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Dragon's Ring: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Friday, August 14, 2009 08:06 EDT



    It was amazing, Meb thought, how a couple of apples and a few handfuls of late blackberries could change the way you looked at things. She’d woken before dawn, and beat a hasty retreat from a sniffing, but tail-wagging dog. She hadn’t been able to resist the apples in the orchard next to what was becoming a country lane. She still felt guilty about them. They had just been windfalls, but still. One didn’t steal, even if the common sense part of her mind said that the pigs could spare a couple of bruised windfalls. But now she was wearing stolen clothes, and eating stolen fruit. Hallgerd would have said that she was on her way to perdition.

    Thinking about her made Meb’s eyes misty with sadness and half-realized tears. She didn’t even notice that, as she crested the hill, Tarport had come into view.

    It was, by Meb’s standards, a vast metropolis, and very frightening. Hallgerd had always been full of horrific tales of what happened to nice girls on the streets of that sinful city. Of course the details had been rather vague, possibly because Hallgerd hadn’t had much of an imagination, and she’d only been there a few times herself. But girls definitely came to tragic ends if they went there alone, without a male escort.

    When Meb looked up, it was there. The great city. Even from a mile away she could smell it — a mixture of fish, smoke, tar from the tar-pits a few miles inland and other less pleasant smells from thousands of people, a handful of dvergar, and an occasional visiting alvar come to oversee the work of their underlings. She didn’t have much of a choice but to enter it alone.

    A little further on her coastal track joined the main pike from the tar-pits, and from the farmlands inland and from the more populous South Coast. Fresh wares, inclined to spoil, came in by cart, rather than by the canal that ran next to the road. Meb was thirsty, but she didn’t want to drink that canal-water! It was dirty green and smelled of rot. Small bubbling tufts of suspicious-looking emerald drifted in it.

    Eight-horse drays loaded with stinking barrels — material to calk and seal ships across the seas of Tasmarin — trundled along slowly. Carts and even a carriage with some alvar lord in it made their way among the walkers and donkey trains.

    No one seemed to notice a girl in boy’s clothes, with bare feet and hair that had been roughly cropped by a merrow knife. It didn’t stop Meb looking very warily at the people around her. Anyone of them could be the vehicle of her horrific fate, after all.

    Being alone took some of the magic out of the place. Despite the smells, the idea of strange places had always fascinated her. Now, in a large part, she was simply too scared to marvel at wonders like buildings that were three whole stories high. And made of brick too!

    In the jostling crowd at the open city gate she did feel ghostly fingers in her pocket, but as she had nothing to steal, these vanished. The men always said that in Tarport you kept your money in your fist, and your fist in your pocket, and even that didn’t always work.

    Meb had not thought much beyond walking to Tarport. Now that she was here, alone, in the thronging streets, it occurred to her that she had absolutely no idea how to begin looking for the other villagers, let alone her step-brothers. Well, said the sensible voice in her head, if the boys were anywhere, it would be down at the docks. But, in between the houses, she seemed to have lost her sense of direction. Finally, after wandering — for a second time — past a tantalizing smelling bakery, she steeled herself and asked a porter with a load of cloth-bales. He looked a little puzzled. “Back the way you’ve just come, sonny. Most of the boats are out, though. Yellowtail are running off Headly point. They were taking everybody who could haul a line this morning.”

    “Thank you, sir.” Just in time she stopped herself curtseying, and managed to turn it into a bob of a bow. Yellowtail! The boats could be gone a week, with smacks ferrying the catches in as the men worked, hauling bright spoons of polished white-metal for the big fish. Still, what else could she do but to go and look?

    The fishing harbor was indeed mostly deserted. Across on the other side of the bay most of the berths were full, with lines of porters carrying cargoes onto bigger vessels. Here on this side there was just one boat, hauled up on the slip, with the three men working on replacing some planking on the bow, looking as sour as green fruit. She walked over to them.

    “What do you want here, boy?” asked a fellow with a tar-bucket and line-scars on his hands. “Come to prig stuff, eh?”

    “No, please Sir, I’m looking for my brothers. Mikka and Hrolf Gundarson. From Cliff Cove,” said Meb, humbly.

    The fisherman shrugged. “They’ll be at sea. Every fisherman and every man Jack and the gutter-sweepings of the town are out after the yellow-tail. The fish have come in strong after the easterly. That’s where we’d be, if it wasn’t for these stove-in planks.”

