Orphan-refugee Sigrun's 'pixies' have enemies; guilt and blame bedevil her adventures.
| "Little one, stop!" called the watchman who ran me from my first alley hideout.
I slowed my pace, taking a deep breath. "I'm not lighting any fires." I stopped and turned around.
Dust followed behind the Watchman, peeking at me, faking fear- totally different than his normal behavior. "She keeps it in her tunic. It's an ax. She's threatened me with it. Robbed Oliver of his chicken, she did."
"This true, little girl?"
"No." I did not want to explain about the chicken. It never occurred to me to lie about having Myrrha's cleaver. "I hunt spiders and stop brutes from bashing kid's skulls in."
He folded his arms and scowled. His voice went low and gravelly as he said, "You're going to have to give me the weapon."
My heart sunk. This watchman did not think me worthy of protecting myself. "That wouldn't be a good thing, sir, because'".
He kept his lips tight. "You see somebody getting bashed about, call the watch." Slowly, one word at a time, he reiterated his command:"Give'me'the'weapon."
I bit my lip. What could I do? I could not lash out against the man, even if he might be a tool for Dust. Far as he could tell, he had the right thing. One good blow to the leg would get me out of there, but even though I would get away, I owed him the respect of his office. "Please, no. I need it."
"Little girls don't have need of weapons in my town." He reached down to search me, and I bolted.
In four steps, he had me, pulled the cleaver out of my shirt.
I swore, squirming out of his grip.
He sounded disgusted. "You speak urganish? I knew I had the right of you. Mind who you spend your time with, kid."
"I won't have to, now." I stuck my chin out. "That's my inheritance you stole. Everything. I am dead now."
He softened. "You'll do fine, kid ' just avoid the urgans." He stuck the cleaver in a bag and dusted off his jacket.
Standing behind the watchman, Dust mocked my words. "'It ain't right, robbing.'" He stuck out his tongue. "Told you. We're kids, we gotta think about what we wanna do."
He meant, 'You should have thought of this before you let the boy live.' I shrugged. "Better mind who you spend time with, yourself, watchman. Dust'll blow doom in your face before you know it." I imagined how easily Dust could put the watchman to sleep, hurt him, maybe even kill: I shuddered.
"Off with you, now." The watchman seemed satisfied that he had done a good deed.
Dust showed his teeth, a hateful grin. "You heard him, dumb girl. Off with you."
I heard Ker's voice in my head now. "All thorga: easy pickings." He pointed out the other people's purses.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and continued on. I knew I could run, but sooner or later hunger would take me. Was it going to be steal or die? Feeling numb, I figured that might be alright. By then, death felt familiar, an old friend that I could turn to in my time of need.
Just then I saw an inn. The food smelled sour and burned, little better than the rat-spiders. I walked in.
Men of a different sort sat there. All had weapons, and scars. Some had armor. Here and there, I could see a slight glow coming from blades, peeking out of the sheath; carried not by the richest or best dressed, but whoever had been lucky enough to find one, in a lost city or a monster's lair. Here one found the the danger men, the troublemakers, the adventurers. They burned with reckless hope. I breathed a sigh of relief: I had found my people.
A man walked out with two mugs and set them on a table.
"Excuse me?" I walked up behind him.
"You got money, take a table," he said, not even looking at me. "Otherwise, go steal somewhere else."
"I'd rather, um, not." Why did everybody think I was a thief? I could stand the reputation, but the thought of stealing upset me. I'd rather die than steal, but, best not tell how far I'd go.
"What, go somewhere else?" He laughed, his huge belly rumbling. I knew I could fit in here. "I can tell that, but this is my place, and you don't have one here." He plopped down the mugs, slopping all over the table.
I ducked under his arm as he turned around. "I mean, I'd rather not steal. Maybe you can help me with that, the not-stealing? I used to help Aunt Myrrha in her kitchen."
"You any good at it? Cooking, I mean?"
He laughed, and slapped me on the shoulder. "Good. I wouldn't want to confuse my customers!" He bent over to meet me eye-for-eye. "But tell me. You're not afraid of these men?"
I snorted in spite of myself. Sarcastically, I answered. "What, Thorga? Humans, I mean. Yeah, I'm scared of humans. Ooh." I never heard anything so silly. Sure, these people play hard, but not for real. I could not imagine a human doing anything that would scare me.
