nodded. “Wait there,” he hissed the words for emphasis. “Don’t go home! Soon as I find out what Dario’s doing here, I’ll come get you, I promise!”

Once again he saw the spasmodic nod in the moonlight, then watched as his little brother scrambled back across the rock face and out of sight. He waited, crouched beneath the overhang, until he saw Jemmy dart across the tiny plaza and swarm up the carved relief and then perch like a gargoyle on the balcony roof. He waved, and saw Jemmy wave back, and then he turned and crawled into the dark hole under the rock.

* * *

The door closed behind the young man with a soft thud, and he moved forward into the room with a breezy swagger. This late at night, the room was lit only by a fire slowly dying in the ancient fireplace and a plain fish-oil lantern smoking on a nearby table.

A chair sat in the middle of the taproom, facing the table. The lantern light flickered over the face of the man who sat there; a face full of fissures and crags, the face of a man who had spent long years in sun and wind and weather. A second man stood next to the chair, one lean hand resting on its plain wooden back, and as he turned the firelight caught his eyes, throwing back a hard yellow glitter. A third man stood off to one side, leaning against a pillar in the shadows under the loft over the bar. The barest edge of the lamplight caught the planes of his face and the red of his hair, but left his eyes in shadow.

The young man gave them both a glance and a faint sneer as he stopped facing the man at the table. “Cutter say ye wannet t’see me.” He spoke in the rapid slur affected by the street bravos on dockside, and the man at the table made a grimace that might have been a smile.

Might have been.

The man raised one hand and flicked his fingers at the chair before bringing it back to loosely cup the mug before him. “Sit, boy.” His voice was as rough as his skin, hoarse with years of smoke and shouting to be heard on the fishing boats. He caught the brief flash of annoyance in the young man’s eyes, and he gave the grimacing smile again. “Have a seat, Dodger.”

After a moment the young man slid past the man by the chair, giving him a wary glance before sitting down.

“Cutter said right,” the older man said, “I did want to see you.” That was all. He sat and stared at the young man he’d called Dodger, simply waiting, neither moving nor blinking. After a few moments, Dodger shifted uneasily, but the man continued to wait in motionless silence. Behind him the dying firelight gilded his shoulders and turned his hair to a nimbus of amber.

Another few heartbeats, and Dodger took a sharp breath and shifted in the chair, tossing his long hair back out of his eyes and crossing his legs in a show of nonchalance. “What ye wanta see me ‘bout, Kapelo?” His words came easily, with a kind of arrogant bravado, but the older man heard the edge of tension underneath and yet again made that grimacing smile. This time it held for more than a moment.

“You nervous, boy?”

“Nervous? Naah, bain’t nervous.” But the answer had come too quickly, and Dodger knew it. He shifted again, stretching and leaning back in the chair, but his shoulder touched the hand of the lean man standing behind him. Even as he started forward that hand moved, long fingers reaching and catching his shoulder in a hard grip. The hand pulled him back against the chair; the move easy, the grip hard and unyielding. But then the grip eased, and those long fingers patted him on the shoulder and then were still, resting there gently. Dodger flinched and looked up at the man as he made his move, then looked down at the fingers resting on his shoulder and licked his lips once. Those long, bony fingers reminded him of a kel arain, the deadly hunting spider that haunted the rocky heights above the City. He turned back to Kapelo and tossed his hair back again. “What I got t’be nervous about?”

“What, indeed?” Kapelo murmured. He picked up the mug before him and took a drink, but his eyes never left the young man’s. “Tell me, Dodger—what happened at Kyberg’s last night, hmm?”

Every ounce of breath left Dodger’s lungs, and took every thought in his head with it.

* * *

The hole was a tight squeeze, but Joss was small for his age and limber as a snake. He wriggled and writhed his way through the hole, and then felt the air of a larger space around him. He held still for a moment and closed his eyes, his vision still affected by the bright moonlight from outside. But once he opened his eyes again he could see a dim light off to one side. Slowly and quietly he slipped free of the fissure and found himself up on top of a stack of crates. Joss edged forward on the stack, freezing for a moment as a box creaked beneath him. He released the breath he’d caught, and looked over the edge of the stack.

The light came from a series of spaces between the floorboards and the wall; boards that had shrunk with age, leaving chinks and crevices wide enough to see through. Joss crept across the floor and lay down by the largest one, peering through into the room below. He could see a man sitting at a table almost directly under him, but the oil lantern’s shade hid the man’s face from his view. Voices drifted up from beneath him; one hard and dry as the boards he lay on, and with an unpleasant edge of mockery, while the other was familiar, and yet somehow—not. He shifted slightly, and finally caught sight of his brother, Dario, and he caught his breath.

Dario was changed. The lantern light, dim though it was, shone full on his face, and if Joss hadn’t known who sat there below him he might have passed him by as a stranger—a grim and dangerous one, and older than his brother’s sixteen years. Dario’s face had gone hard and arrogant, the kind of face Joss had seen on the sneering street toughs that roamed the dockside or jostled folk in the Fishmarket. Even his hair was different; the silky black strands Joss was used to seeing pulled back in a queue now hung loose in a ragged curtain, hiding Dario’s face like a veil. Every little while Dario tossed his head, flicking the hair back from his face, but even that movement held an angry arrogance Joss had never seen before. What was Dario doing?

* * *

The young man Kapelo had called Dodger ruthlessly crushed a rising panic and resisted the urge to wipe a sudden cold sweat off his face. He shifted in his seat, stretching out his legs before bracing one heel on the rung of the chair and hooking an elbow over the back post. It was no coincidence that the movement took him away from that long-fingered hand. It also gave him just one more moment to calm himself and think.

“Us loadin’ t’ skiffs from Kyberg’s roost, ye see?” Dodger gestured with the hand that rested over the chair back, his tone a mix of irritation and disdain. “An’ Grays come up out o’ nowhere, I don’t see where from. Willi and Yorgo, they’s inna roost, they can’t get out, damn Grays a’ready got t’ doors. Louse, he up top, shiftin’ crates, he see t’ Grays an’ drop ‘em, try t’ run.” Dodger laughed, a derisive snort. “Run inta two of ‘em come out t’ alley.” He shifted once again, crossed his leg over his knee and rested one hand at the top of his boot. In the dim light he missed how Kapelo’s eyes narrowed and then flicked to the man behind the chair and back. “Jiso’s inna skiff, he push off t’ run for it, but t’ Grays, they got t’ cutter out. Jiso goes over side, an’ I don’t see him come up.”

“And where were you, Dodger?” Kapelo’s voice was soft, almost soothing, and Dodger relaxed somewhat against the chair back.

“I’s onna dock, t’ hand off ta Jiso. Louse drop t’ crate, an’ I duck. I see t’ Grays, I slip down over side, in t’ water. I go under dock, alla way up under t’ pilings. Stay ‘til tide-turn.”

“And then, Dodger?” Kapelo asked, lightly tapping his fingers on the table. “What did you do next?”

“What, then?” Dodger flicked his hand dismissively. “I swim alla way harborside, come up by t’ fisher boats. Ain’t nobody there, so I go home.”

“Home.” Kapelo shook his head slightly. “It’s odd, don’t you think, how the last three of my arrangements have gone awry. Arrangements in which you played a part, Dodger.”

This time Dodger saw that flick of the eyes—from Kapelo’s hands, to Dodger’s face, and then up to that of the man at his back. He was unable to stop the widening of his eyes, but instead of turning to look behind him it was merely a twitch of his head. “You don’t think—” he blurted out the phrase, sitting bolt upright and dropping his foot to the floor, “You do! You think I tell ‘em!” He shook his head vehemently, silken hair flying. “It be stupid tell t’ Grays on you! An’ crazy do it three times in a row! Yeah, I’m new man, but I ain’t stupid, Kapelo! Who else you look at but me? You think I don’t know what you do to me if it was?” He flung his hands out in a wide gesture of negation. “But it wasn’t, Kapelo! It wasn’t me!”

Kapelo raised both hands in what was meant to be a calming gesture, though the lantern’s light made his expression anything but. Then he tipped his hands, spreading the fingers, and tilted his head to look at the young man. “You must admit, Dodger, that it is odd,” he said. “That after all this time, with never once a hitch, the first three times we brought you into a run the Grays arrive in such unseemly haste.” He pushed his mug aside and folded his hands before him. “Suspicious, one might say. Still, you seem such a forthright young man, and you protest so credibly.” He sighed and shook his head. “I do so hate having doubts about one of my own, but neither can I have my people marked and taken by the Grays. It just will not do. I will have to look into this more deeply.” He shook his head again, and the lamplight sheened across his eyes as he looked up and once again gave that grimace of a smile.

