Orphan-refugee Sigrun's 'pixies' have enemies; guilt and blame bedevil her adventures.
| Everybody in the main streets moved too fast and frowned too much for me to approach. When finally I could run no more, I found a shady alley, filled with broken crates, crawling with rats. I approved: solitude promised this orphan girl safety, because I knew what to do. Nobody could hurt me — unless I had friends. I curled up beneath one of the crates, closed my eyes.
When I awoke rain had washed away my tears and soaked my clothes.
I noticed that Myrrha's meat cleaver had nicked me. I looked at it, like I'd never seen my own blood before. "I have to be more careful with that." I also wondered if Ker had become my kin, my blood brother. Maybe the tragedy of the day before had already done that.
In front of me, the fat little rich boy, Oliver, walked past my alley, carrying a piece of chicken. My stomach growled fiercely at the sight of food. He saw my knife and turned white as a ghost. "D-don't hurt me!" He threw me the chicken. "Y-you can have it."
I caught it and he ran.
"No!" I yelled, chasing him, my legs aching with the effort. "This belongs to you."
He stopped. "Really?"
"Sure, be stupid." My stomach turned in knots. How long had it been since the meal with Corielle? It felt like days; I really needed the food. That boy looks kind of fat, he could do without, could do with the exercise of chasing me... But, no. I would not spend my honor for a meal. "I mean, it's not right, robbing." I reached out with the chicken.
"Why did you have your ax out?" Oliver stood as far from me as possible, reaching out to take the chicken.
He scowled, as he gingerly accepted his food. "Oh — very good then." He ran again.
I watched him leave, glad he didn't see the look in my face. "Good riddance." I licked my fingers, moaning.
Then, a dirty, fat, young man in heavy leather two sizes too big for him lumbered up behind me. "I heard that, little one." He slapped a club against his scarred left hand. "If it's not right robbing, you'll not be needing the blade, will you?"
"Oh, yes, I will!" I ran around him.
He ran a few steps before realizing that I had already gone too far for him to catch. "Don't let me catch you 'round here! I'll take your ax and wallop you one for running."
I ran a long time before I could rest again, and found my broken crate. Nobody there but little rats and the rat spiders. Giant red spiders, the size of pigeons at least, climbing up and around the walls, looking for rats and birds to jump on to. Never seen so many, out on the farm, but Myrrha had taught me how to cook them. My stomach growled angrily as the spiders ran up the wall, beyond easy reach.
I spotted one that crawled low. I pounced, striking a foot too low with my cleaver. I slipped and fell in the muddy street, and could not reach my knife.
I jumped a time or two before I grabbed it.
"Hey, who's doing all that banging on my wall?"
I ran behind a corner, and peeked at the man who had come to check.
"Yeah, I thought as much. Now, don't be doing that!" He looked at the cut in the wall, then down at my crate. He frowned, then grabbed it and dragged it off with him. "Crazy little urchins, don't know what's good for em. They ought to...."
I moaned, "No." I kicked up some mud. It didn't keep the rain off, or anything, but how many homes did a girl need to lose in two days?
The pain in my gut made me chase the rats again, like a sick cat. I didn't catch any, but kept chasing until I couldn't move. Whether from despair or fatigue, I don't know, but eventually I chose to sit and starve rather than keep hunting.
Soon the rats decided that I no longer threatened them, and started wandering by me. The spiders continued to hunt, occasionally catching a rat. One of the rats, a white and black fellow, crawled up on my leg. He reminded me of a kitten. A foot above my head, a spider crawled, ready to pounce on my kittenish rat. I clutched my cleaver, and hacked the spider against the wall as it leaped.
The thing got away, but I clipped two of its legs.
Rat spider legs had been the best part. My stomach growled so much, I wanted to eat right away, but I made myself wait until I had started a little campfire. I gathered the leaves and some bits from around. I knew how to start a fire. Myrrha couldn't afford flint sticks all the time, let alone the wizard twigs that rich folk like Ben and Corielle used. So after figuring how to keep the fire safe, I knew how to light it up. Using the cleaver as a pan, I balanced the food on it.
