Hands deep in pockets, Llew didn’t break stride to kick the empty glass bottle aside. It was a common hazard of walking Cheer’s streets at night. The town’s men hunted gold by day, oblivion and pussy by night.
Llew walked with her head down. In sepia trousers and off-white linen shirt, she blended in with the evening’s wildlife. But with hair in dire need of a trim, there was always a risk that the guise wouldn’t hold. It only had to hold until she got home. She would cut the offending locks in the morning.
A commotion broke out up ahead at Camille’s Cathouse. Some potential john lacking the financial means to sate his desires by the looks and sounds. Perhaps he should have thought about that before buying such a large bottle of whisky.
Llew took a wide berth as she approached the still cussing man. At this time of night one didn’t need to be so cautious on the dusty streets; all the horses were asleep in their stables or paddocks, or tied up outside a bar or brothel.
“Out for a good time, boy?” The old fart stepped in front of Llew, stopping her in her tracks. “I’ll share one wi’ yer.”
Llew tried to side-step him, but he moved with her.
“It’s still five miras each. Two men, ten miras.” The half-dressed lady on the porch folded her arms across her chest.
“You said five miras per girl. We only need the one.” The man’s arm looped around Llew’s shoulders and he drew her in to him. If she hadn’t already been cursing staying late with Kynas, she would have started now. “What d’you say? I’ll let you go first. I won’t even watch. Sure you won’t mind me listenin’, though.”
Llew was struggling to find her voice, especially her deeper, more boyish one. She shook her head.
“Five miras per . . . service.” The woman’s eyes narrowed. “You want cheap, you go down see Hedy’s girls. They’ll look after you real nice.”
“Aw, but Hedy don’t have your wee Tamra.” The man pulled Llew closer to his mouth. His breath reeked like it was at the wrong end of his body. “Wee Tamra’s my favourite,” he half-whispered, not very quietly, filling the air with putrescence.
“Tamra’s busy, anyway. Now scoot.” The woman waved the back of a hand at the man, affording Llew only the briefest sympathy. “And don’t come back till you’ve got some cash.”
Still clutching Llew, the man waved his bottle about in front of and above them, miraculously not spilling any.
“Oh, you’re a hard woman, Cammy.”
“Rather be hard than a limp dick any day, Renny.” The woman flashed a white grin. She really did look after herself. “Maybe next time you’ll rethink the whisky. Or at least buy it here. Then maybe we can talk discounts. Loyalty is rewarded here at Camille’s.”
“Oh, aye. Point taken, Cammy.” The man started turning Llew with him to dawdle back the way she’d just come. “Women, eh? Never give nothin’ for free.”
Llew didn’t know much about other women, but she didn’t know anyone who gave anything for free. She didn’t see why the brothel girls should be any different.
She leaned into the hand on her shoulder to see if it would relax its hold. It didn’t.
“Shall we try Hedy’s lad?” Renny squeezed again.
Llew tensed the second his step faltered.
He regained his composure almost instantly and squeezed her shoulders once more, this time looking down at the way her shirt bunched across her chest. Two small but distinct peaks appeared as her shoulders rounded under the applied pressure.
“Well, well. Looks like my luck is on the up ’n’ up.” His arm reached around her shoulders so that his hand could take an experimental pinch of the soft flesh beneath Llew’s shirt. He made an appreciative sound and tried to bring her around in front of him.
Llew wasn’t having any of that. She pushed against him and ducked under his arm. But he was quick and grabbed the loose waist of her shirt.
“None o’ that. We was just gettin’ to know each other.” He tugged and Llew bounced against his chest.
She used the momentum to break free of his grasp, turned and ran, but the whisky mustn’t have kicked in yet, because he was on her heels. She tried to keep her line straight down the middle of the road, well aware of what veering either way might bring, but a group of men leaving another bar farther down the road made no moves to let her pass, instead finding the spectacle of a young boy running from an older man quite humorous.
Without knowledge of who was the wronged party, arms reached out from the group to slow Llew, but they didn’t go so far as to stop her.