He grabbed my chin and gazed into my eyes until my skin crawled. "You're one of us, aren't ya? Adventurers." His green eyes looked me up and down. "The people who live in the wilderness and camp in the city from time to time."
"Whatever." I shrugged off whatever carnival trick he tried to work on me. That described mother and Myrhha, not me. I had to admit one thing: the people here made a lot more sense to me. "You got work, and you got food. What's it going to be?" I wandered around, tracing the rough stone on the walls with my fingers, and barged into the kitchen.
Inside, to my horror, a huge, white-skinned, urgan-faced man hacked at a slab of meat.
"Take out of kitchen, rat child!" He yelled in a fake urgan accent. The cook waved his butcher knife as he stomped toward me, his leg as big as my chest.
I wanted to run, but that would end me. He would let me go, and I would starve without this job. "Says who, exactly?"
"I say," yelled the cook, stomping toward me.
I tried to defend my actions, but it came out as a question. "Well, this man here- he just hired me?" Didn't he? My tough act washed away in the stream.
"Oh! Him did?" The cook sounded like a boy playing urgan. He he laughed. "That suren nice."
"I'm sorry, Briggen! I didn't hire the kid. I was going to..."
"No mind, Logan," Briggen told the human barkeep. He swung at Logan's chest, but only with half the force he should have used. "I like her. You mind working for a pigsnout?" He brought his smashed in, urganish snout up to my face.
"So I got the job? If you don't like me, I hear us little ones make the best roast. Till then, I'm all kinds of ."
Logan blanched, looked about ready to be sick. I could not tell if who upset him more, me or Briggen. Maybe both. Meanwhile, Briggen turned seven shades darker, snatched me up and pinned me against the wall with one hand on my shoulder. "What kind of lowly cur do you take me for? Who exactly do you think I am, that you can spew that noise in my kitchen with no consequence?"
I held my breath and looked him in the eyes until my head wanted to pop.
"The things the urgan marauders did to my mother!" he said, spitting in rage. With his free hand, he waved his finger in stabbing motions at my belly to accent each word. "You shall never speak another word of that infernal noise in my presence. Do you understand or are you as intellectually blighted as an urgan warrior-priest?"
"Uh, yessir." I tried to swallow, but my throat ran dry.
Briggen smiled, sort of, and set me down. Calm again, he resumed the fake urgan talk. "I Briggen, this be Logan. Take soup, take room." He indicated the stairs.
"Clean up before come for work."
"Yessir!" I ran upstairs, empty handed.
I found an empty room, and slammed the door behind me. I found myself searching for secret places, somewhere to hide. The bedding was straw in a box. My eyes filled with tears and my hands were shaking. A half-urgan giant lumbered downstairs, probably planning to fatten me up for his lunch.
"Hush, piglet," Ker said, or would have. "This no time appear weak. Briggen want know if can trust you. Try break you with words."
I took a towel and wiped my face dry. "Huh?"
"Something Ker father teach," Ker said. "Great emperor of urga said. Destroy everything, trust only remains."
"A huma use little wire for sword, call it 'rapier." Ker laughed. "It kill for huma, but urga know better. His weapon, he bash against stone for three days before use in battle. No break when needed."
"I don't understand," I said, washing myself as best as I could in the dampness of my tears. Where is all this coming from? I can't be making all this up, can I?
"Briggen try scare Sigrun," Ker said. "Only to see if Sigrun want to work."
"What kind of silliness is that? He can tell if I want to work, by seeing if I do."
Ker huffed at that. "Briggen human, but not." He walked out through the wall. "He afraid, he test."
"That's really stupid."
Ker nodded. "Urga too stupid to die." With that, daydream Ker disappeared.
I couldn't believe my luck. My life depended on the whims of a half-urgan cook. I looked around at the room I had chosen. I saw depressing, grey stone walls and a box of straw to sleep in. It might as well have been a prison.
Maybe he hoped to fatten me for slaughter. Do urgans do that? Not to humans: might catch our human ways. But Briggen was half human... I sighed, and sat down on the edge of the box. There was no reason to continue this line of thought. I was thorgabent, all the way to the bone. I had no way forward, but to beg for mercy — without actually appearing weak.
I flopped backward onto- into- the 'bed' for a much needed rest.
It wasn't long before the dream began. My twin advisers, Mack and Ker, stood before me there, in Briggen's tavern, right where I lay. "I'm sorry, Mack," I said. "I have tried and tried, but I can't think what to do. There's no help for it."