Then, I bit in.
I had never tasted anything so foul. City rat-spiders burned the tongue, not like Myrra's forest catch, and my cooking made them worse. I wanted to be sick, but the will to live held the 'food' inside me. It seemed right. A castoff like me should eat such things.
"Hey, you there! You can't be starting fires." A man in a dark blue suit stamped out my little fire. "Now get out of here, you dirty varmint."
I nodded and scampered away, as fast as I could, dragging an eerie calm along like a prisoner's ball chained to my feet.
The watchman shrugged, with no interest in chasing. "Don't let me catch you lurking around here." He waved a club at me, like a giant finger rather than a weapon. "You get on home, or whatever."
When I settled down, I found myself on a dusty balcony that looked like only birds had used it for years. I looked down on the people walking by, all big and angry and moving too fast. I smiled at them, the thorga of Balthispeare, every one as human as I had been, living with my aunt and uncle.
As I thought of my aunt and uncle, heads skewered on a pike like a shishkebab, it made me sick. I wanted to scream at the sky, at the man in the blue suit, at everybody. I couldn't find any right person. I searched my memory: could I find nobody to blame? Important jobs like stopping tragedy, that can't belong to nobody. But who? In answer, I found only a hunger in my heart and head. So I kept asking, and every time I asked, it growled more: who failed? Who should have stepped in to rescue Mack and Myrrha? Who owned that job?
I leaped up to my abandoned balcony, carrying my handful of spider meat. I could safely light my fire on the stone floor, away from the eyes of the watchmen. I speared the meat on a stick, then kindled a fire. It stank bad and tasted worse, but I welcomed the pain in my gut with grim satisfaction. In fact, I could have found far better rat-spider meat. I chose the worst of the lot.
The rich boys passed by this place after buying their treats from the strange man at the end of the row. I made a game of watching. I whispered, so they would not hear. "You dumb little kid!" I said to Oliver, who kept his head down, lost in thought. "Don't you see how easy you make it?"
He didn't see me, or Dust, the wiry street boy sneaking up to him.
I yelled over the balcony. "Hey, dumb kid! Run!"
The fat boy stopped, looking around.
Dust ran up behind his victim and snatched the bag. He gave me an approving gesture and yelled up at me. "Nice work, dumb girl!"
I put my head in my hands. Sure, the other way hurt, but you don't have to prey on other kids. The fat boy chased, about one step for every three that Dust took. Oliver shook his head and walked home.
My fire sputtered in time with the fading sunlight. Few lights would come on, and shadows welcomed the human predators. Everybody who could find a place to hide, took shelter. I leaned back, and grief gripped me. I saw myself standing over the three heads, begging them to tell me, who to blame. "Who do I complain to?"
I heard scrambling, and a blond head poked over the wall of my balcony. "Hey, dumb girl." Dust jumped over, stepping in the last embers of my dying fire.
As he stamped out my fire, I felt a chill. For that instant, I imagined him to be the enemy of light. "Get out of here. This is my place."
"Oh yeah? Well, that there street? My place. Who do you think you are, the Watch?"
"You didn't have to steal from him. It isn't nice."
"What do you know." He kicked a few embers. "Oliver gets the good stuff every day. Not going to hurt him." He smiled at me. "He could share with both of us."
"Doesn't make it right."
"What isn't right, is you and your nose in my business." He wagged his finger, like the watch man's baton. "What isn't right, is rich boys running around like they own everything, getting everything they want."
"All I know, robbing isn't right." I leaned back. "You don't have to do it."
"It's not your job to stop me, girly girl."
I shrugged. "Whatever."
"It didn't hurt him." His argument made sense, but it felt like Dust wished he could harm Oliver. I imagined something hovering over Dust's shoulder, coaching him what to say, an imaginary friend like Ker, but with hair of flame and eyes of emerald. They spoke in unison: "He's not going to bed hungry."