Fearing that the men would only turn on her as a group, Llew didn’t plead for their help, she just pumped her limbs even harder, trying to make up for the hindrance.
Renny ran into her, knocking her into the deeper darkness of a narrow alleyway between a bar and a barber’s.
The crash of the partially full bottle of whisky against the corner rang through Llew’s ears as she reached for the ground. Regaining her feet, she stood to face the jagged edges of the glass bottle and Renny looking pissed off.
“That bottle cost me a night with wee Tamra. Come ’ere.” He swung both arms at Llew in some sort of drunken embrace. He missed, but the bottle swung dangerously close and Llew hopped back out of its way, deeper into the alley. She had to get out. She was vulnerable. “You owe me the price of a bottle o’ whisky, girlie.”
“You broke it, you drunk bastard.” Finding some courage, Llew dodged the man’s next lunge and made a pass for the alleyway’s entrance.
His arms flung out to block her, then he brandished the bottle’s jagged end at her. “That ain’t the language of no young lady.”
“Who said anything about being a lady?”
The pair of them was hopping side to side, Llew looking for a gap, Renny blocking.
“Oh, you like it like a boy, eh? Well, I ain’t picky. Turn around, you won’t even have to take them pants right off.”
Llew made a lunge for freedom and Renny blocked her path yet again. He threw her back on the ground and made a go at getting her trousers undone. But Llew wasn’t letting him win that easy. She kicked, she punched, she clawed, and when he hit her back she grabbed his flesh, passing the injury right back to him. She’d never fought so dirty, but she’d never had to.
Renny slashed her with the bottle, slicing her shoulder. Llew pressed against his chin, pushing him up and closing the wound.
Renny screamed in agony and slashed again. Llew grabbed his wrist, healing the new scratch.
Renny cried out again and swung the bottle wildly, cutting Llew’s cheek, neck, chest, forehead, shoulder, ear, nose, eye, throat . . .
Somewhere in all the chaos, a strange peace overcame her. Llew relaxed and let it take her.
* * *
Llew woke to the scent of blood, the jaunty tinkle of a piano, light spilling across a wood-plank wall, and a heavy feeling in her chest. No. Not in her chest. It was on her chest, and it was sticky and damp.
Smell of blood. Heavy thing. Sticky and damp.
Her stomach heaved but it was empty.
Slung across the shoulders of Llew’s small frame, the body was a literal dead weight. She peeled a stray arm off her shoulder, grimacing at its limpness, and pushed the body up. The corpse - she couldn’t feel any breathing other than her own - lifted, teetered, and then the strength in Llew’s arms failed. She fell back and the body dropped down with her.
A glass bottle smacked to the ground and rolled, tinkering across the gritty ground. Dim candlelight from the uncovered window above reflected off its jagged tips. A broken bottle.
A broken bottle. The man.
Remembered pain of the stabbing glass flitted through Llew’s mind, interspersed with numbing blackness. He had attacked her and now he was dead. The events between those two points were a blank.
Her shirt was wet, almost certainly with blood. But whose?
Llew was almost certain she knew. She had healed before.
Mustering all her strength, she wedged her hands under the man’s shoulders and heaved, pushing higher on one side. The movement slid his shoulder to the ground, easing his weight off her. Bracing herself on her elbows, she kicked and slid and freed her legs.
Clambering to her feet, Llew shook herself. Her nearly-white shirt looked black in the low light. Gross. Only slightly less so because of the almost certain knowledge that it was her own blood.
She could just make out his face, frozen in an expression of horror, in the flickering candlelight making a getaway through the window overhead. Otherwise, there was no outward sign of injury Llew could see - apart from all the blood, of course.
She couldn’t be found here with the body. The Farries would hang her without question. She turned and ran from the alley emerging alongside the front entrance of The Diamond Duster - the last of Cheer’s bars to close for the night, if at all, and even then usually only at the Farries’ request.
“Bit of a rough one, there, lad?” Someone called after her as she dashed into the dark.
Llew clung to the shadows, not that there were many Cheer locals out this late in the dark folds of night, but she had no way to explain her blood-soaked state.
