IT WAS AROUND NOON when the wagon turned onto a new road, this one wide as a river and paved with cobbles. At first there were only a handful of travelers and a wagon or two, but to me it seemed like a great crowd after such a long time alone.
We went deeper into the city, and low buildings gave way to taller shops and inns. Trees and gardens were replaced by alleys and cart vendors. The great river of a road grew clogged and choked with the flotsam of a hundred carts and pedestrians, dozens of wains and wagons and the occasional mounted man.
There was the sound of horses’ hooves and people shouting, the smell of beer and sweat and garbage and tar. I wondered which city this was, and if I’d been here before, before—
I gritted my teeth and forced myself to think of other things.
“Almost there,” Seth raised his voice above the din. Eventually the road opened out into a market. Wagons rolled on the cobbles with a sound like distant thunder. Voices bargained and fought. Somewhere in the distance a child was crying shrill and high. We rode aimlessly for a while until he found an empty corner in front of a bookshop.
Seth stopped the wagon and I hopped out as they were stretching away the kinks from the road. Then, with a sort of silent agreement, I helped them unload the lumpy sacks from the back of the wagon and pile them to one side.
A half an hour later we were resting among the piled sacks. Seth looked at me, shading his eyes with a hand. “What are ye doin’ in town today, boy?”
“I need lute strings,” I said. Only then did I realize I didn’t know where my father’s lute was. I looked around wildly. It wasn’t in the wagon where I’d left it, or leaning against the wall, or on the piles of squash. My stomach clenched until I spotted it underneath some loose burlap sacking. I walked over to it and picked it up with shaking hands.
The older farmer grinned at me and held out a pair of the knobby squash we’d been unloading. “How would your mother like it if you brought home a couple of the finest orange butter squash this side of the Eld?”
“No, I can’t,” I stammered, pushing away a memory of raw fingers
digging in the mud and the smell of burning hair. “I m—mean, you’ve already…” I trailed off, clutching my lute closer to my chest and moving a couple of steps away.
He looked at me more closely, as if seeing me for the first time. Suddenly self-conscious, I imagined how I must look: ragged and half-starved. I hugged the lute and backed farther away. The farmer’s hands fell to his side and his smile faded. “Ah, lad,” he said softly.
He set the squash down, then turned back to me and spoke with a gentle seriousness. “Me and Jake will be here selling until round about sundown. If you find what you’re looking for by then, you’d be welcome back on the farm with us. The missus and me could sure use an extra hand some days. You’d be more than welcome. Wouldn’t he Jake?”
Jake was looking at me too, pity written across his honest face. “Sure enough, Pa. She said so right afore we left.”
The old farmer continued to look at me with serious eyes. “This is Seaward Square.” He said, pointing at his feet. “We’ll be here till dark, maybe a little after. You come back if’n you want a ride.” His eyes turned worried. “You hear me? You can come back with us.”
I continued to back away, step by step, not sure why I was doing it. Only knowing that if I went with him I would have to explain, would have to remember. Anything was better than opening that door….
“No. No, thank you,” I stammered. “You’ve helped so much. I’ll be fine.” I was jostled from behind by a man in a leather apron. Startled, I turned and ran.
I heard one of them call out behind me, but the crowd drowned them out.
I ran, my heart heavy in my chest.
Tarbean is big enough that you cannot walk from one end to the other in a single day. Not even if you avoid getting lost or accosted in the tangled web of twisting streets and dead end alleys.
It was too big, actually. It was vast, immense. Seas of people, forests of buildings, roads wide as rivers. It smelled like urine and sweat and coal smoke and tar. If I had been in my right mind, I never would have gone there.
In the fullness of time, I became lost. I took a turn too early or too late, then tried to compensate by cutting through an alley like a narrow chasm between two tall buildings. It wound like a gully carved by a river that had left to find a cleaner bed. Garbage drifted up the walls and filled the cracks between buildings and the alcove doorways. After I had taken several turns I caught the rancid smell of something dead.
I turned a corner and staggered against a wall as pain stars blinded me. I felt rough hands grab hold of my arms.
I opened my eyes to see an older boy. He was twice my size with dark hair and savage eyes. The dirt that smudged his face gave him the appearance of having a beard, making his young face strangely cruel.