    Meb’s heart fell. What was she going to do now? The apples of this morning seemed a very long time back. “Please Sir, do you have any work for me, then?” she asked. Maybe at least they’d feed her. And they were fishermen. More familiar than the townspeople.

    The fisherman pointed with a tar-brush at a grey haired man with an adze, a plank and a look of extreme irritation on his face. “Ask the old man. But now’s not a good time.”

    And, indeed, the man shook his head. “You’re too small. We’re not some cargo-lugger that likes pretty boys on board. Try over on the cargo quay.”

    The one with the tar-brush grinned. “You want a spot of my tar to seal your butt first, boy? You’ll need it with that lot.”

    Blushing furiously, Meb beat a retreat. She didn’t have much in the way of breasts. Hallgerd had said that they’d come with children, if not before. But with her small build, short hair and breeches, she obviously passed for a boy — with the jokes aimed at boys. So . . . what did she do now?

    In the short term, the answer was: she didn’t know. She settled on mooching around the town, hoping to spot some of the village people — besides Wulfstan. She looked for possible places to find work. She even tried the baker and a fruit stall.

    Neither had any need for a ragged little boy in fisherman’s breeches. There were quite enough around town, as they made plain with hard words and, in the case of the fruit-stall owner, a hard blow on the ear for a ragged boy that was not quick enough to dodge. The market, with barrows of everything from bolts of bright cloth, that she longed to touch, to mountains of late fruit, to stalls hung with dried squid, and others loaded with ewes-milk cheeses, was a wonderful place indeed — except that it made her even hungrier. The stall-owners also made it very plain that they didn’t think that she looked like a customer. So she left and wandered back toward the docks, walking along the canal, watching the horses pull the heavy barges loaded with everything from coal to fleeces.

    For quite a while she watched a couple of women — who didn’t look much older than herself, but were dressed in what Hallgerd would have described as a “wanton” fashion. Their faces were very painted, and their hair was loose — a shocking thing too. But then maybe the same standards didn’t apply in the big city. They didn’t seem to be selling any goods. It was only when a sailor came up, talked briefly to the women and walked off with one of them that Meb realized that they were displaying their wares, all right. And Hallgerd’s assessment would have been right. Women working in the market stalls or carrying their shopping home all had their hair done up, mostly in braids or twisted and pinned to the tops of their heads.

    Ruefully, Meb felt her own head, looked at her “borrowed” breeches. She’d only taken them to cover her undress and to protect her from the cold. She’d really meant to give them back. But it did close that possible avenue. She realized just how hungry and scared she must be to even think that way. The odd practical voice inside her head said that for woman enduring a fate worse than death, at least they didn’t appear to be starving. The practical voice horrified her village morality sometimes.

    Meb began to wonder if she could make her way back to the windfall apples and the hay-rick.

    The Gate-horn signaled that she’d left it too late, however. And the sky, which had been growing ever more heavy and dark, decided to add rain to her woes. It came cold and thin, blowing in gusts chased by a bitter wind. The last stall-holders began folding up their awnings and packing their barrows. They turfed their scraps into the gutters and onto the cobbles, and then, collars up, pushed the barrows away down the streets and alleys. Meb had hung around the market area for just this reason. There had to be some scraps she could eat?

    Too late she realized that she wasn’t the only one waiting for them to leave. Half a dozen feral-looking boys had beaten her to it. And they weren’t keen on sharing either. They surrounded her. “Get out of here,” said the largest of the ragged urchins. “This is our turf, see. Get away before we fix you good.”

    Meb backed away. At least two of them were bigger than she was. She had no desire to be “fixed good.” But she had to find some food, and some shelter. The wind that brought the autumn rains came all the way from winter. She went hunting a drier spot. The alley seemed tempting, overhung by buildings, it must be nearly dry, even if it stank of urine.

    She walked into it, without thinking much about the comments the men made about keeping out of the alleys in town. It was indeed nearly dry under the eaves.

    In the darkness somebody grabbed her from behind. Wrapped their arms around her, and held her. And someone else hit her over the head as she tried to scream. Her shoulder had taken part of the blow as she tried to pull free, but it was still painful and left her feeling stunned and weak.

    She was vaguely aware of someone feeling in her breeches pockets. And lifting her shirt and feeling her bare skinny stomach. The voice seemed to come from some great distance off. “Damn. No money belt either. I were sure he were a runner. Pretty boy like that, usually works for them.”