The dash back to her hovel by Big River seemed longer than normal, but the final dusty road gave way to deep swathes of tussock punctuated by the occasional matagouri or lancewood. Relief washed through her at the hiss of the rushing water, but she still couldn’t shake the memories of waking under a dead man. She pushed her way through long grasses and past branches heavy with little yellow bell-shaped flowers, past her thatched, thigh-high hovel, pulled off her shoes at the stony bank and waded straight into the water, not bothering to remove her clothing. To have any chance of washing the blood from them, she would have to soak them now.
The swift current carried away the heavy weight of the man she could still feel lying over her even as it lifted the blood from her skin and washed it away. It was hers. It was all hers. He had killed her, and now he was dead.
She had never killed before. Probably because she had never died before. Healing, yes, she’d done that. Rarely from another person, though. Not recently, anyway.
She knew what must have happened, and yet she couldn’t bring herself to admit it. She couldn’t do that. She couldn’t come back from the dead. No one came back from death.
She pulled the shirt over her head and squeezed it under the water, rubbed it and rinsed and rubbed again. But as the cold glow of dawn crept across the sky, the brown blood refused to wash out of the garment. She had left Kynas’ late, but not that late. How long had she lain unconscious? Or dead?
Llew cursed and threw the shirt to shore. She only had one other shirt, and she was almost certain it was getting too small. She would have to spend a good deal of this month’s earnings on a new one. Or take the risk of stealing more than her usual quota. But she maintained a quota for several reasons: she only needed what she needed, and being greedy got you caught or dead.
Already half undressed, she fought with her trousers until they jerked free of her body. They, too, were stained with her blood. Damn it! Clothing wasn’t cheap. She could feed herself for free, but if she wanted to mingle with the general public, she had to buy clothes. While she knew how to use a needle and thread, her skills in that department only went as far as repair.
With handfuls of sediment, she scrubbed the last of the blood from her skin - from her chest, her face and her arms.
Once acclimatized to the water’s chill, she waded in a little farther and dunked herself under, emerging a few seconds later, wiping her eyes clear of water and slightly-too-long hair.
Working the water with long sweeps of her arms, she pressed her feet through the muddy sediment, feeling it erupt between her toes, and took the time to appreciate the warmth beneath its surface. Strange how that little bit of heat always remained, somehow not leached by the rushing water above. Much like her own sense of worth, somehow not diminished by living as a dreg of Cheer’s society.
Cheer. Named for the happiness the first settlers experienced when they started digging gold. The gold was gone. As was the cheer. But Cheer remained.
She peered at her hands, warped by the rippling water. She’d killed a man. A man had died at her hands. But she couldn’t help thinking that she had died at his hands first. He had killed her first.
It was little consolation, but it made forgiving herself easier.
Her fingers began to tingle and sting from the cold and she made her way back to shore, wiped herself down with handfuls of grass, wrapped her woolen blanket about her and crashed out in her little hovel. She needed sleep, and she had a couple of hours before the market started.
She drifted off, reveling in the aromas of dew-soaked grasses, damp stones, and a hint of thyme.
The heat of the sun on her otherwise frozen toes woke her, and she lay a moment, pulling the blanket clear of her legs, savoring the heat and drinking in the perfumed air. There was little about her life she cherished, but moments like these almost made it worth it.
She dragged herself from her bed, pulled on her clean shirt - which was a little too tight across the shoulders and, if she pulled her shoulders back, hinted at the breasts she normally kept hidden.
She took out her knife, sharpened it on a river stone, grabbed tufts of hair in her other hand and began hacking it off. The fringe had grown to her eyebrows and the sides were nearly covering her ears. Too long. She cared little for the end result - the less pretty the better.
By the time she finished, the sun was well up. The market would be in full swing, and her trousers less soaking wet.
She tussled her way into the damp pants, fastened her belt, and headed for town, hoping her usual penchant for going by unnoticed would extend to the brown stains on brown material.