Dodger looked at Kapelo for another few moments, wary and uncertain. “We okay, then?” He asked, his voice hopeful. “I mean, you believe me, don’t you? That it wasn’t me tell t’ Grays?”

Kapelo inclined his head, neither yes nor no. “I have said that I will look into it.” There was a note of finality in his voice, an end to the discussion.

Dodger looked at Kapelo hopefully, the brash young tough back on balance. “Then c’n I get paid now?”

“Paid?” Kapelo said, and there was an edge to the softness of his voice. “Oh, most assuredly you shall be paid.” He raised his eyes to the man behind the chair. “Pay the man, Akhreio. Pay him what he’s owed.”

* * *

Up in the loft Joss watched with fascination as the stranger his brother had become told his tale. Dario working late in the night, loading crates for this man? And the Grays, the City Guardsmen, coming and chasing them down? But that would mean they were stealing from someone. Smuggling. That would mean—Joss caught his breath. That would mean that his brother was a smuggler, too. A thief.

A wave of sick dizziness took him. Chills alternated with heat, rushing through him, and he grabbed his hair with both hands, pulling hard until the pain cleared his head. What was he going to do? What would Amma say? What was he going to tell Jemmy?

He’d missed some of what they’d said, and he listened hard now to catch up. “…you believe me, don’t you? That it wasn’t me tell t’ Grays?”

Tell the Grays? What did he mean, ‘tell the Grays?’ His jaw dropped as it suddenly came together, that the man with the hard voice thought his brother had turned them in to the City Guard, and all at once he saw the jaws of disaster gaping wide. Heard that cold, hard voice saying, “Pay the man, Akhreio.”

The man standing behind his brother’s chair slid forward with a move like a snake on oiled glass. Before his brother could even twitch, the man had one arm around Dario’s throat and the other hand closed over his mouth and nose. He straightened, pulling Dario back and up off the chair, robbing him of any purchase or leverage. Dario shouted and screamed, his voice muffled behind that smothering hand, and he clawed and flailed at the arm across his throat. Fought and scratched and pulled at the hand over his face, the movements frantic at first, then slower and slower, weaker and weaker as lack of air took his consciousness.

Joss lunged up off the loft floor with a strangled cry of protest. They’d killed his brother, they’d killed Dario! He had to do something, he had to—he’d kill them. He’d, he’d… All of a sudden he felt a wash of ice go through him. The man below had heard him! Joss saw him glance up sharply, then look off to the side, where the other man had stood in silence all this time. Already the man was climbing the stairs to the loft, trying to be quiet, but his weight making the stairs creak. There wasn’t time for Joss to climb the crates and get out through the hole to the roof; he cast around for a place to hide, and saw that the great barrels of wine were stacked on wooden bucks, just like at Amma’s. And Joss knew he was small enough to slide underneath, because he and Jemmy had done it often enough at home.

He dropped down to the floor and slithered under the first barrel, then inched under the next. It was a tight fit; the floor buckled upward to meet the curve of the barrel, but he made it through. Now he was next to the wall, the living rock of the mountain. There was even a ledge; not much of one, but enough to get him off the floor if someone bent to look underneath. Then he bent his racing thoughts to breathing silently, though all he wanted to do was rage and scream and cry…

The man had reached the loft now, and was moving along the rows of crates and kegs and barrels, looking for whoever had made the noise. But after a few minutes of searching, he grunted in satisfaction, and headed back down the stairs. Joss waited until he heard the man’s footsteps on the floor below before he ventured out again and went back to his vantage point.

* * *

The red-haired man went heavily back down the stairs and crossed the taproom to the table where his employer sat. He barely glanced over to where Akhreio stood gazing down on the body at his feet. When Kapelo looked up the other simply shook his head.

“You’re sure, Lugros?”

“I’m sure.” Lugros shrugged. “I looked on top of the crates, and under the barrel bucks, too. You know there’s nowhere to hide up there. Must’ve been a rat.”

Kapelo nodded, then jerked his chin at the body on the floor. “Take him out,” he said. “You know where to put him.”

“Out by the water gate,” the other man replied, and Kapelo nodded. Lugros shrugged, then bent and picked up the body, heaving it up easily and slinging it over one shoulder. Then he followed the other man out and down the hall, deeper into the tavern.

* * *

Joss stared down through the chinks in the floor, mesmerized, watching his brother’s silken hair bounce as the big man carried him away. ‘Out the water gate?’ he thought in horror. If they were taking Dario out a water gate, that must mean they were going to dump his body somewhere out to sea. He sat up, looking frantically around the loft, wanting to move, to run. But there was no way, no way for him to get out, get around the tavern and down to the water, find a boat and follow. There just wasn’t time. And even if he could, he still wouldn’t be able to get to Dario. Even if he could find the spot after the big man dumped the—Dario’s—body… Joss choked and held his breath, once again smothering the wail of grief that threatened to escape. He didn’t even dare try to climb out of the tavern loft for fear of making more noise. He’d have to stay here until that other man left, that awful man, Kapelo. He shook his head, never noticing the tears that scattered away as he settled back down to watch and wait.

* * *

Aaaaaaah!” The scream came ragged as a saw’s edge from the boy’s throat. Lugros looked on, expressionless, as the scream trailed off into convulsive sobs, watching as Akhreio stepped back. It hadn’t taken long for Kapelo’s right hand man to reduce the young tough to a cowering wreck.

“Who are you working for?” Akhreio’s voice was as cold and hard as the stone walls of the cave they stood in, and he waited in stony patience for a reply. But the pause stretched out too long, and he reached out and did something that made the boy gag on a breath.

No-one!” The answer was strangled, frantic. “Nobody, I swear! I work—” again the gag and retch, followed by a ragged breath, “I work for Kapelo, nobody else, I swear, I swear!

The lantern light sheened over the oily pain-sweat on the boy’s face, and highlighted the strange color of the man’s eyes—an odd, dull yellow like old urine. Piss-eye, that’s what the red-haired man called him. In his mind only, of course; never out loud; that would be more than his life was worth. Get him a hissed warning in some night-blind alley and a sharp knife in the back, it would. Lugros saw the peculiar fixed intensity in those yellow eyes and suppressed a shudder. When Piss-eye got that look… The man enjoyed his work too much. Even Kapelo knew there was something wrong with Akhreio; the reason for Lugros’ presence in the cold stone chamber. He was there to witness and, if necessary, to curb the man’s enthusiasm for his task. Lugros didn’t like what was being done to the boy, but he understood the need to find out who had tipped off the Grays. Just—if it hadn’t been the boy…

Akhreio had seen him shudder; of course he had. The man cast a mocking glance over his shoulder and smirked. “You’re too squeamish, Lugros. What, are you a woman?” Lugros caught his breath and his temper, and held himself back from wanting to strangle the other man. There wasn’t much to choose between them in size; an inch or so in height, perhaps, and maybe a few pounds in weight. But the red-haired man knew he was no match for Akhreio. His muscle was from hauling crates and barrels, while the other’s—he well knew Piss-eye’s reputation as a fighter, and made sure to keep well away from those long, lean hands. Akhreio laughed softly and ignored him, going back to his task. Those long fingers did something that made the boy shriek, and the man laughed again as he bent to whisper into the boy’s ear.

Lugros’ face twisted in sick disgust, but he swallowed down his gorge and settled in to wait.

* * *

Joss lay in the loft, staring down through the cracks to the room below, his brain in a strange disconnection. His thoughts somehow raced, and yet seemed frozen; trying to fathom what had happened, what it all meant and what it was going to mean. Trying to think what he was going to do next, what he was going to tell Jemmy. What he was going to tell Amma. Gods, what was she going to do now? His father’s death a year ago had nearly crushed her. It was only the knowledge that her three sons needed her that had kept her going. What was this going to do to her? Uncle Yuuto did what he could, but he had his own family to look after. What was he going to do, himself? He was the only one who knew, the only one who had seen what had happened. He couldn’t just let it go. Couldn’t just let Dario be dead, and not do anything!

Down below, the hard-voiced man just sat there. Back to the fire, staring into the empty room. He barely moved, just every once in a while picked up his mug and sipped from it. He got up once to poke the fire, stirring the ashes into a shower of sparks and shifting the last logs to burn down for the night. Then he went and refilled his mug and sat back down, back to staring and sipping and doing nothing.