    “Fool kid to come down here,” said a second voice. “Shall we toss him in the canal?”

    “Nah,” said the first voice, dismissively. “Who’s going to care if he got a rapper on the bone-box? Skinny street brats a-plenty out here. Come on. We might as well go to the alley just past the Green Lantern. There’s bound to be drunk or two come in for a leak.”

    “Usually not much gelt on them by the time they get there,” grumbled the second voice. “And it’s wetter than here.” But he was moving away. Or was that her consciousness?

    Meb blurred upward out of the painful darkness to be sick. There wasn’t much more than bile in her stomach, but she threw it up anyway. She was cold, she was damp. The eaves above her dripped steadily, splashing to join the trickle in the middle of the noisome alley. Her head hurt. How her head hurt! With an effort she sat up properly, leaning against the wall. What was she doing here?

    Slowly it came back to her. They’d tried to rob her. Succeeded — except that she had had nothing to steal. Scared, her eyes probed the darkness. Other than a vague lighter patch she could see nothing. Hear nothing either . . . except . . . squeak . . . skitter . . .

    Desperately Meb got to her feet. Not rats! She couldn’t stay here with rats, no matter how awful she felt. With one hand on the half-rotten bricks of the wall, she staggered out into the rain.

    There was little enough light here either. Slivers of a warm yellow glow leaking into the rainy air from the shuttered windows was all — except for a green lantern hanging from the eave of a building a little further down the canal-path.

    The sight of it brought up an alarm signal in her mind. The ones who’d attacked her had said something about that. She started to walk in the opposite direction. But a group of men, swaying and laughing came around the corner from that side. So Meb turned hastily and walked back toward the Green Lantern, walking in the rain, rather than too close to the shelter of the buildings, until she was well past it.

    Because she walked there she spotted the drunk. He was asleep — in the rain — on the little stair to the water-level, just beyond the Green Lantern’s front door. If he hadn’t been wearing something bright yellow she might still have not seen him.

    He snored peacefully. And looking down, Meb saw that his hand rested on a pouch. It bulged.

    She walked on. The revelers turned into the door of the Green Lantern and were soon noisily making merry inside.

    The voice inside said: “If you didn’t go back he’d be robbed by someone else.” The Meb brought up by Hallgerd’s strict principles said: It’s theft. The practical voice inside her head argued that he’d probably die of cold sleeping in the rain anyway. If she felt that way about it she could leave him something.

    Biting her lip, she turned back. Her head still throbbed. Her shoulder — which had taken part of the blow, was just plain sore.

    She crept down those stairs as quietly as he could. The Green Lantern provided enough light for her to see that what had caught her eye was a cloak — actually a motley of bright yellow and crimson. A traveling gleeman! Guilt plucked at her again. The gleemen and their ‘prentice-boys had come to the village now and again. Wulfstan said they stole. But they always provided welcome news and laughter in exchange.

    She nearly crept back up the stairs then. But her eyes hadn’t deceived her — it was a pouch, protruding from under the edge of his cloak. It bulged. And right now she didn’t care if he was a prince, if that bulge was bread and cheese or gold coins she was going to take it, or some of it . . . actually, bread and cheese might be better for her conscience.

    Tentatively, slowly, she reached out a hand to the pouch.

    As her fingers closed on it, it all went horribly wrong. A talon-like hand locked onto her wrist. The shut eyes snapped wide open, and the jester laughed evilly. She screamed as he pulled her towards him. She kicked out as hard as she could, and somehow she twisted free. Staggering, she tripped on the narrow stair . . . lost her balance, and fell.

    Into the canal.

    She screamed again, kicked and swallowed water. Went down. Somehow came up again.

    And then her victim jumped into the water too.

    He grabbed her by the collar, rather as if she was a kitten, and hauled her towards the steps, swimming strongly. He pulled her up onto them, and then picked her up over his shoulder, as if she weighed less than a bag of feathers. She coughed, spluttered and rid herself of a fair amount of water. None too gently he put her down onto the hard stone. Meb managed to get as far as her hands and knees, still coughing.

    “Now what in hell did you do a silly thing like that for?” asked her victim-rescuer, looking down at her. “You poor clumsy little scrap of humanity.” He was grinning as he said it. “Now I’m all wet and your screams will likely have frightened my targets off. They’d never believe I was asleep again.”