The monthly market was one of the few times the people of Cheer truly mingled. Women displaying their curves with cinched-in waists below elegant necklines, and men in pressed shirts, trousers hooked up by suspenders, and vests decorated with gold chains and pocket watches shared the street with others too late to make their fortune. The predominant color was brown in all its shades, with splashes of red, blue or yellow marking both a woman of class or girl prospecting for tricks.
Llew was invisible among the finery and silent amid the propositions.
She had already collected three purses when something caught her eye. Okay, two things, but there was only one she would be taking with her.
The knife hung from a belt slung across an arse that filled a pair of trousers in a most tantalizing way. She watched the way the folds of material moved and shifted over said backside as it passed by stalls selling every variety of produce from meats to baked goods, to hand-made crafts and even entertainment in the form of song or dance. If she walked about with a knife like that slung from her hip, people would reconsider pushing her into alleyways. A knife like that called attention to itself. She was halfway certain the knife’s finely carved ivory, or bone, handle had drawn her eye down first. A knife like that made a statement.
She needed that knife.
Her eyes trailed the handle everywhere it went. Her feet followed, and the rest of her body entwined its way between people and stalls.
The arse and knife stopped. So did another street kid thinking he was in with a shot. Hot anger flashed through Llew. The knife was hers!
So fast she barely saw him move - only knew his back had been to her and now he was side-on with the kid’s arm in a firm grip - the man bared his teeth and growled at the would-be thief, frightening the desire for the weapon right out of him.
Side-on, Llew could see the man’s vest. A leather vest, heavy with smaller knives. Not small knives, just smaller than the one on his hip.
Llew nearly reconsidered her need for the knife, but she was convinced she needed it more than the man did. He did, after all, have all those other knives at his disposal.
The boy stammered out an apology. Released, he ran with absolutely no care for who he bumped into along the way. So unprofessional.
The long-haired man in his dusty black, wide-brimmed hat turned and muttered something to his curly-haired companion. Both men laughed and turned their attention to a stall selling a wide range of meaty nibbles. Llew moved closer.
People divided around her, as a rock poking through water’s surface, for she did indeed stand above a good proportion of the crowd.
While extra height had its advantages, it was beginning to get ridiculous. Llew was keeping pace with most of the boys she knew, and despite most girls her age having matured a couple of years earlier, she only seemed to be getting taller and a little broader. No discernible breasts, though, damn it.
As if to rub it in, a stylish dress with a tasteful neckline cupping two beautiful, rounded breasts, hooked Llew’s attention on its way past. It disappeared back into the crowd and she looked down at her own shirt that hung almost straight down - straight down enough, at least, for nearly everyone to assume she was a boy, which was fine by Llew, really, it was. A girl her age, with no parents, was better off being seen as a boy in a place like Cheer. Still, it didn’t stop a small part of her coveting the chance to wear a pretty dress one day. One day. Not today. A dress lacked pockets.
The task at hand was the knife, and the opportunity to take it presented itself while the pair of men were distracted by a clown hopping around with bells attached to his shoes that he jiggled in the air while he juggled flaming batons. The taller, curly-haired man’s eyes shone in amazement at the display. The shorter, darker, knife carrier watched as a fellow professional might; nothing escaped his attention.
But Llew would.
She moved in. Her hand twitched. Finely honed muscles tensed. Keeping her eyes on the men and concentrating on looking like a casual bystander to other passers-by, she flicked the domed catch that secured the knife in place, moved with the dark-skinned man as he shifted his weight, pinched the end of the knife handle between finger and thumb, and pulled; gentle, but swift.
Llew withdrew back into the throng. She hefted the knife a couple of times and smiled at the weight of it. There was something so right about it.
She slid the knife behind her belt and pulled her shirt as low as it would go. The tip hung below, but it wasn’t enough to give the game away, she was sure.
She was less sure. A quick glance over her shoulder removed all doubt. He was enraged, and he and his companion sliced through the crowd toward her.
Llew took off, ducking fancy hats and parasols. She spared a moment of thanks for the unusually long legs that carried her through the crowd just as fast as the men following her. Skirting parcels and large bellies, and leaving a trail of surprised exclamations, she soon reached the edge of the market.