Joss couldn’t figure it. What could he be thinking, just sitting there doing nothing when he’d just had a man killed right there in front of him? How could he be like that, just say the words and watch it happen without any feelings? Who was he, that people could just do what he said like that? It didn’t make any sense.

One thing Joss knew, he wasn’t going to just let it be. He wasn’t going to let that man do that to his brother and not pay for it. ‘“Pay him what he’s owed,” yeah,’ Joss thought, and an anger started burning in him, like a coal in his chest. ‘I’ll pay you what you’re owed, too, just see if I don’t!

He lay there on the floor of the loft, looking down on the man, and a plan began to form in his head.

* * *

An hour and more passed before Lugros came back to the dimly lit taproom, leaving the yellow-eyed man to clean up in that small, cold room. At Kapelo’s inquiring glance Lugros merely shrugged and shook his head. Kapelo’s response was a mere twitch of the shoulder and what was for him a heavy sigh. “Well, there’s always tomorrow.” He picked up the mug and took a sip, savoring the mouthful before swallowing it. “I trust the damage wasn’t too severe?”

Lugros grunted, turning off at the bar and pouring himself a drink, figuring he’d earned it. He took it down hard and fast, then sucked air between his teeth, frowning. He refilled his cup before answering, his face turned away from Kapelo. “You know Akhreio likes what he does.”

“You don’t approve.” He set the mug down, then pushed it toward the other man.

Lugros turned to Kapelo, then crossed to the table and picked up the empty mug. “Not my place to approve or disapprove,” he said. He went back to the bar and poured another round, then brought it back to Kapelo. “Has to be done.” He set the mug down and stepped back.

“But?”

The word hung there, waiting, the pause growing longer. Then Lugros took a harsh breath and made a sharp gesture of negation. “What if it wasn’t him?”

The lantern light caught on that grimacing smile as Kapelo lifted the mug to his lips. “Then a warning will have been given.” The cup gave a hollow echo to his words, and a strange emphasis of cold amusement. “There are plenty of young bravos looking for quick coin and an excuse to swagger.”

There was nothing to say to that. Lugros shrugged and drained his mug, then set it down on the bar. “I’ll be in to clean up in the morning.” Kapelo lifted his mug without looking up, and Lugros went out into the night.

* * *

It wasn’t much longer before the yellow-eyed man came back out to the taproom. Kapelo nodded toward the bar, and the man turned aside to fill up a cup without a word. The firelight caught the sheen of sweat on the man’s face as he moved, and the fever-gleam in his eyes, and Kapelo’s face twisted a moment in distaste. He knew what causing pain did for the man, but that was what made him an efficient enforcer. One didn’t discard a useful tool simply because it was dirty; just kept a firm grip on it so it did not turn in one’s hand. “All secure?”

The man took down the liquor in several long swallows, then looked back at Kapelo with a satisfied smirk. “Aye.” The man’s voice was hoarse from the liquor and his exertions, and he blew out his breath in a soundless laugh. He set the mug down on the bar and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then spread his long fingers, looking at them in the firelight.

Kapelo eyed him for a moment, then set down his own mug. “Tomorrow, then,” he said, and at the note of dismissal Akhreio nodded and left.

* * *

Joss lay motionless, watching the men below. Watched as first one, then the other drank, said their say to the tavern keeper, and left. After a while the man set down his empty mug, rose, and barred the door. He came back and banked the fire, took his mug to the bar, picked up the lantern and headed back into the depths of the tavern. Joss waited; waited a long time, but the man didn’t return. Finally, he got up from where he lay, moved back and climbed the crates as quietly as he could, wormed his way back through the crevice and paused under the eaves of the roof.

The lesser moon had long since passed beyond the Wall, and the darkness was broken only by the last reflections on the sea. Joss peered across the road, but the balcony where Jemmy waited was hidden in shadow. What was he going to tell his brother? Joss made his way across the roof and down to the street, more slowly than his wont; his muscles had gone stiff and shivery from lying still for so long.

* * *

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…and so it begins

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything; too much going on in my life, most of it of the “No fun, go home” variety. But I’m slowly working my way back into things.

This one is fairly long – over 4k words. And also of the “No fun, go home” variety, for Ari. Figured it was about time to give you the beginning of the story; now you’ll know the stakes, and the trap Ari is in – caught between a rock and a hard place.

Trigger warning.

* * *

 

Month 1, day 40 – 40 days on Thanah

The Agora

Khamasur, the Master of House Kel Arain, had rarely been so pleased; opportunities such as this did not often present themselves, and he meant to take every advantage of it that he possibly could. From his place across the square he watched the two women interact, his pale eyes missing nothing. He knew the older woman to be his enemy’s Keeper, a competent and able administrator. But the other—oh, the other! The red-haired one was just the tool he needed to destroy his enemy, and she might even serve as the toy he wanted when her usefulness was at an end.

He watched as the two completed their meal, and the younger one cleared their table. She was fit, he saw, unlike many of the other women the Gatherers had brought. Most of them were layered in flesh, like geese being fattened for the table, but this one was lean with muscle even with her curves. He took in her movements; smooth, with no wasted motion, but with an underlying confidence and power, like someone who regularly tested herself against an opponent in the skamma—the fighting ring. At the somatemporia he had noted the scars on her arms—knife scars, if he was not mistaken, but he knew he was not. It was unusual to see a woman who fought with knives; most were afraid to be cut. If she was not, she was unique in all his experience.

He followed and watched for nearly an hour before making up his mind. More than once she had paused, head up like a dog scenting predators, looking around as if aware she was being watched. Each time he had hidden himself from her, busying himself in one booth or another until her attention waned. Abruptly he raised a hand, and his gray-clad Armsman was instantly at his side. “The red-haired woman,” he murmured. “Take her and bring her to me.” He turned smoothly and was away without waiting for a response, knowing it would be done.

“Master,” the man replied, acknowledging the order even though the pale man would not hear, and, using a com unit, called for two men from the entourage to meet with him. He also warned the driver that their Master was on his way. It was never wrong for them to be prepared for him.

The Armsman kept an eye on her as she moved through the Agora, keeping her in his line of sight but staying out of hers. Not once did she seem aware of his scrutiny, as she had of his Master’s; it was the intensity of that concentration that had attracted her attention. The Armsman’s dispassion was his shield.

After some time two more men in gray uniforms approached him, and he pointed out their quarry. One of them grinned and elbowed the other, but the Armsman coldly told him to mind himself, that the girl was for the Master. The other man sobered instantly, and ducked his head. The three followed their mark as the two women wandered the rows, watching for their prey to separate.

At last came their chance. Ari lingered at one booth to look at something that had caught her eye, and Kanti, unaware, went on to the end of the row and turned the corner. The Armsman signaled to his men, who immediately flanked the red-haired woman. Each man caught an arm, and one bent his head, telling her to come quietly. None of the three men was prepared for her reaction.

Ari jerked her arms against their grip, ducking down and shoving backward on one foot to throw them off balance. The first man’s hand slipped, letting that arm free, and she snapped a side kick at him, just missing his crotch. He went down with a yelp. Ari used the rebound to recover, and raked her sandal down the other man’s shin. She turned her arm in his grip and caught hold of his wrist, pulling him forward over her hip into a throw. She kept her grip as he overbalanced and added her other hand, pulling back on his arm and putting torque into it. She heard a bone snap as he fell, and bared her teeth in a tight, feral grin at his shout of pain.

The first man was up again, charging her with arms wide. She sidestepped, ducked under his arm, grabbed it with both hands and redirected his momentum past her. He flailed his arms in an attempt at keeping his balance, barely catching himself on the post of a nearby shop; only the booth’s guylines kept both from going down. The Armsman shook his head in amazement, watching, then started forward, pulling something from his belt. The first man spun off the booth’s upright back toward her, throwing a wild punch, but Ari flung her arm up in a block and then knuckle-punched him in the nerve plexus under his armpit. He howled in pain and went down hard.

Ari bounced back a step, checking for the second man, and never saw the Armsman coming from behind. He stepped in close, threw his left arm around her neck, and jabbed her in the back with something. White light flared in her skull as all her muscles seized in galvanic response; then she went limp and slid to the ground.