I thought of my own stomach, and I figured this boy had the same problem. "Yeah, maybe you're right. Just get out of here, please."
"Hey, it's your belly you're leaving empty." He shrugged. "Whatever. You leave me alone, from now on."
I lay down and turned my back to him. "No promises."
I heard hurt feelings in his voice. "Watch your back, then, girly girl." Dust slipped back down.
I rolled my head against the cold stone of the balcony, and thought back to the stack of three heads. Sometimes I asked Mack, sometimes Myrrha. That night, I even asked Ker: who was supposed to make sure that he behaved right when he visited his so-called 'friends.'
But he never answered. I screamed for the answer over and over again in my head until my eyes filled with tears, and burned me to sleep.
I was back in the kitchen with Myrrha and Mack, only this time each was on its own spike. I knew it was a dream, but decided to ask them.
"This wasn't supposed to happen."
Mack said, "No, it wasn't."
"But who should do that? Make it stay right? You couldn't, Ker couldn't. Who then?"
"Oh, Sigrun, don't you see? You shouldn't be asking that."
I screamed,"Ha!" I threw the cleaver at the wall like a hatchet. "It's all I live for, all I have! I need the answer. It's eating me alive!"
"Oh, Sigrun, don't you see? That's why you have to stop."
"Then what? What do I do?"
As if in answer, rocks hit the wall of my sanctuary. "Dumb girl!" A voice came, from outside the dream.
I stirred, but did not respond.
"Watchgirl!" Dust yelled at me again, poking his head over the wall of my balcony. He threw a rock in my face, hard enough to sting.
My head ached as I tried to blink away the sleep. "What do you want?"
"Ready to play, Watch Commander?"
I rubbed my eyes, blinking away the fire-haired woman I dreamed floating in the air behind Dust. "What are you talking about?"
"We've got a problem on our block."
Dust led me through several alleys to a dark corner where two other boys waited. I recognized them: Oliver, the little fat boy with the bag of treats, and Collen, the big one with the club.
"I thought I told you to stay out!" Collen waved his gnarled, blood spattered club.
"Well, I'm not going to run away this time, big guy." I concealed my cleaver under my shirt even as I readied it. I figured I could stop his club with a good chop, maybe even break it.
Dust smacked Collen in the back of the head. "Hold, enough, Collen. She's one of us."
"Don't know, Dust," Collen said, thumping his club. "Looks a little too new to me."
"We have bigger bugs to burn." Dust shuffled his ragged sleeves and pranced around. "I for one am not letting them pig-faced brutes move in on our neighborhood."
My heart drummed in rhythm with Dust's words, my own tribal beat. I cried, much too loud, "Urgans!" I pulled my cleaver, looking around like a mad woman.
Collen smiled his approval.
"Hold it there, dumb girl." Dust poked me in the chest. The boy reminded me of Ker, boiled down, with all the good taken out. One look from him, and you wondered if he really meant to give you even one chance to live. "You might have noticed, we're a bunch of kids. We need to think."
I nodded. I felt a chill in my arms, and my voice went low and cold. I imagined a bunch of urgan warriors bashing about, big as horses and leaving a trail of suffering in their wake. "Don't get between me and their fat necks, we'll be okay."
The others nodded approval, but not Dust. "Told you. She's a real stand up, a junior watchgirl." He showed his teeth, like an angry dog.
"Oh! You're the one that tried to warn me." Oliver smiled at me.
My cheeks burned. I had made it easier for Dust. "Sorry I couldn't be more help."
Dust pinched Oliver's cheek. "I'm not. Oliver here has to pay his bit." His lips stayed tight, white. "Don't you, Oliver?"
"Ah, it's okay," Oliver said, shrugging. "You know, I really didn't need it."
"So what's the writ?" I asked. Oliver's shoes looked like they could buy everything the other two had, and Oliver didn't look like he could keep up. "You don't seem like the kind that lets Oliver tag along."