She slipped around the corner of a blacksmith’s and clung to the wood-paneled wall, listening. No footsteps to be heard. She welcomed the chance to breathe and relaxed, with the barest twitch of her lips at the contempt she felt for the men who’d told her she couldn’t run her father’s smithy when he disappeared. Who were they to judge her ability after years of working at his side? Being a girl had nothing to do with it.
Hearing a creak, Llew looked up, but could see naught save the eave of the roof. She stepped out from the building for a better look.
A crouching silhouette pounced. The sun, suddenly revealed, blinded her and she was thrown back, head ringing from its collision with the road, and wrists pressed to the ground either side of her head. Her vision cleared to reveal a dusty face framed by sandy-brown hair. She recognized the knife-owner’s companion. He was grim, although there was something else there; a hint of exhilaration from the chase lit up the blue eyes.
She struggled in his grasp, but he was strong and straddled her across the middle. And then she heard another set of footsteps approaching.
A hand gripped her collar and the man straddling her stood as she was wrenched from the ground, shoved into the nearby wall and had something sharp pressed against her chest.
She glanced down at a compact crossbow, loaded, and digging into her sternum. She looked up into the dark, scowling face that belonged to the steady finger on the weapon’s trigger.
If he hadn’t been threatening her, she might have thought he was rather attractive despite the scars - a hand-shaped burn under his jaw and a couple of lines through an eyebrow, among others. He had a darker complexion than most Cheer locals, brown eyes and wore his dark hair long. The wide-brimmed hat served to darken his umbrageous appearance.
“Well, you’re a ray of sunlight on a cloudy day. Or should that be the other way around?”
Somehow his scowl deepened. “Shut up,” he said. His voice, deep and gravelly despite his looking barely in his twenties, emerged from between gritted teeth. He spoke with an accent. Not local, then - mind you, neither was she.
“Back off, Al. He took my knife,” the one called Jonas stated over his shoulder without breaking eye-contact with Llew. Then he leaned in so close she could taste his breath. “Now, give it back.” While he said it quietly, the commanding tone made her jump and the point of the crossbow grazed her chest through the thin shirt.
“Ow. All right, all right.” She fumbled at her waistband to free the knife. “Could you consider maybe not pressing that thing in to me? I think you’ve drawn blood.” Sure enough, a little red seeped through the linen. Great. More blood-stained clothing. She held the knife up by her head and managed to bite her tongue on further comments and not shove him away. She sensed he was one to take care of his own issues, rather than turning them over to the authorities – something that could work in her favor, if she played her hand right. Of course, it could also go horribly wrong.
He grabbed the knife. Stepping from her personal space, he sheathed the weapon at his hip. And then his fist was in her gut, emptying her lungs and folding her over. While Llew tried to regain her breath, he turned on his heel saying, “Come on, Al. We got work to do.”
“Thanks for the sport.” Al grinned and his blue eyes flashed. “It’s been fun.” He turned with a skip in his step, jogging to catch up with Jonas.
Clutching her belly, Llew watched them disappear around the corner. Okay, maybe she deserved that. A punch in the gut beat being hauled off to the gallows any day. Even as she coughed phlegm and tried to take in a full breath, she was intrigued. They were certainly not locals.
The scratch on her chest stung, recalling her attention to the broken skin. She scanned the area about her, all wooden buildings and dusty dirt street, then saw what she was after. Across the street, perched in a windowsill, sat a flower box overflowing with flourishing ornamentals. Ignoring the sign on the wall decreeing a “Magic-free Aghacia”, she brushed her fingertips across the leaves. They wilted. The pain in her gut eased and the graze on her chest tingled and ceased to hurt. Healed.
Under the weight of the three purses, her trousers sat awry, revealing a slim hip under a too-short shirt. Time to rectify that. She turned back toward the market.
From the street corner she watched the two foreigners take the few wooden steps up to the grocer’s. While physically smaller both in height and breadth, the one called Jonas had an aura of power that labeled him the leader of the two, but they both moved with a confidence Llew coveted. Despite her own physical prowess in fine, undetectable movements, she was a rangy teenager with an uncertain future ahead. She wondered what kind of work they could be doing, but had little doubt it would mean leaving Cheer. Her envy grew.