The second man had climbed to his feet, holding his arm; he came over and kicked her in the face, catching her cheekbone. The Armsman angrily stiff-armed him, warning him off, and told him to ready their vehicle. The man left hurriedly, scowling. The Armsman and the other man together picked Ari up and quickly carried her out between two of the booths. Despite the action most of the fight had been quiet, and it had been quick; only now were the people nearby beginning to react.

In the next row Kanti had just realized that Ari was no longer with her, and started back around the corner. When she saw the City Guard hurrying toward the gathering crowd she started to run.

* * *

House Kel Arain: the atrium

Master Khamasur waited in his office, leaning against his desk in a languid pose. His dark hair was the only color about him, the focal point in an atrium of white marble, pale wood, and filmy white draperies. A moment ago a runner had come in to tell him that the Armsman had returned with the woman, and Khamasur had composed himself to receive his reluctant guest.

The Armsman and his subordinate came up along the arcade that separated the atrium office from the outer hall. Khamasur glanced aside to watch them, and realized that they were half dragging the woman between them. He shoved away from the desk in instant fury, his pale eyes snapping.

“Deimo, what is this? I ordered you to bring her to me, not to beat her senseless!”

The subordinate stopped several feet from their Master, fearing to come closer, and nervously dropped the woman’s arm, letting her half fall to the floor. She was conscious and able to catch herself, but clumsy with her hands bound together, her other arm held. Backing away, the man blurted out, “She fought us, Master! There was nothing else we could do!”

The Armsman, Deimo, lowered the woman to the floor and released her arm with an irritated shrug, distancing himself from the other. “I have never seen anyone who fought in the style she did.” His tone held grudging approval. “She broke Krio’s arm. I had to use the shock rod before the Agora was in an uproar.”

Between them Ari raised herself on her forearms, saying thickly, “Wha’s matter wi’ you people? Can’ you ever jus’ ask a person?”

Khamasur cocked an eyebrow, looking down at her. “And you would have come for the asking?” His voice was smooth and cultured, his manner urbane and somewhat amused.

Ari pushed herself up to sit on her hip, pushing her hair back from her eyes with both hands. “Prob’ly—prob-ab-ly not.” She shook her head to clear it, too late realizing her mistake; she retched and vomited, then pushed away from the mess. Her head pounded, and she closed her eyes tightly against the dizziness and pain.

Khamasur withdrew in disgust, going back to his desk. He picked up a little bell and rang it once, sharply; a maidservant ran in, and he gave terse orders. “Bring a bowl of water and a towel, and something for her to drink. And have someone clean that,” he flicked a hand at the mess. He looked at the two men, shaking his head angrily. “Deimo, unbind her. Then both of you get out of my sight.” The Armsman did so with alacrity, not wanting to annoy his Master further. The other man disappeared even before the Armsman had finished loosing the restraints.

By the time the servants arrived Ari was on her feet, albeit swaying a bit unsteadily. Khamasur had gone back to his pose against the desk, hands and hips on the edge, legs extended and crossed elegantly at the ankles. The servants bowed their heads to him as they entered, though he ignored them. One of them offered a bowl of water to Ari, who thanked the girl; then she washed her hands and face and dried them with the towel. She rinsed her mouth with what was in the glass—something citrusy, like lemon water—and spat the mouthful into the bowl, then drank the rest of the water gratefully. Then she simply stood there, breathing, as the servants finished their cleanup and left.

Khamasur watched her for several moments from under his lashes, taking in her stance, her body language. The more he saw of this woman, the more intrigued he became. At last he lifted his head and looked directly at her. “You know, you are in something of a quandary—what is your name?

“Ari Dillon.” Her words were clearer now, the slur fading.

“Ari Dillon.” He repeated the unfamiliar sounds. “Hm.” He paused, looking at her in calculated curiosity. “You are in an awkward position, Ari Dillon. You are not only barren, you were deliberately neutered. You do understand that you fall under an Assembly Kill Order for that? Yet the Black Dog took you under his protection. I take it that your Master—”

“My Lord.” She interrupted, clearly and coldly, and he paused, turning his head toward her.

Again he cocked an eyebrow, arrested. “Indeed? Interesting.” He smiled dismissively. “I take it that your ‘Lord’ did not tell you that his protection effectively ends at his gate. Once outside those gates you are subject to the law of the City, and any citizen who takes offence may act upon it.”

“When I get back to the House of the Black Dog I will be sure to look into that,” Ari said pointedly. “I assume, of course, that I will be going back?”

Khamasur smiled indulgently. “That will depend entirely on you,” he said, looking at her directly. “Which brings me to my proposal: when you do go back, you will do so as my agent. There is certain information I wish to know about your Master’s—” he smiled again, not quite a smirk, “Forgive me, your ‘Lord’s’—activities. You will seek out this information, and you will bring it to me when next you leave his House.”

“And I should do this why?”

Again Khamasur smiled. “Oh, dear,” he said with false sorrow, “I had so hoped it would not come to this.” He reached down and rang the bell again. Moments later the Armsman, Deimo, came in with a young black girl—Shanyse Patterson.

Ari saw her and felt her heart stop. Shanyse saw Ari and her face lit up in delight; she started to skip to Ari, then darted a glance at Khamasur and thought better of it. At his gesture of permission she walked over to Ari and smiled, and with all the awkward grace only a young teenager can muster said, “Hi, Ari! What happened to your face?”

“I made a mistake,” Ari answered tonelessly, meeting Khamasur’s eyes over the girl’s head. Then she looked down and forced a smile for the girl. “Hey, Shanyse! How’s your mama doing?” She hugged the girl, over her head giving the pale man a look of cold rage.

“She doin’ okay,” Shanyse chattered on. “She keepin’ busy, but she still cries a lot sometimes ‘cause she missin’ my nana an’ grampa. I miss them, too, but I don’t cry so much.”

Ari took her shoulders and shook her a little, looking down into her face. “That’s because you are a smart, brave girl.”

Khamasur stirred and languidly clapped his hands three times. “How touching, a reunion of friends of mere moments,” he said drily. “Tell me—it is Shanyse, is it not? You have been doing your lessons?”

The girl straightened immediately, answering him. “Yes, Master Khamasur.”

“Very good, child. Can you tell me this: what is your well-being, and how does a House provide it?”

Shanyse stood up even straighter, and recited “My well-being is what I need to live: food, and clothing, and shelter, and health. My House provides these to me in exchange for my loyalty, my service, and my obedience.” She nodded decisively on each point.

“And if you should behave badly?” the pale man asked. “If you should disobey, or betray this trust?”

Shanyse gave him a worried look, and sidled closer to Ari, who reflexively put an arm around her shoulders and hugged her close. In a small voice the girl said, “I would be punished.”

“And how would you be punished, child?” His words and tone were all kindness, but there was something in his pale eyes that gave it the lie.

“I could lose my priviges…” Shanyse started slowly.

“Your privileges,” Khamasur corrected her. He moved forward to stand directly in front of the girl, looking down at her.

“My privy-le-ges,” she hurriedly repeated, “or I could be beaten.”

“And if the infraction was severe?” Though his voice was soft still the girl flinched, and rage flashed through Ari like lightning.

“I–I could be put out of the House to make my way on the street with the rats, or—I promise I won’t never do nothing for you to kill me!”

“Now, child,” he said, reaching out and stroking her hair gently, “I’m quite sure that you would never do anything so bad as to warrant that.” He put particular emphasis on that one word, looking directly at Ari. “But now I do have to make one small change to the rules for you, Shanyse.” He dropped his hand to the girl’s shoulder, squeezing lightly, all the while looking directly into Ari’s eyes with sly humor. “You see, something very special has happened, and that means that I must make your good friend Ari responsible for your well-being. It is her behavior in the next little while that will decide how this House treats you. And we all know that Ari is a good person, so she would never do anything that would let harm come to you, isn’t that so, Ari?”

“That’s right,” she answered. Her voice was calm and level, but her eyes were hot and full of promise.

“Excellent!” Khamasur stepped back and clapped his hands together with a bright smile. “Then that will be all for you today, Shanyse. You have done all I could have wished for.” He reached out again and tousled her hair. “Say goodbye to Ari now, and tell Nomio that I said you might go and play.”

Shanyse turned and hugged Ari tight, then scampered out at Deimo’s heels. Ari stood there staring straight into Khamasur’s eyes until she was gone.

The pale man smiled again with heavy lidded eyes and sauntered back to his desk, toying with something on the surface. When Ari was sure Shanyse was gone, she took three quick steps forward, snarling in English, “You son of a bitch!”