"Think harder," Ker said.
"I did," I said. "I couldn't stop you from hurting Mack. Nobody could."
"I told you, you've been asking the wrong question." Mack shook his head. "Come on, you've got this one."
Ker snorted. "Vengeance what piglet need. Briggen rich. Much money. Have to sleep sometime. It safe, he think Sigrun thorgabent."
"Robbing isn't right."
"No robbing." Ker paced around the room, looked at me out the side of his eyes. "Wereguid, human word for tax on killing. Kill Briggen for not pay."
Mack put his head in his hand, frowning at Ker's message. "You know in your heart what is right. There's nothing else for it."
When at last I had rested enough to drag myself down to the kitchen, Briggen snorted. "Good. No listen a word I said." He smiled, half mad, and handed me two mugs of ale. "Now give these: table by door. Move!"
Ker must be right; Briggen was testing me. I took the cups, which weighed like barrels, out to the table. My heart stopped. For a moment it looked like Myrrha and Mack back from the dead. The woman had red hair and a dark, chocolate brown cloak over her studded leather armor. The man had Mack's strong chin and dancing green eyes. I put the drinks on the rough hewn table, for the mercenaries to drink.
"Here, little Sigrun, this is for you." She passed me a few copper coins.
My breath stopped; my hands shook. I had seen the woman only once, as she passed by Mack's farm. She had told Myrrha to leave me somewhere, because they needed her and Mack. These warriors called Mack and Myrrha friends. I wanted to ask them if they knew what had happened to my aunt and uncle, to ask them why they couldn't have helped.
That would be wrong. I knew the answer: they weren't there. Nobody had been.
Completely unseen, ignored, I stumbled back, out the door.
"Don't do this to yourself, little one," Mack's voice came from behind. He wanted me to forget worrying about what had happened to him.
"But, I don't know what else to do!" He wanted me to move on, I guessed. "I can't, I won't just let this go."
A few people looked at me for a moment, and shrugged.
He stood up, cocked his ear to the left. "Did you hear that?" Mack said.
I hadn't heard it then, barely heard it the second time. It sounded like the piglet Dust and I had hunted. It might have been my imagination, but I turned toward it.
Ker stood in front of me, in my imagination, his eyes slitted. "No! Help no help an urga. Better piglet die."
Again Ker pointed the wrong way- or is Ker trying to 'test' me with his words? I rushed through him and ran down an alley. I could hear the boy crying and begging.
At last I found a circle of people, with the watchman in the center. I pushed to the front, and saw the piglet. Dust stood over him like a conquering lord.
"Pignorant beast," the watchman said, wielding my cleaver over the boy's head. "How dare you invade our town, and prey on helpless humans?"
"But, honor, I try just survive," he said, blubbering. "I all alone, but I didn't prey on this boy."
"I can attest to that!"
"Silence, pig lover," the watchman said. "We are conducting justice here."
"Justice? Is that what you call it when you believe the word of a lying, thieving snake because he's human?" I stepped into the circle. "Well, I am human, and I tell you, Dust is the dangerous one."
Dust smiled, a real smile, proud of my words.
The watchman's face tightened, and he spoke with a tone of accusation, pointing at my heart. "You would say that. I heard the words you used! Urganish tongue." He turned away from me. "Now, beast, do you have any last words?"
He tried to speak, but all that came out were sobs and blubbering, just like me, mere days before.
"Then, I pronounce sentence. For robbery on a human, theft, and invasion, I hereby sentence you to death befitting your ancestry."
I gasped. Death? For the same crimes I was accused of? I looked around in horror at the people: Worthless peasants, every one of you! Will no one else protest? The others all seemed hypnotized by hate. I screamed for him. "This is not a trial! You don't — you have no right to be dispensing justice without a trial."
"We are at war with the urgans." The watchman paused to let his proclamation settle. "Any citizen has the right to pass judgment on our enemies." He chopped at the boy's skull, driving him to his knees.
"No!" I cried, running to him, to catch him. Sure, the half-urgan boy probably did a lot of bad things, but this was no better.
I held him and cried. He took my hand, and squeezed it in thanks.
The watchman snorted like Briggen. "How lucky you are, child. The judgment against sympathizers is harsher still." He sniffed, and looked out at the crowd. "Justice is done. Nothing more to see." The adults began to walk away.
