by Andrea Craig
Being a marshal in a high fantasy western is a bit rough.
The scruffy, bushy browed bartender poked at her shoulder with the end of a broom. Eileen hunched over her whiskey, still half full. It was her third glass but she wasn’t even buzzed yet. She didn’t answer the bartender, insistent on getting at least tipsy tonight. Her money was good, so it shouldn’t matter to him what she did here.
“Ma’am, you’re bleeding all over the counter.”
She reached up and touched her face, the cold metal of her fingers stinging the rough edges of her cut flesh. When she looked, the greyish metal had turned red.
“Also you can’t leave that body there,” he pointed the broomstick at the body laying face down on the floor, bleeding out from a broken beer bottle stuck in his neck. Eileen twisted around to look. Oh, that fucker. Yeah, that guy was an asshole. “It’s spookin’ my customers.” ‘Customers’. There was no one here but her, the stiff, and the dirty kid in rags standing by the door. He must have just stepped in.
A smile curled across her black lips, revealing a few razor sharp canines as she turned back toward the bartender. “Sorry ‘bout that,” she answered coolly, swirling her drink in it’s glass, “I can take care of that in the morning.”
“Ya can take care of it now, bitch.”
No respect here. Eileen sighed and rubbed her live hand across her face, smearing the red blood across the brown skin. “All right, all right.” She sat up and reached under her poncho to scratch her chest. Honestly she shouldn’t even be drinking in here. She was on the job, technically, even if it was three in the morning and she was in Von Rue, where her house was.
She grabbed her hat off the counter and sat it on her head.
“Be sure to take the cold guy with ya,” the bartender insisted, jabbing his gnarled, piss-yellow-fingernail at the bloodied guy. Still pumping blood out of his neck so he couldn’t be that cold.
Even so, she shrugged her shoulders, her hands falling down to her hips, “Did you think about what you’re gonna tell Cody?” She grabbed her glass again and knocked back the rest of her drink. It burned as it went down—this guy made a damn good drink. Made her a bit sad, actually, considering…
“Thought you were gonna talk to him?”
Eileen glanced over at the body on the floor again. Then back at the nameless bartender. “That a serious question, cher?”
Bartender took a step back, his face contorting and eyes widening into saucers. One could see the regret all over his face for his dumbshit rhetoric from before. “Well, I—”
“None a’ the Warlords can just ‘talk’ to Cody. He ain’t like that— we ain’t like that,”
“Eileen…” he let out a shuddering, broken breath, “We—we got history. You been here for a few years already. Zuhra’s been treatin me and my wife…”
She didn’t let him go on, hand resting on the gun on her hip. “For sure, for sure. But here’s what ya’ll didn’t understand—” She whipped the gun out and stuck the barrel between his eyes, waiting just long enough to see him flinch before pulling the trigger. A loud bang cracked through the air and his head snapped back, a red spray spattering onto the wall of liquor behind him. Bartender’s body slammed into the wall, the glass bottles rattling violently as he fell, taking some of the liquor with him. As the bottles shattered and the alcohol mingled with the blood leaking onto the floor, Eileen twirled the gun on her finger, smiling, and holstered it. “What a gottdamn waste.”
She reached over the bar and grabbed another bottle of whiskey. This would be quite the mess to clean up when she got out but at the very least these people wouldn’t treat her like she was some patron saint. No such thing existed in Nevertread—a job was a job. 20 Garlands was 20 Garlands.
On her way out she glanced over to the kid still standing by the door and she paused, stopping midstep. Oh, shit, did he see that whole thing? Fuck. “Hey there, kiddo,” she cleared her throat, picking up the collar of her poncho and wiping the blood off of her cheek. “Why don’t you go home?”
Something struck her suddenly about this child. Underneath his hood, his face was filthy. Not uncommon here, the generators beneath the ground kicked up a constant cloud of dirt that often hung just around her shins. The edges of her weighted poncho were often covered in dust. Obviously she was much taller and it’d be more difficult for a child, so…
The way he stared up at her gave her pause. He hadn’t appeared stunned or traumatized at all. Unsurprising—Nevertread was known for its woefully desensitized children. A sad thing to see, certainly, but nothing she could control as a whole.
“Go back to McHolland, kiddo.” She waved him away as she walked out of the pub, ready to go home. He looked old enough, he could find his own way home.
It was certainly late. The cool air, the night looking like night this time, touching the tender and torn flesh on her face. Eileen spent too much time drinking before getting this job done—enough time for that guy to get the jump on her with that broken beer bottle. Zuhra wasn’t going to be happy.