Khamasur spun and surged up from his stance with no warning, his right hand a blurring fist. The movement was so fast and so savage that Ari had no chance to react or avoid the blow, and she went down hard, skidding back on the polished floor. Khamasur’s face was a mask of rage as he stood over her, spitting “That, for your disrespect!” And then as quickly as that his rage was gone, and the faintly mocking smile was back. He straightened and stepped back. “Actually,” he said with dry humor, “as I understand the idiom it would seem to apply more appropriately to your ‘Lord.’ As for me, I believe the proper phrase is ‘sick bastard’—although here the latter term lacks… relevance.”

He went back to his pose at the desk, leaning against it nonchalantly and inspecting his hand. There was a smear of blood on it. He flicked a glance toward Ari to see that she was watching, and slowly licked the blood off his fist with evident pleasure. He took in her narrowed eyes and clenched fists; saw the muscles jumping in her jaw and the way her breath came hard and fast, and he smiled in satisfaction. “A fighter, are you?” he asked softly, but there was a peculiar emphasis to the question, almost hungry. Then his tone changed; a sharp command. “Take off your clothes.”

Ari’s eyes flicked to his, heat meeting ice, and turned sick inside. His arousal was obvious; his eyes avid, his skin flushed, his breath coming faster. She hated to feed whatever sick fantasy he had in mind, but what choice did she have? She knew where she stood; she knew what was coming. He was the one with the power—and nothing outweighed the safety of a child.

Khamasur smiled as she reluctantly obeyed, watching intently as she slowly rose, unbelted her tunic, drew it over her head, and let it fall to the floor. He pursed his lips, taking her measure, while she stood silently staring inward at nothing.

He pushed away from the desk, prowling forward like the predator he was, and his smile now had a cruel edge. “Take it off—all of it,” he said with deliberate malice. “I want to see you.”

She unfastened the breast band and let it fall free; he inhaled with a sharp hiss at sight of the scars on her breasts, and he stepped forward, reaching but not touching, following their shapes in the air. “Oh,” he breathed. “Someone has been here before me, I see.” Then he stepped back again and gestured impatiently.

Ari unfastened the drawstring of the shorts and slid them down over her hips, then kicked them off. She kept her face impassive, giving nothing away, knowing he was watching. She had learned that the last time—give him nothing.

Never realizing that it gave him everything.

Khamasur prowled around Ari, bare inches away. When he spoke his breath washed over her skin, hot and moist. His words were a croon, not quite voiced yet not quite a whisper. “I can smell the blood on you,” he breathed. “Its taste was sweet.” He lingered over the words, urging, yearning, their bodies so close she could feel his heat. “I can smell your anger, your rage. You want to fight me, I can feel it. Your muscles are quivering with want. If you were a man, you would be hard as iron.

“Fight me,” he whispered, leaning in toward her. “Fight me.” He inhaled the scent of her hair, and when he turned there was a wrongness in the light in his eyes.

And then again he stepped back, the heat abruptly gone. He looked her over in cool appraisal, his voice matter-of-fact. “Has your Master seen this?” he asked, then caught himself. “Oh, I forgot—you don’t like that word, now why is that? Did someone master you before, teach you your proper place?” He stepped in again, face to face, unable to stay away, and his voice went soft and whispery once more. “The others think you a warrior, but I know the truth. The scars on your arms speak of a knife fight, but these—oh, these tell such a different story.” He stepped in closer, body to body, his palm on her belly, stroking the scars sensuously. When she flinched back, wild-eyed, he followed with that uncanny swiftness and fisted his fingers into the hair at the base of her skull, bowing her back while pulling her hips hard into his. He smiled as she froze under his hands; froze like a frightened animal, and an avid malice came into his eyes.

“Did he try to gut you, your savage lover?” he whispered into her face. “Or was this where you tore out your womanhood to kill his child?”

“No!” Ari gasped, shocked into speech. “I would never—

“Never what? Never kill a child?” Khamasur smiled savagely, triumphant, and yanked her upright against him. “I know you now. I own you now,” he hissed, their lips almost touching. She started to struggle against him but he clamped his free hand on her throat, digging his fingers in hard. “Body and soul, I own you—you will do anything I ask, and all for the sake of a dark-skinned child you’ve known for less than an hour. I wonder—would you do the same for one you’ve never met? Would you trade yourself for any child?” Abruptly he kissed her fiercely, then opened his hands and she fell to the floor, her legs gone weak. He pulled off his robe, dropped his trousers and kicked them away. He was beyond aroused, he was rampant, and the light in his eyes was no longer sane.

“Fight me!” he said fiercely, arms wide and ready. “Fight me, or I’ll kill you where you lie.” Then, when she still did not move, he roared, “Fight me!

From her huddle on the floor Ari whispered, “If I fight you, you’ll kill her.”

Khamasur leaned in and replied softly, dangerously, “If you don’t fight me, I’ll kill you.” His body was tense, its energy barely leashed.

Ari sat up and gathered herself into a ball, stretching her muscles. “Don’t hurt her,” she begged.

Khamasur licked his lips, stalking her. “If you fight me here, I won’t.”

Ari stood slowly, painfully. “One rule, then,” she said.

“No rules!” Khamasur barked, stepping closer, his breath coming faster.

“One rule,” Ari countered sharply, taking a chance, then cajolingly, “It’s to your advantage.”

Khamasur straightened somewhat from his crouch, looking almost like a sulky teenager. “What?” he asked sullenly.

“Just remember,” Ari said, “if you break me I can’t get the information you want.” She stared into his eyes in challenge. “Deal?”

Khamasur licked his lips again, and the crazy light went on again behind his eyes. “Deal.” Ari nodded, her face tight.

“Alright, you sick bastard,” she said. “Let’s dance.”

* * *

The fight was short, the outcome inevitable. Two blows to the head and a taser shock had put paid to Ari’s coordination, and however fit she might be Khamasur’s speed and agility in all ways simply outmatched hers. Added to that was his unfamiliar fighting style: a mixture of boxing, wrestling, kicks and strikes that, when she thought of it later, would remind her of the mixed martial arts she’d heard of back home. She couldn’t dodge him, and she couldn’t predict him, and it was no more than a few minutes of futility before he had her dazed and pinned.

What happened after was also inevitable.

* * *

When he was done with her he stood, shrugged on his robe, and rang the bell. It was Deimo who came in, as always, to clean up his Master’s messes. He barely glanced at Ari as he crossed the atrium, keeping his face impassive; he, too, had learned it was wise to dissemble.

Khamasur poured himself some wine; he was thirsty after his exertions. “Give her her clothes,” he ordered, gesturing with the wine cup. “Put her out on the street and show her the way to her Master’s—” he checked himself and laughed “—to the House of the Black Dog.” He sauntered out of the room, never looking back at either of them.

Deimo looked down at the defeated woman, noting the bruises already darkening on her skin; noting, too, the old scars that marked her body. He shut his eyes hard, shaking his head slowly, then took a long breath and bent to help her up.

* * *

Deimo did more than Ari would have expected, given his Master’s instructions. After she dressed he walked with her to the Household’s gate out of the compound, but instead of simply sending her on her way, as he had been ordered, he called for a metafora—a taxi—and waited with her inside the courtyard until it came. He stood one step up on the flight of stairs, watching her below; seeing how she moved, noting her stance. She was badly beaten, he knew, but she stood erect. Her expression was grim, but her head was up: angry, defiant. There was a stone bench at the foot of the stairs, but still she stood, refusing to give in.

It bothered him.

He was silent but restless, shifting from foot to foot, not looking at her. At last he muttered something to himself, sounding somehow both angry and ashamed. Finally he sighed and said quietly, “I do what I am told.”

Ari barely nodded, shivering in the thin afternoon sunlight. “You could leave here.”

“My family,” he said simply. “My friends. My House.”

“Gods,” Ari said, and shook her head.

Deimo spat on the ground. “The gods are deaf in Kel Arain,” he said bitterly.

Ari nodded. They weren’t all like him. It was enough.

When the metafora came, Deimo gave the driver several coins. “Take her to the Agora,” he said. “Take her where there are other metafori. Leave her there and come straight back here.” To Ari he gave more coins, and said quietly, “Wait until he leaves, then take another to your House.”

Once more Ari nodded, unable to speak at the unexpected kindness. She rested a hand on his arm for a moment, then painfully climbed into the metafora. She did not look back.