    Meb managed sit up. “S . . . sorry,” she sniffed, between shivers. To her shame she started to cry.

    It seemed to take the gleeman aback too. “Now, now. It’s not that bad. I’m not for turning you in. You’ve had a wetting, and a lesson. You’ll be better at it next time.”

    “There’s not going to be a next time. You should have let me drown,” said Meb miserably, knowing she sounded like an ungrateful, sulky brat, but unable to stop herself. She sat and shivered, the tears running down her face.

    She heard the sound of a cork being drawn. “Here, scrap,” he said in a tone that held both amusement and sympathy. “Drink some of this and take heart.” He pushed a small metal bottle at her.

    She waved it off weakly. “No. I don’t want it.”

    He took her by the bristles of hair that the merrow had left her. Tilted her head back, and put the bottle to her lips. “I wasn’t asking if you wanted it. I was telling you to drink it, little scrap.”

    Thus constrained, Meb did. It was like drinking honeyed fire. It went down, but started her coughing again. The gleeman gave her what he obviously considered a gentle pat on the back. “Let it work. It’ll put heart into you. You’re obviously fairly new to this sort of trade.” She caught the flash of grin. “Or you’d have learned to swim and chosen a warmer night.”

    His firewater — or perhaps it was the honey in it — did seem to have helped. She wiped her eyes and nose with a wet shirt-sleeve. “Never did it before. I just . . . I was so hungry and cold and I saw your pouch . . . I’m sorry.”

    He grinned again. “Nothing in it but a few old rags. Learn. If you can see a fat pouch, belike someone wants you to see it. It was a bait, but I wasn’t planning to catch a little fish like you.”

    “Are you a thief-taker then?” she asked warily. Even in little Cliff Cove she’d heard of them.

    He looked shocked. “Me? Now what sort of thing is that to say to fellow who plucked you from the mucky water of the canal, scrap? No, I’m more like a taker from thieves.”

    “What do you mean?” she asked, curiously.

    He looked up, cocking his head to listen. “Patrol coming. Come, we best be away from here. I’ll explain. Methinks we need a fire to dry you out, youth.”

    She followed him up the stairs, and saw that he was heading for the alley next to the Green Lantern. Grabbed his cloak. “There are muggers waiting up there. I heard them . . . after they hit me, earlier.”

    The gleeman laughed, took her hand from his cloak and hauled her toward the alley “You’ve had quite a night of it, young scrap. I know. I was waiting for them to come to me, when you decided to come to me for swimming lessons.”

    Meb looked at him in astonishment.

    He took her by the sleeve, pulled her into the alley. “The patrol are just around the corner. Come on. Your two ‘friends’ have gone now. Let’s get you some fire and ourselves a little something to pay for supper and bed. You look in need of them. It’s that or getting you home to your mother.”

    “My mother is dead and my home has been burned to the ground,” said Meb, dully. “I haven’t got anywhere to go. I’d be very grateful for some food and a dry place to sleep. That’s why I tried to steal from you. I didn’t know what else to do.”

    He snorted. “So this is the first time you’ve ever stolen anything?” he said, his tone full of unbelief.

    “A couple of windfall apples,” said Meb, guiltily. “The dragon destroyed our village and our dam, and I had no food.”

    “Ah. A hardened criminal you are!” he said admiringly. “I could tell. So a dragon destroyed your home . . .” He paused. “A little fishing village, no doubt. Hmm. Let’s get you a bit of recompense from the dragon.”

    She gaped at him. “From Lord Zuamar?”

    “Could it have been another dragon?” asked the gleeman rhetorically. “This is his island after all. And it suits me. I like stealing from thieves. It’s most entertaining. But if I can’t take from small thieves, I’ll take from a big one. And get you a fire to warm you properly, at the same time.”

    Meb’s inner voice had to admit that she could see the pure joy of mugging muggers who had attacked her. With that in mind, and no certainty of what he planned to do next, but glad to let someone else do the planning, she let him lead her along several alleys and out into Tarport’s central square. The scavenging boys had long gone, having disappeared rather like the barrows had earlier. “A fine sight,” he said, pointing to a two-story building across the square. It was lit by a series of lamps, each in its neat little sconce.

    “Yes,” agreed Meb, impressed. “What is it?”

    “Zuamar’s tax hall. Let’s burn it down.”

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