Despite all the generators functioning well enough, out on the streets of Von Rue it was dark enough for Eileen to see a fair amount of stars at this time of night. The second moon was well on its way up into the sky, and as she waded through the dusty cloud at her feet she let her mind wander a bit. She wouldn’t stitch up the cuts on her face; hopefully they’d scar over and she could use it to maintain her intimidating aura. Eh, it was just as likely to close completely and not scar at all. A lady could hope though.
More than half of the street lamps were dead, cast no light on the dirt roads. Many of the people were asleep, a few of them were piss drunk and blacked out on the ground. Those guys would have quite the dry, muddy throat when they woke up. If they weren’t dead by then; poor, idiot bastards.
Von Rue was a small town, right in the middle of nowhere. It liked to pretend it was a trading hub but all it had going for it was a brothel and a copper mine right in the center of town. To the south was the pub she’d come from, plus the brothel, livery, and a gunsmith. The north had most of the residents, plus one or two public restrooms and public showers. To the west was the jail, where the marshal took extended naps. Not much else was here. Slightly boring, but at least she wasn’t dying?
Her home was a tall building—a triplex she shared with an elderly couple and one of the miners. She circled around to the stairs alongside the outside wall and hurried up to her door on the third floor.
Thankfully, because it was three in the fucking morning, Zuhra was asleep. When Eileen entered the house, the living area was dark and empty. From the front door she could see the kitchen, the sink stained red with freshly washed surgical instruments laying on a plastic tub filled with sanitizer on the counter just next to it. A long day for Zuhra, it seemed.
Eileen staggered through the house, ready to just strip naked and go to bed. As she passed an open door on her way to the bathroom, she glanced inside, seeing just a bed as she moved by. A lump under some blankets, hooked up to a feeding machine. Yeah—looked like it’d been a long day.
The bathroom was almost soaked when Eileen wandered in. Oh boy . She hadn’t even gotten through half of what this day was like. Tomorrow she definitely needed to stick around the house and not bumble around. All she needed was to piss and to cover up this cut, then hop into bed. Zuhra would promptly kick her out if she came to bed bleeding.
Looking at herself in the mirror, she found that the cuts were just a bit gnarlier than what she’d felt at first. It cut all the way across her right cheek, over her hooked nose and slightly under the other eye. Yeah, that would be a scary scar, if it would scar. It wouldn’t, but hey, whatever. She could enjoy it while it was there.
A knock at the front door tore her attention away from the mirror. It was so soft a knock that if she didn’t have these good ears, she wouldn’t have heard it. Pivoting toward the sound, she could hear someone whimpering just outside the front door.
It was almost dawn. Who could be knocking at this time? Maybe someone with a medical emergency. With a tired grunt, Eileen trompted back through the living room and toward the door, only just slightly upset that she hadn’t even taken off her boots yet. When she wrenched open the door, gun already out of its holster, she paused—no one was standing there. What the fuck—
A startled whimper made her look down, and there was that dirty boy from the saloon. “Oh.” She relaxed, and tucked the gun back into its holster. “Hey, kiddo.”
She was still covered in blood. And a Warlord. And she’d shot a man in cold blood not twenty minutes ago. Who was this boy that had followed her home like a lost puppy?
“Whaddaya want?” she asked, as the kid seemed to tremble. All he was wearing was some dusty rags that looked like it’d been a shawl at one point. His hair was a mess of dark tangles sticking out every which way, greasy and covered in grime. Eileen tried not to grimace at him; clearly there was something wrong with this child, if he followed her home.
At first he mumbled, his voice weak and scared. About that time she realized that she hadn’t seen this boy around town before. When had he wandered into Von Rue? His question barely registered, and she almost asked again when he said even louder, “There’s a monster under my bed. Can you come and scare it away?”
Her heart lurched. Oh, gracious. That was his takeaway…? Eileen stood up straighter, looking down at him under the brim of her hat. She put on her best intimidation face and asked with a gruff, indifferent tone, “A monster, huh?”
The boy nodded, clutching the front of his shawl close to him. Was this child really living in James McHolland’s orphanage?
“A’right,” Eileen tried to mask a sad sigh, “Let’s go then.”
The orphanage was well funded—she knew that. When Eileen came to this town and was hired by the mayor, one of her conditions was to make sure the proper places were well funded. And those two places were the saloon and the orphanage. Everything else could pay for itself. If James McFuckingHolland wasn’t going to live up to his end of the deal, then Eileen would have some issues about it. Fucking damn it if the child was dirty and allowed to walk the streets at night to ask Eileen for help? James was definitely being an asshole.