* * *

Sya and The Ladies

Chuck Wendig put out a new flash challenge this week: To Behold the Divine. The challenge: write about gods and goddesses. Any genre, any point of view, under 2k words. Figured now would be a good time to introduce some more characters from my WIP, House of the Black Dog. Seven-year old Sya, Heir to the House, takes two of the Powers to task for their lack of action on behalf of their Champion, my MC Ari Dillon, who Sya has dubbed her “Red Lion.”

Check out the other posts for the challenge at: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2017/03/17/flash-fiction-challenge-to-behold-the-divine/#comments

* * *

SYA 1 Sandhya Mauroskyli - enhanced light

Month 4, day 30 – 150 days on Thanah

the House of the Black Dog; elsewhere

It was the garden in the temenos, the holy ground at the heart of the House where the little temples were for all the gods. It was evening, she thought; still early, the torches weren’t lit yet, though the slanting light coming over the wall had gone a deep, clear gold. The little girl picked her way along the path, kicking the leaves just to hear the skittering sound they made across the stones. She wasn’t supposed to be out alone, never without a guard, but here beyond the Gates of Dreams she knew she was always safe.

And the two Ladies were here, and no one would dare try to harm her while They were present. She was as safe as if her Red Lion was with her.

But at thought of her Red Lion, the little girl’s heart twisted inside her. The White Man had hurt her, this time; really hurt her. Hurt her badly, hurt her soul, not just her body. Abruptly the little girl lifted her head, searching the garden around her for the Ladies.

She was only a little girl, but she was also Heir to a House, and she knew her duty to her Household. The Red Lion was hers; her protector, hers to protect. Chosen to save her and her City almost before she was born, it wasn’t right for her to be so hurt and have no one to help her! The little girl marched along the path now, her little feet thumping determinedly on the stones, angry now with an anger well beyond her years.

The Ladies were sitting on the stone benches by the fountain at the center of the temenos, both frowning slightly as they conversed. At their feet lay the Dark Lady’s big dog. It lifted one of its heads, watching her approach, and gave a woof of greeting, tail thumping the stones in happiness before getting up and shaking itself all over. The Dark Lady laid a hand on the dog’s head and gave a soft command, and the dog sat, but its teeth gleamed in a doggy grin and its tail still swept the leaves away beneath the bench.

The gray-eyed Lady, her Lady, looked up at her and smiled. Her long spear lay at her feet, and her great shield leaned against the old olive tree, the serpent-haired woman’s face turned away. Up in the tree, the little brown owl hooted once and ruffled its feathers at her, but the little girl would not be diverted.

“Oh, dear,” the Dark Lady said, and raised a hand to hide her smile.

The little girl marched right up to them, ignoring the soft whuffling of the dog as it leaned forward to sniff her arm. “He hurt her!” she said, sharp and accusing. “She’s doing what you want, why won’t you help her?” The Dark Lady looked down as her dog whined, hearing the little girl’s upset, and her face was sad. She soothed the dog, rubbing its ears with gentle fingers. Her dark eyes were veiled by long lashes and a fall of night-dark hair that tumbled past her shoulders.

The gray-eyed Lady sighed and leaned forward to speak to the girl. “Even such as we have our constraints, child. Though we have set the task, the doing is up to her. It is not our choice, it is our moira, our fate. We may not yet interfere, and we cannot help her unless she asks—and it has been long and long since that one asked for help.”

“But you helped her before!” This time she turned to the Dark Lady, pleading.

The Dark Lady looked at the little girl; her eyes were dark from lid to lid, and little sparks shone in them like stars in the night sky. “She cried out for help, then, though it was not to me she called. Would that she had called on me sooner, both then and now, little one. But until she does, we needs must stay our hands.” Her voice was soft and rich and dark, and sorrow shimmered in its depths.

The little girl looked up at her, into those eyes as dark as a night of stars and sad as an ocean of tears, and bowed her head. “But it isn’t fair,” she said, her voice plaintive.

“No, it isn’t,” the Dark Lady replied. She reached out and drew the little girl close, pulling her up into her lap. “It isn’t fair, but it is what must be.”

The little girl snuggled into her arms, then looked up into her face. “Can I ask for you to help her?”

“Oh, child…” the Dark Lady sighed, “I cannot. But I promise you this; whenever she calls, I will hear her however far she be, and I will give whatever aid I can—though it may not be the help she expects.” She stroked back the little girl’s curls, nearly as dark as her own, and at last the little girl smiled.

“What’s your name, Lady?”

The Dark Lady smiled, and it was as if the stars shone in her eyes. “I have a great many names, little one. But your Red Lion calls me Mother Night.”

“Mother Night,” the little girl whispered, and tucked herself deeper into the Dark Lady’s arms. She sighed, and moments later she was asleep.

The gray-eyed Lady gazed down on the little girl with eyes both fond and sad, and leaned forward a little to brush her cheek with gentle fingers. “What must be, must be,” she said. “Until she admits of all the truths she has hidden from herself, she will not be free for us to reach her.”

The Dark Lady nodded, and when she spoke, her voice ached with remembered pain, frustration, and a deep, abiding anger. “I cannot give the help she needs. I cannot stop what he does. I could only hope to give her the strength to bear it.”

“You did, dear friend,” her companion said, her voice filled with compassion and her gray eyes warm with sympathy. “She is wounded, true; wounded in body and soul, yet she lives, she is whole. And she is growing stronger for it, though she knows it not.” The gray-eyed Lady reached out once more and laid her fingers on the other’s arm, the only comfort she could give. “Be at peace; the time is drawing near.”

* * *

Ryder’s Nightmare

This came from an article/prompt about Indirect Characterization. Per the article, “This is when the author tells a reader about a character through the character’s repeated words, reoccurring actions, or physical descriptions.” Here’s the link:

http://thewritepractice.com/characterization-secret/

Ryder has this mannerism that he’s done several times. I didn’t choose it – he did. I didn’t know why, before; I do now. I had to go back into the MS for House of the Black Dog and see when he did it, and why in the context of the scene. And this is what came out:

* * *

It was his last day of school. Not year-end, not graduation; just – the last day he ever went.

He came home and ran up the four flights of stairs to their apartment, feeling good. It was early summer, the sun was out, and he’d gotten an A on his English test. Mom would love that. He let himself in and dropped his backpack on the kitchen chair, reaching out and opening the fridge with his other hand.

“Mom?” He swung around, looking to see what was there. Milk? Juice? Tea! Mom made iced tea, great. He pulled out the pitcher and set it on the counter, then snagged a glass out of the dish drainer. Poured a glass and took a hefty swig of pure, cold sweetness.

“Mom?” He set the glass on the table and rubbed his cold hand on the back of his neck, the cool dampness feeling good. He picked up the glass and took another swig, then nabbed his backpack and headed for his room. “Hey, Mom! Guess what? I got—” The glass hit the floor and shattered, all the sweet goodness pouring away among glittering shards of pain.

“Mom, Mom, no!” He was on his knees beside her, patting her face, rubbing her hands. Putting his head down like he’d seen on TV, listening for her breath.

* * *

He was on the phone, 911. “No, I dunno, look, she’s on the floor, I dunno what’s wrong, she just won’t wake up.” His voice was rising, frantic. The woman on the phone kept asking questions he couldn’t answer, didn’t know the answers to, didn’t know why she wanted to know his age, her age, their names. “I’m fifteen, she’s thirty-something, what the fuck does it matter? You gotta get someone here, you gotta send someone, a doctor, somebody! You don’t need my name, you gotta send someone!”

* * *

They came. A cop, two EMTs. Panting, huffing, four flights up, no elevator, cursing the stairs. They checked her pulse, checked her vitals, kept shoving him out of the way trying to find where the blood was from, where she was hurt. Until they saw it was him that was bleeding. His knuckles, bleeding from the glass on the floor, blood all over.

Then they wanted to clean his hand, pick out the glass, wrap it up. That was when he started fighting, hitting them, screaming at them to help his Mom, he didn’t need help, help his Mom. The cop came in then, jerked him around and cuffed him, hauled him back into the kitchen and sat him down in a chair. Wrapped a kitchen towel around his hand to catch the blood. Hitched a leg up on the table and stared down at him.