Dust nodded. "Half-urgan scum in the neighborhood. They're his enemy, more than ours."
Collen laughed and slapped Oliver in the back. "He's gonna be bait!"
"Oh, dear, yes." Oliver tried to laugh, but looked at me with pleading eyes. "Please help, Watch Girl." His face turned pale and his feet pointed away from the group, like he wanted to run.
"You really up for this, kid?" I stroked his shoulder like a spooked horse.
"Of'—" he paused for a moment as the lie stuck in his throat, "course! I am dedicated. I d-don't fancy pigs roasting me on a stick!"
I looked him in the eye, and wondered if it would be okay.
I could hear Mack saying, "I don't like it either, but he's agreed. Man makes his own decisions. Even a young man."
So I nodded, and gave him a pat on the back. "Good man. Guess you're tougher than you look."
Oliver puffed out his chest and smiled.
"So, you've been doing our thinking?" I looked at Dust, and raised my eyebrows, ignoring the fire-haired spirit I imagined behind him.
"Oliver here buys a big bag of goodies, and walks around. The bag ain't big enough, we pad it up."
"Then I bash 'em till they run at you and Dust, Watch Girl." Collen slapped Oliver on the back, sending him stumbling forward. "I'll have 'em squealing and slipping in the mud."
"You'd better be sure about this, Sigrun," Mack said. "Doesn't sound honorable."
Dust scoffed. "I say it's the most honorable thing I ever heard."
I visualized us, four little kids, against Ker's men. It looked daring, heroic even. I shrugged. "All right, I'm in."
Dust and Collen put their hands together. I joined and Oliver put his hand on top. This time, Dust actually smiled, and a chill ran down my spine. "Let's do this thing, like real men do."
Hours later we hid at our market place. Dust and I skulked in one corner. Collen seemed to think nobody saw him standing in the other corner. People went about their business. A dirty old lady in rags shooing the younger kids away from me and Dust. Oliver walked around and around with his silly bag, reading from a little scroll and saying things like, "I hope somebody doesn't steal my wonderful treats!" From across the square, I could smell the sweat on him.
I shook my head in frustration. "Are you sure the pigs really came to town?" It occurred to me that the watch wouldn't let that happen, but I shook off the thought.
His voice purred. "Oh, yeah. The beasts arrived. Glory awaits."
I felt another chill, and gave Dust a hard look. We planned an ambush: dirty business, no matter the cause. "I have a bad feeling about this."
"Sorry about getting your uniform dirty, Watch. You're either with us, or you're against us."
When it came to urgans, I had to be against them. I shrugged. "Pigmen have to be stopped."
Suddenly, I saw him. An ugly little half-pig boy, a full head shorter than Collen, wandering around the market looking a little dazed when he saw Oliver. I never saw such an underfed urgan in my life.
Suddenly he ran, unarmed, at Oliver, tackling him and grabbing his bag.
Oliver grabbed the scroll and squeaked out some words. A blob of frost leaped out of his fingers and wrapped around the piglet's ankles, sending him sprawling.
"Got you, pig!" Collen ran over and bashed at the half-urgan's head.
"Stop!" He tried to cover his head as he scrambled to get back up.
Collen beat him a couple more times on the head. Black blood oozed all over his face by the time he got up and ran past me, forgetting all about Oliver and the bag.
Dust produced a pipe, and blew something in his face.
At that, the piglet fell face down, coughing and snorting for the time it takes a leaf to fall from just over your head. His head rolled back, and he began to snore.
Dust rolled him over and looked at me. "You wanted his neck."
Mack looked sternly at me and the poor piglet beneath my cleaver.
My stomach burned. In my desperation, I had ignored the signs, but no more. I
had come to die fighting urgan warriors, not cut down unarmed street urchins. "No."
Dust motioned for Collen to make the kill.
My voice broke into a whine. "He's just a kid. You can't. Not like this!"
Dust snorted. "You some kind of pig lover?"