The boy followed close behind her, and with her long legs Eileen had to stop a few times during her angry strides to let him catch up. As they approached the tall three story building, red and scarily ornate for how this child looked, she turned to him and asked “Which room is yours?” Still had to check for that monster before she dealt with James.
“I sleep in the shed behind the house.”
She stopped so abruptly that the child ended up walking into her leg, and he stumbled back. He looked up at her, eyes wide under his mess of hair. “Uh—” Eileen stared at him, and he stuttered under her fierce gaze, “I—sleep behind the house…?”
Eileen whipped around and snarled, “Behind the—!!” She stopped just as fast and forced herself to take a deep breath. Holy shit she couldn’t kill someone else tonight, let alone the Headmaster of the orphanage. Okay—she could deal with this. With hope and luck, she could do it civilly.
She struggled to walk past the house and move behind it, able to push that upsetting information to the back of her head with a considerable amount of effort. Behind the orphanage was a small play area, with rocking horses and a sandbox. Holes and piles of dirt were everywhere, ready for someone to step into in the night and break their gottdamn ankle. Not a bad idea for burglars, actually, but children ran around this place daily.
Up against the back of the house, just next to the steps to the back door, was a few flat boards, barely an inch thick. Underneath the boards was a couple of blankets and a ratty, yellow-stained straw pillow. Eileen grimaced. This was the ‘shack’ ? Wow, she might actually just shoot James; how long had this been happening right under her nose?
She glanced back at the boy, hoping she was wrong and there was a shack somewhere around here she wasn’t aware of. The boy nodded at her, looking at the dirty pile of cloth on the floor. He’d drown in the dust if this thing wasn’t up on a hill…
Slowly, Eileen stepped over to the bed and knelt down and gently picked up the blankets and pillow—it felt somewhat soggy, so she tossed it off into a bush and set the blanket aside. She bent down and placed her ear on the ground.
The sounds of the generators vibrated through the ground, effectively blocking out almost every other sound. Deep below the crust, however, far beneath the sounds of buzzing magical electricity, she could hear something burrowing below the ground. Shifting and digging through the dirt, moving notably away from the obstructive sound of the generators.
Well—not a monster, by any means. Certainly unnerving to a kid and understandably so, even if there was no real reason for Eileen to deal with it. Probably hundreds of feet underground anyway. She stood up and rubbed her ear, feeling the drum aching now from the loudness of the vibrations. “Prob’ly just a snake. Come on, let’s get you inside.”
A terrified expression flashed across the kid’s face, and he stepped away from her. “I’m okay out here.”
“Nah. You’re not.” She stepped up to the back door, her hand resting on the pistol once more. “C’mon, cher, let’s go.”
The inside of the orphanage was dark, and a biting chill wafted through the bottom floor. Eileen looked around, her eyes unbothered by the dark, and growled. The nerve of this guy. Was there even heat in the rooms? She sped through the living area, knowing exactly where the headmaster’s room was.
“Miss Eileen!” the boy called out, running into the room after her, “It’s okay! This wasn’t McHolland’s fault! Please don’t hurt him.”
She kept moving until she found a thick, oaken door with a brass plate that read “Headmaster” on it, and slammed her metal hand against the door with such force that it cracked as she harshly rapped on the wood. “James McHolland!” she shouted, and heard a loud yelp inside of the room in response, “Get your ass out here, I got some words for you.”
“Eileen!” she heard him shriek, followed by a loud, clattering crash. “D-don’t come in! I’m not decent!”
Bullshit. Eileen reeled back on one leg and kicked hard. With a harsh wooden crunch the door flung off of its hinges and twirled into the dark room. As it struck the wall, the window stuck inside of it shattered and she heard James screaming.
James, a gangly man with a patchy beard and a farmer’s tan, had already soiled his sweatpants upon Eileen’s entry. “Ei—Eileen! Why are you here? Wasn’t expecting you for another few days! What can I do ya for?” He looked down at the boy, and Eileen didn’t miss the brief look of ‘oh shit’ before he smiled back up at her.
“McHolland,” her response was short, and she reached just outside the door and pulled the filthy boy, now stock still and dead-eyed, into the room, “This boy—who the fuck is he?”
“Aaaah—that’s a dirty child?” The way he said that made Eileen’s blood boil., and she could hear the gears turning in his head; looking desperately for any excuses.