Llew loved Cheer. It was her home town, and it was the kind of town where people could make their fortune. The only problem with that was that one needed a small fortune to get the equipment needed to plunder the hills and high-country rivers. These days, absentee rich hired Cheer locals to do the back-breaking labor so that there was a steady, if dwindling, flow of gold and other precious materials out of Cheer and little of anything in.
There was no denying Cheer’s natural beauty if one took the time to go beyond those areas touched by settlers, whose greed recognized no boundary.
At least Cheer, and Aghacia as a whole, was untouched by the wars Llew saw mentioned almost daily on the newsstands. That was where Cheer truly shined. Peace reigned.
She made her way back up the main street, scooting around and past people still studying the goods on offer or dawdling away from the temptation to spend more.
“Hey, Llew!” A boy’s voice cut above the murmur of the crowd.
Llew cursed under her breath. A one-time close friend, these days Kynas made her skin crawl.
Still, he was about the only real friend she had.
“Hi, Kynas.” She slowed her pace, allowing him to fall in beside her.
“It’s been a good day.” He grinned, patting his pocket. “Did you have a good day?”
She jiggled the pouches hanging off her waist.
“Great,” he said, the jealousy only touching his features for an instant. “You wanna come by my place?”
“No, Kynas. I’m not in the mood.” She knew what he wanted.
“You ain’t been in the mood all summer.” The boy pouted and stopped walking.
No, she hadn’t.
Kynas had managed to pick up a job doing odds and ends for an elderly couple. They couldn’t pay him, but they allowed him to make a small outbuilding on their property his own. Llew had been known to share it with him on cold winter evenings. But it wasn’t winter yet.
For a few years now, they had been friends, looking out for each other. Kynas had even helped her make the transition to life on the street - it wasn’t her fault she had surpassed what he’d taught. But last winter something had changed. Huddling together to keep warm had become something different. They had experimented, explored themselves and each other. For a while it had been fun. But it wasn’t long before Kynas wanted to play when Llew didn’t. And suddenly the shelter wasn’t free to her any more. Their friendship, as it had existed, had come to an end.
She continued walking. She wasn’t about to prostitute herself to her friend just to make him feel better. He should know that. Llew had cut her hair short, taken to dressing like a boy, and learned the art of picking pockets to avoid that lifestyle. Besides, there were plenty of others willing to see to his needs.
Well, okay, so she’d originally cut her hair and worn pants to please her father, who preferred having a son over a daughter who reminded him so much of his wife. But she had kept the look for her own reasons.
She stopped into Inael’s store to try on a couple of shirts. With little occasion to dress up and not enough money to be concerned about matching styles and colors, she stuck to her usual white linen - or off-white linen, to be more precise. She bought two shirts, figuring it was always handy to be able to wash one while still having something decent to wear, thanked old Inael for his friendly, nonjudgmental service, and skipped down the steps and back onto the dusty road heading for home.
The streets were quieter away from the market and Llew strolled along with her head up like any other city patron. When she wasn’t picking pockets, she usually found that skulking only served to attract more attention, so it was always best to behave like an innocent. The trick was to look natural doing so.
Llew turned to the distressed voice. “Kynas?”
The boy was struggling in the grip of two uniformed men. Farries!
Llew instinctively stooped, stepping in by the side of a building.
“Help me, Llew! They think I killed Mr. Maddocks!”
“Well, who else?” one of the Farries said, shaking Kynas while the other looked about. Cursing, Llew pressed herself deeper into the shadows.
Mr. Maddocks was Kynas’ landlord. It would be stupid of the boy to put his deal at risk, but it was a natural conclusion for the lawmen to draw - any excuse to remove another urchin from Cheer’s streets.
“I don’t know!” Kynas wailed, kicking his legs and trying to wriggle free of the Farry’s grasp. Realizing his efforts were futile, he relaxed. And then his finger pointed to Llew. “That one. Sh— he did it!”