My voice echoed Myrrha's screams. "No! -but, this is not the way."
With a shrug, Dust motioned at Collen, who smirked as he raised his club over the boy's head.
Oliver looked away, a sickened, fake grin on his face.
I shook my head at Collen.
Dust rolled his eyes and made a slicing gesture over his throat.
Collen brought the club down. I had only a split second to react, so I hacked at the log, jamming my cleaver in it. The force of the blow drove me to my knees and wrenched the cleaver out of my hands. My maneuver spared the piglet a killing blow, but I didn't know how long.
Dust hissed, the most hateful whisper I had ever heard. "Serious? Okay, you win. We let him live, and put everything he does on your head."
Oliver tugged at his collar. "Um, he looks hurt real bad. Maybe he'll learn his lesson."
"An idiot like you, never will be a wizard, Oliver. No matter what happens, the only thing an urga will learn is that he'd better hit harder and faster. But whatever. I'm done with you, Watch. If I can't kill me a pig, I can get me a pig farmer." He pointed both fingers at me.
I pulled my cleaver from Collen's ruined club.
Collen snorted, imitating Dust with the fingers. "You heard me!"
Dust turned his back on us, deliberately not watching our movements. He meant this gesture as an insult, a comment on my powerlessness to hurt him. I laughed, did not value the kind of respect he denied me. Collen followed after him like a gigantic baby chicken.
Oliver bowed at me, and backed away, still tugging his collar. He wanted to thank me, even help the poor piglet, but feared Dust.
Which left me and the piglet alone.
Urgans only get more brutal as they age: I should have put him down. But, I could feel Mack's grey eyes on me. "Mack! I have to do something!"
I saw what he would do, what Mack always did when I wanted to do wrong: he would look at me, with eyes that approved of me as a person, had faith that I would do right.
I swore under my breath and put the cleaver away.
That instant, the piglet woke, throwing his hands up in fear.
"Calm down. I'm not going to hurt you."
"You not kill?"
"Not today." I offered my hand to help him up. "I came to fight an urgan war party, not a starving kid."
"I saw hate in your eyes."
"Ker's men killed my aunt and uncle. But you're not them. I wish you were."
The piglet took my hand. "Mother say you are thorgabent," he said, standing. "Cursed, sickened to weakness. Too much time among humans."
"She's probably right." I looked to the left of the piglet. "But, understand. I speak urgan as well."
The piglet snorted.
"Tho! Ha, mek medkek." I slapped him in the chest with my whole arm, with a loud crack. Medkek: bloody, bruised and eager to listen.
He ducked and ran. When he got far enough away to dodge a flying cleaver, he turned and smiled, giving me kind of an urgan-style 'thumbs up.' Then he howled, and in broken urgan, he said, "I one owes you."
Under my breath, I said, "Just don't tell the locals. It's the last thing I need," and put my hand on my forehead, probably blushing.
Right then, I felt an egg hit the back of my head. I turned and saw a cute little boy glaring at me. "Pig farmer." He ran.
"But, he wasn't hurting anybody!" I yelled, like I was in some kind of court. "Maybe I am thorgabent, but that's not the way you do things."
The poor old woman that cared for the lost children walked up to me, and pulled a comb through my hair with some water and a rag. "He's right, you know. It ain't right. Pigs don't belong here."
Before she finished, I pulled away, out of the need to make a statement. "Maybe I don't belong, either." I moped along the walkway. Over the voices and the wagon wheels, I heard music in the distance, strings ringing out much like Ben's, and some kind of flute. Their beauty reflected and mixed with the sadness I felt, walking about with no purpose except to put the past behind me. I wondered if the town, or even the world, had a place for me. I wondered if I would ever get the answer to the one question that mattered, if anybody knew. Korog and Ker had broken the world, thrown all things out of balance. The blame threatened to eat my heart if I kept it, but I could not find its home. Who was supposed to help Mack and Myrrha?
Read on:"Part 3. The Change you Wish to See"