“This boy was sleepin’ behind the house, under some boards. ” She kicked up her foot and planted it squarely against his chest, forcing him against the wall. The air pushed out of him and he clutched at her dusty boot, trying in vain to push it off. “Tell me why.”
James sputtered, his voice strained as he tried to speak. “I didn’t know he was out there. None of us go back there, the kids play in the front!”
A flash of movement only just preceded a loud ‘bang!’ as Eileen’s revolver fired, just by his head. James let out a pitiful, terrified shout as he fell back onto his bed, holding his ears. More and more the air grew darker as Eileen’s shadow began to shrink and climb up her legs, fanning out from her shoulders into a shady cloud. Bright eyes of all shapes, sizes, and numbers opened up, staring directly at the shaking man before her.
“We give you a third of the copper’s sales to keep this place running.” She kept her hand resting gently on the boy’s shoulder as she glared daggers at the man, “That’s enough to keep all these kids warm and fed. There are a lot of cold and empty rooms in here too. Maybe, what, ten kids living here, minus this boy? Where’s that money goin’, McHolland?”
By now the door was full of children, all watching her assault this man. Eileen turned to look over her shoulder, watching them. The oldest looked about thirteen, while many looked no older than five. Some were clutching at pillows and their blankets, all staring with wide eyes at her. In the middle was that boy, covered in dirt, crying at what he was watching.
Well, shit. The entire time she heard James begging for his life. “Don’t kill me! Please, don’t kill me, I’ll give you the money! I’ll get you the money, Eileen!”
She thought about it, but only for a moment. Someone had to be around to make sure the kids didn’t end up killing each other. Damn it. She took her foot off of his chest, slowly. “I’m not gonna kill you today. But you better get your shit together or I will come back. You got that, asshole?”
“Okay, okay! Okay!” he scrambled onto his bed, waving his hands in front of his face and moved away from the ghostly jaws full of fangs ripping out of the shadows. “I’ll behave, I will! Just please don’t hurt me again!”
Slowly the fangs and eyes faded and Eileen’s shadow slid back down her body, the pale lights of the night returning to the room. She continued to glare at him, and with a snarl she jabbed the barrel of her gun at his face, “If I ever hear about you mistreating these kids again,” she growled, eyes still a burning white, “I will kill you. String you up by your guts on the gates, for everyone to see. Yeah,” she grinned at him, enjoying the way he quaked as she spoke, “That sounds real nice. Maybe I’ll do that anyway. Real soon…”
“Please don’t,” James whimpered, curling in on himself as he gasped and tried to catch his breath. “I get it. I’ll buy the food! I’ll pay for the heat. Please— please !”
She stepped back and spun on her heel, satisfied that the message was received. Not daring to look at the kids, she walked around them and mumbled, “Sorry about that,” and continued to the front door. At that point the dirty kid had managed to shrink to the back of the group, visibly ashamed. Eileen knelt down, stooping over so she could meet his eyes. He looked up at her, “He gives you any more trouble, you tell me. What he was doing wasn’t right.”
The boy didn’t say anything, but he looked at her. She couldn’t read the look in his eyes but he was listening. Slowly, Eileen stood up. This was definitely more than the kid had bargained for.
“That kid,” she pointed at the thirteen year old, who flinched at the gesture, “is gonna give you the key to your room.” She turned toward him, “Right?” The older kid nodded quickly, already running to go get the key. “Alright kiddo, I gotta go. I’m just down the street.”
It took a while of him timidly looking away from her, but finally he looked at her, face to face. Tears had cut cleaner streaks down his cheeks. Damn—did she do that? That’d just be awful. “Okay. Thank you, Miss Eileen.”
She stood up and hitched her thumbs into her gun’s belt. She offered a soft smile, trying hard not to show too many of those sharp teeth. “What’s your name, boy?”
Again, it took him a few moments to answer, his eyes looking down and gaze flicking across the ground like he was literally searching for an answer. He said, finally, “Thomas.”
“Good to meet you, Thomas.” She shooed the other children away, “Go back to bed, kids. Get some milk and go back upstairs.” Only some of them listened, while the others stood around and watched with wide eyes as James whimpered pathetically, likely still curled up in his bed. What a little bitch.
Yeah. Maybe not the prettiest thing for her to do in the orphanage but at least the kids knew now. Thumbs tucked into her belt again, Eileen whistled a soft tune as she walked out the still open front door, and kicked it closed with the heel of her boot. As she walked back home, ears slightly ringing from that gunshot just five minutes ago, she began to think about James’s replacement.