“What was that, boy?” The cop waved a hand back down the hall. “Think that’s helpin’ your Ma there, do ya? Hittin’ them? Screamin’? Stoppin’ them doin’ their job?” He shook his head, watching the boy; skinny kid, couldn’t be more than fifteen. Breathing hard like a fight was coming. Watched him staring down the hall where the EMTs were loading the woman up on a stretcher. Four floors of stairs, that’s gonna be a bitch, gettin’ her down, jeez… Kid looked lost. Scared, yeah. “You okay, boy?” The kid never looked at him, never lost focus on that hall. The cop shook his head again. “You know you could go to jail for that, hittin’ them. That’s assault. You don’t want that, boy. You wanna go to the hospital with your Ma, right?”

The kid nodded, surprising him. He didn’t figure the kid could even hear him, he was that focused. “You gonna be calm now, boy? I’ll take the cuffs off.”

* * *

It was all bright lights and harsh smells, sharp and stinging like ammonia when Mom washed the floors. People in and out of the room; doctors, nurses. Hushed voices, cold tones, orders. Words he didn’t know: carcinoma, metastasis. Words he did know, words that didn’t make sense: terminal.

A fat old man in a suit came up; went in the room. Talked to the doctors, checked her vitals, checked her chart. Looked at her, pulled back her eyelids and peered down at her; shook his head. Turned and looked at the kid in the hall and asked a question. “That’s the son, I guess,” came the answer. One of the nurses. “He got his hand chewed up pretty bad on a broken glass. Must have dropped it when he found her.” She shook her head. “Took a while for him to let us treat it.” The fat man shook his head back at her and sighed.

* * *

“That your mother in there, son?” The fat man came and stood between him and the door, and the boy stepped aside so he could see her. The fat man sighed. “I’ll take that as a yes.” The man reached out, as if to shake his hand, then realized it wasn’t going to happen. “I’m Doctor Ashburn. I’m your mother’s Oncologist.” A pause; no response. Another sigh. “Your mother has cancer, son. She didn’t tell you?” Another pause. “I’m sorry, boy.”

“When can she come home?”

The fat man was startled; the boy’s voice sounded like he’d gargled with broken glass. Ragged shreds of sound, just barely over a whisper. He hadn’t heard that kind of pain from anyone before, not in all the years he’d practiced. Not in all the years he’d given out the news he had to give now.

“I’m sorry, boy. She won’t be going home. I doubt she’ll last out the day. I’m surprised she’s lasted this long…”

“No. She’s coming home. I’ll take her home. She was fine this morning…” The boy finally looked up at him, looked away from the door and up at him, and the fat man looked away. He couldn’t meet the boy’s eyes. In all the time he’d done this, it was the first time… like he was taking away the boy’s last hope in the world.

The soft beeps from his mother’s room changed to a harsh, strident tone, and the fat man turned and strode purposefully away into the room. Nurses and doctors moved in. Two orderlies came with a crash cart. And the boy stood away from the wall, crossed the hall in nightmare slowness. Came to the door.

One of the nurses saw him and shut the door, then pulled the curtains closed around the bed. “He doesn’t need to see this…”

The boy put his hands flat against the glass door. “Mom?” he said. “Mama?”

* * *

“She’s gone, boy. I’m sorry.”

“No, she’s not gone, she’s right in there. I saw her, she’s right there in that room!”

The fat man shook his head. “I mean she’s gone. She’s dead, boy.”

“No, she’s not! You’re lying, why are you lying?” He tried to shove past the man, to get to the door, to see his Mom once more, but one of the orderlies stepped in the way. The boy slipped aside, but the orderly grabbed him, and the boy went wild, kicking and fighting and shouting. The orderly wrapped his arms around the boy and took two steps forward, pinning the boy against the wall.

“No!” The fat man shouted, pulling at the man’s arm. “Let him go! Just let him go. He won’t believe until he sees her. Let him go.”

After a moment, the man stepped back and simply opened his arms. The boy dropped, then scrambled across the hall and into the room.

His Mom was there, just lying there with her eyes closed. Around her the nurses and orderlies were packing up equipment, starting to clean up the room. “Mom?” he said, a choked whisper. He cleared his throat. “Mama?” It was a little boy’s voice, the voice of a boy who has lost the last precious thing in his life.

In the hall, meaningless voices, meaningless words. “Child Services is here, Doctor.”

“Time to go, boy.” A hand on his arm, pulling him away.

No!” The boy lashed out, one hand clamped on the side rail of the bed, the other a hard fist. The orderly wrapped his fingers around the boy’s wrist and squeezed until the boy let go of the bed rail, and the boy spun around, kicking and flailing. The orderly grabbed him, pinned him against the wall again, and the boy punched the wall over and over and over until the bandage over his knuckles ran red and dripping.

“Stop, stop!” One of the nurses stepped in. “If Child Services is here, it means he’s got no-one else.” The nurse put her hand on the orderly’s arm. “He’s just lost his mother, for God’s sake. Give him a few minutes, you’ll get what you want.” She caught the boy’s hand in hers; put her palm against the boy’s cheek. “Shh, shh. Hush. Enough, you’re just hurting yourself.” The orderly let him go, and she took him in her arms. “Let’s see that hand.”

* * *

The woman from Child Services walked out with him. “What’s your name, son?” The voice held compassion; the hand on his shoulder offered comfort.

“Ryder. Danny Ryder.” His voice held nothing; no pain, no light. He wouldn’t look at her, just watched where his feet were going. After a moment he lifted a hand, and started rubbing his knuckles.

Ari’s Nightmare

I figure it’s time to bring you in on Ari’s background. Most of her backstory you’ll get in Book One of the Houses of Thanah series, The House of the Black Dog. And yes, I know it starts with a cliché line – that was our first writing prompt from my local writing group. We couldn’t not use it!

So here’s the story of how it all began…

* * *

1 Lightning struck tree 4 by Unobtrusivetroll10

It was a dark and stormy night. It was inevitable, she thought; the phrase had to pop up some time. A cliché, maybe, but true enough right now. First of the feeder bands for Hurricane Frances, it had come up behind her like—well, like a hurricane. God, was her brain going to keep on doing this? Yeah. Anything to keep her mind off the real issue.

Lightning struck a tree off to the side of the road; lit the world up around her like daylight and deafened her with the crack and instant boom of thunder. The concussion hit her ears and her chest simultaneously, no time to open her mouth to lessen the impact. She jerked in reaction and the motorcycle swerved wildly, its responsiveness a handicap in the driving rain. She corrected automatically, keeping the rubber side down the way her Dad had taught her.

She knew it was crazy, doing this. Crazy enough riding a motorcycle in a driving rainstorm; crazier still when there was not only rain but lightning—but in a hurricane, for God’s sake! She knew she’d hear all about it from Dad when she got home. Hers was the only vehicle on the road, tallest thing around till you got off into the fields. Can you say target?

But she had to get home. Had to. When Dad called and told her Mom had had a heart attack, she’d said, “I’ll be there,” tossed her phone on the bed and started to pack. Come hell or high water, she’d be there, just like they’d always been there for her. She grabbed her backpack, stuffed in some clothes and the case with her laptop, and was out the door.

It wasn’t all that far from UF in Gainesville to the Ocala forest; about 80 miles. An hour or so, two at most in bad weather, and this was sure-hell bad enough. She was already soaked to the skin, and her laptop would’ve been useless trash except for the waterproof case Mom and Dad had given her when she went off to college. Her clothes would need to go in the dryer, backpack and all, when she got in. Her copper hair slithered out of her hoodie and whipped in her face, and she raised a hand to tuck it back.

Not too much longer, now. There was the Silver Springs exit, lit up by another flash of lightning. Further away than the last strike, thank God. She took the exit ramp down, the cycle hitting every puddle and throwing up a rooster tail behind her. She pulled out slowly onto SR 40; there wasn’t any traffic at this late hour, but with the weather this bad it didn’t pay to be stupid.

The road went through Silver Springs, then wound around through a number of small towns. At one point she looked down at her gas gauge and blinked in dismay. When had it hit empty? There was a little mom-and-pop gas station on the outskirts of Mill Dam, and thank God it was still open. She pulled in under the roof over the gas pumps and turned off the cycle. The downpour thundered on the metal roof, drowning out any sound, and the lights turned the rain coming off the roof into a dancing silver curtain. She could barely see the store’s lights through the deluge.

She set the motorcycle up on its stand and dug through her pockets, looking for her phone. Would Dad have left the hospital yet? Was Mom okay? The phone was nowhere to be found. She started to reach for her backpack, and then had a flash of memory—the phone hitting the blanket on her bed. Shoot fire, she’d left the darn thing back in Gainesville. Well, she’d just have to do without. She’d hit home first, then decide which way to jump. If Dad wasn’t home, she could always call him from the trailer. She dug through her backpack for her wallet and pulled it out.