I heard Ker's voice in front of me, unusually soft. "You have your answer."
I sniffed between sobs. "What answer?"
" Whose job is it," Mack explained, laying his hand on my shoulder for support, "to stand up, to defend the weak."
"But, this? This isn't enough. He's still dying."
" That is the job," Ker said.
"Surely, surely there's more." I knelt, and held the the dying boy.
I felt Mack grab my hand, and pull it to cover the boy's wound. "With the will, comes the way. Make him well."
It hurt to touch his wound. I felt the sharp pain of the boy's wound in my hand, and something in me bled into him. When I could no longer feel his pain, I removed my hand. The wound was smaller, scabbed over; the bleeding slowed to a trickle. He breathed smoother. Still, he lay limp in my arms. I feared he would not last the night.
"Sigrun!" Corielle called. She and Ben rushed to us. Ben took me. Corielle took the boy, pulling us apart and loading us onto their wagon. A rock hit my head; small stones rained everywhere. Dust had assembled a mob of urchins and orphans, who did not take kindly to what I had done.
"I think we've offended them," Corielle said, with a naughty smile, and Ben shook the reins.
"How ... ?"
"Your guides alerted me." She fell silent, as if that answered the question.
Ben and Corielle drove the wagon down that crowded street as well as they could, easily getting away from the angry children.
Corielle tapped his heart with the back of her hand. "Stop here, Ben."
"Are you sure?" Ben pulled the horses to stop. "We stand to lose the wagon."
She looked around at the passers-by. "I'll make it up to you." She brushed his arm. "We've got to get the kids to safety."
He cut the horses loose, and carried us inside the building.
Inside the ruined building was a staircase, leading to a candle-lit hall that immediately felt like home. Mack and Ker walked beside Corielle and Ben as they carried us down the hall.
She took the unconscious, half-urgan piglet to a table that, in my minds eye, glowed pink. I could feel a warm humming all over my skin I could not describe. "Unbleeding?" I muttered; the word felt right.
Corielle's eyes smiled again, and she brushed my lips with her finger to silence me, then raised my hand, much as Mack's image had done, and placed it on the boy.
"Push," she said.
So I pushed down on the boy, who squirmed under my touch.
Corielle laughed, lightly. "With your heart. Like before."
My head felt weird for a moment.
Mack's spirit said, "Not your head. Feel what you want for him, and let the rest happen."
I didn't understand, but decided to go along. I focused on the boy, and how I wanted him to get stronger. The humming, 'unbleeding' power flowed from the table, through me, into the boy.
"Watchgirl!" He put his hand on mine. "Thank you, for standing up for me. Nobody did that, before."
As quickly, his eyes drooped closed.
"He's very tired, but... he may yet live." Corielle pulled me away from the others, including the daydreams of Mack and Ker. "We've done all we can, the rest is his decision. Come, I need to talk to you."
We sat down on a bench across the room, away from the candles and the table. I stared at her eyes, the green of spring, of leaves in the wind. "You make people well?"
"The people here seek to heal. That's why they come."
"Did you come to make me well?"
She pursed her lips. "Do you understand what your guide said to you, about how you have your answer?"
I wondered how she heard what my imaginary Ker and Mack had said, wanted to object that they weren't real, but that would wait. I felt around inside myself. "I'm still sad and angry and confused about Mack and Myrrha." I paused to think again. "But after helping that boy, the world doesn't seem so broken."
Corielle sighed with relief. "I'm glad to hear that, Sigrun. I have a feeling you're going to be something very special, something we've never seen." Not someone special, but something; I wondered what she was getting at. She patted my knee. "Remember, little warrior, you have taken only a step. The journey takes many seasons, outlasts us all."
In flickering torchlight, at the end of the hall, I caught a glimpse of the orange-haired woman, shaking her head at me before turning and disappearing into the darkness. I wanted to ask Corielle if she saw Dust's guide, too, but realized that this fire-haired spirit could not reach us.
A hundred years had passed through me after the death of Mack, Myrrha and Ker. My dizzy head could fathom only the smallest part. Feeling old, and yet safe for the first time since, I leaned against Corielle. My eyes watered and I fell asleep
Appendix: Not part of the story: "Sigrun's Oath." "Appendix/Epilogue: Sigrun's Oath"
Sigrun explains how she came to form the Oath that gives her life meaning.