A car pulled in behind her. She glanced back at it; a sweet red Camaro, nice. She shifted the cycle up on its wheels to move it forward, giving the other vehicle plenty of room to reach the pumps without the driver getting wet. She pulled her credit card out of her wallet and swiped it through the reader, then put the wallet back in the backpack. God, she was tired. Worried.

Scared.

She hoped Mom would be alright. She couldn’t shake the bad feeling that had just come over her. What would they do if Mom—she refused to complete the thought. Instead, she put her hands on the small of her back and stretched, then twisted from side to side, easing her back from the tense ride. Behind her the driver got out of the Camaro and fiddled with his gas cap. She pulled her hood back and shook out her hair, then ran her fingers through to loosen the worst of the tangles. She heard the Camaro’s driver give a sharp intake of breath and looked over at him curiously. He was nondescript: medium height, medium brown hair, nothing to make him stand out except for his intent stare. She nodded at him with an uncertain smile and went back to filling her gas tank.

“Excuse me.” She turned and looked at him again, and saw that he had come closer. He had one hand out to her, a questioning gesture. “Do you know this area well?”

“Pretty well,” she said. “I’ve lived here all my life.”

“Oh, good.” He stepped forward again, and gestured. “I’m lost—at least, I think I’m lost. Can I get to Daytona from here?”

“Oh, sure,” she said and smiled again, then turned to point. Behind her she heard the scuff of a shoe, and then his arm came hard around her waist. His other hand rose and pressed something against her nose and mouth. She struggled, but his arms pinned her against him, and she suddenly felt dizzy, faint. Her knees went weak, and she started to fall. He turned his head into her damp curls and inhaled deeply.

You have such pretty hair.”

* * *

Welcome to Thanah

…AND if I’m going to do this, I should probably give you at least some idea of who Ari Dillon is. So here’s something that will give you a bit about her character. 

* * *

Month 2, day 35 – 75 days on Thanah

the House of the Black Dog: the halls

It was late afternoon, a few days later, in the back halls on the way to the dining hall. Ari heard them coming before she saw them; the scramble of running feet, the growl of angry young voices. She missed the first one skidding around the corner, a boy of about ten that she recognized from her newcomers group. She flung an arm out and caught the next one, the leader, another boy about two years older. He swung at her, startled; she caught his wrist in her other hand, then shook him once to get his attention. The rest of his pack came around the corner and skidded to a stop, shocked and uncertain.

Ari turned her head to look after the first boy, and whistled shrilly. He slowed and half turned, then stopped. “Come on back here,” she said. The boy whose arm she held tried to jerk out of her grasp, but she tightened her grip. “Come on,” she said, and headed for a bench against the wall. “I’m not going to hurt you, and I’m not going to get you in trouble. I just want you all to stand still long enough to answer a couple of questions. Think you can do that?”

The first boy stood off from the others, ready to run again if it looked necessary, but he jerked his head in a nod. The one she held looked sullen, but finally nodded also.

“Will you stay here if I let you go, or do I have to hold onto you?” He looked at her warily, but gave her a second nod. “I’ll take that to mean you’ll stay.” Ari let go of his arm and he stepped smartly back out of reach but stayed there. She smiled at him, then turned to the younger boy. “Gary, isn’t it?” At his nod, she went on. “Why were you running?”

“They were chasin’ me, they want to beat me up!”

She turned to the second boy. “What’s your name?” The boy avoided her glance. “Come on, I’m not going to bite you. It’s just a name. Mine’s Ari.”

“I know who you are.” His voice was sullen, his words dark with meaning.

“Oh, now, that sounds like someone’s been saying bad things about me.”

The boy’s chin jerked up in response, defiance in every line of his body. “You have a mean lover. He beats you up. It makes our House look bad!”

Ari sat back, at a total loss as to what to say. After a long moment she just shook her head. “It’s not a lover.”

“Then who is he? Why do you let him beat you?” The boy edged a little closer, curious.

She looked him in the eye, unhappy about the turn of the conversation but refusing to lie. “I can’t tell you that. But I have my reasons.”

“But he beats you!”

“And beating someone is bad?” Gods, a way back to the original subject and off of her, good.

“Well—” the boy looked confused. “Of course.” He looked around at his friends, looking for support. They shrugged and nodded.

“What were you going to do when you caught Gary, then?” The boy looked shocked for a moment, then uneasily took a step back from her. She nodded slowly. “Why?”

“Well, he’s—he’s not from here.”

“Neither am I. Would you want to beat me up, too?”

“Is that why your lover beats you? Because you’re not from here?”

Ari looked down for a moment, a shiver running through her. “No,” she said quietly. “That’s not why. And he’s not my lover. That would imply I had a choice.” She stopped, startled at her slip. “Let me ask you something.” The boy nodded, frowning, thinking about what she had said. “You know how we got here, right? The Gatherer’s ship?” The boy nodded again, his pack of friends echoing the motion. “You know they just took us, right? They didn’t ask if we wanted to come, they just took us. Took us away from our homes, from our friends, from our families. One minute we’re at home, and the next we woke up here.”

“That—that’s not true.” The boy’s eyes were wide and full of doubt.

She looked at him. “In everything you’ve heard about me, did you ever hear anyone say I lied?”

The boy gave her a defiant glare. “Drona says you’re a liar.”

Ari acknowledged that with a slow nod. “Governor Drona and I have some issues. I have no control over what he believes of me, but what he believes isn’t true. Does anyone else say that?”

His eyes narrowed, thinking that through. “No-o…”

“That’s because I don’t. Not to anyone. Not ever.” Ari turned to the younger boy. “Gary, did anyone ask your folks if they wanted to come here? Did anyone ask you?” He shook his head, his eyes too wide and his face too white. She turned to the other boys. “Does he look happy to be here?” They looked over at him, seeing his expression, and they looked back at her, slowly shaking their heads. Gently, she added, “He’s lost everything he’s ever known. Everyone he’s ever cared about. Just like all the rest of us newcomers. D’you think it’s helping, you saying he doesn’t belong?” She gestured at Gary. “Look at him! He knows he doesn’t belong here. Yet. But he’s here, now. He’s stuck here, he can’t go home again, not for years and years. Maybe never. Don’t you think he’d rather make friends, try to make a new home?”

As one, the group turned back and stared at him for a long moment. Abruptly the older boy walked over to Gary and stuck out his hand. “Hi,” he said, “I’m Pallas. Welcome to Thanah.”

Ari watched as the group crowded around Gary. Children were amazing, she thought. Honest. Refreshing. Cruel without a moment’s thought, open and generous the next.

The kicker came as the pack of boys were leaving. Pallas turned back from where Gary was chattering away to the other boys. “You should leave him, if he beats you,” he said in matter-of-fact tones. “There’s plenty of better lovers right here in the House. Like my big brother, Aeso. You should meet him.” He turned away as Ari’s jaw dropped.

* * *

 

Shadow into Light

A little more on Danny Ryder…

Month 6, day 1 – 201 days on Thanah

the House of the Black Dog: the balcony above the herb garden

Danny Ryder was in a hole. In a hole, and he knew it, because he’d dug it himself and climbed right in, eyes wide open. Dug himself a goddamn grave, closed his eyes to everything around himself and climbed right in. Christ, how could anyone be so stupid? That guy in his dream had been right: he’d had the perfect opportunity to make a change, to make it different, to make it better, and he’d gone right back to the same old, headed right back to run with the same kind of dogs who’d pissed on him before and made him the loser he always was.

Shit, goddammit—not true. He’d made himself the loser by choosing them.

Now he saw something he’d never thought to see, wanted something he’d never known existed, and he’d cut himself off from it by his own actions.

He stood in the shadows of the balcony as he had for the last few days, looking down on the garden below, watching the woman who sat alone under the old olive tree. The afternoon sun lit her copper hair like a halo, but her face was in shadow. There was just enough light reflecting back from the fountain for him to see her expression, and it was so stark and alone that he wondered how she could survive that way—and for a fleeting moment he wondered if his face looked like that. Something in his chest tightened, a sharp pain that settled in like a knot that wouldn’t go away, and his face twisted in utter disgust. What the fuck was he thinking?

He started to turn away when the woman moved, turned her face up to the sun, and he saw the glitter of tears on her cheeks, lines that took fire in the last of the sunlight.

He fell, and was lost.

* * *