Two other boys jerked me away from the wall. I yelped as one of them twisted my arm. The older boy smiled at the sound and ran a hand through his hair. “What are you doin’ here, Nalt? You lost?” His grin broadened.
I tried to pull away but one of the boys twisted my wrist and I gasped, “No.”
“I think he’s lost, Pike,” the boy on my right said. The one on my left elbowed me sharply in the side of the head and the alley tilted crazily around me.
“I’m looking for the Woodworks,” I muttered, slightly stunned.
Pike’s expression turned murderous. His hands grabbed my shoulders. “Did I ask you a question?” he shouted. “Did I say you could talk?” He slammed his forehead into my face and I felt a sharp crack followed by an explosion of pain.
“Hey, Pike.” The voice seemed to come from an impossible direction. A foot nudged my lute case, tipping it over. “Hey Pike, look at this.”
Pike looked down at the hollow thump as the lute case fell flat against the ground. “What did you steal, Nalt?”
“I didn’t steal it.”
One of the boys holding my arms laughed. “Yeah, your uncle gave it to you so you could sell it to buy medicine for your sick grandma.” He laughed again while I tried to blink the tears out of my eyes.
I heard three clicks as the latches were undone. Then came the distinctive harmonic thrum as the lute was taken out of its case.
“Your grandma is gonna be mighty sorry you lost this, Nalt,” Pike’s voice was quiet.
“Tehlu crush us!” the boy on my right exploded. “Pike, ya know how much one of them’s worth? Gold, Pike!”
“Don’t say Tehlu’s name like that,” said the boy on my left. “What?”
“‘Do not call on Tehlu save in the greatest need, for Tehlu judges every thought and deed,’” he recited.
“Tehlu and his great glowing penis can piss all over me if that thing isn’t worth twenty talents. That means we can get at least six from Diken. Do you know what you can do with that much money?”
“You won’t get the chance to do anything with it if you don’t quit saying things like that. Tehlu watches over us, but he is vengeful.” The second boy’s voice was reverent and afraid.
“You’ve been sleeping in the church again haven’t you? You get religion
like I get fleas.”
“I’ll tie your arms in a knot.” “Your ma’s a penny whore.” “Don’t talk about my mom, Lin.” “Iron pennies.”
By this time I had managed to blink my eyes free from the tears and I could see Pike squatting in the alley. He seemed fascinated by my lute. My beautiful lute. He had a dreamy look in his eyes as he held it, turning it over and over in his dirty hands. A slow horror was dawning on me through the haze of fear and pain.
As the two voices grew louder behind me, I began to feel a hot anger inside. I tensed. I couldn’t fight them, but I knew if I got hold of my lute and made it into a crowd I could lose them and be safe again.
“…but she kept humping away anyway. But now she only got a halfpenny a throw. That’s why your head is so soft. You’re lucky you don’t have a dent. So don’t feel bad, that’s why you get religious so easy.” The first boy finished triumphantly.
I felt only a tenseness on my right side. I tensed too, ready to spring.
“But thanks for the warning. I hear Tehlu likes to hide behind big clumps of horseshit and th—”
Suddenly both of my arms were free as one boy tackled the other into the wall. I sprinted the three steps to Pike, grabbed the lute by the neck, and pulled.
But Pike was quicker than I’d expected, or stronger. The lute didn’t come away in my hand. I was jerked to a halt and Pike was pulled to his feet.
My frustration and anger boiled over. I let go of the lute and threw myself at Pike. I clawed madly at his face and neck, but he was a veteran of too many street fights to let me get close to anything vital. One of my fingernails tore a line of blood across his face from ear to chin. Then he was against me, pressing me back until I hit the alley wall.
My head struck brick, and I would have fallen if Pike hadn’t been grinding me into the crumbling wall. I gasped for breath and only then realized I’d been screaming all the while.
He smelled like old sweat and rancid oil. His hands pinned my arms to my sides as he pressed me harder into the wall. I was dimly aware that he must have dropped my lute.
I gasped for breath again and flailed blindly, knocking my head against the wall again. I found my face pressed into his shoulder and bit down hard. I felt his skin break under my teeth and tasted blood.
Pike screamed and jerked away from me. I drew a breath and winced at a tearing pain in my chest.
Before I could move or think, Pike grabbed me again. He bludgeoned me
up against the wall once, twice. My head whipsawed back and forth, caroming off the wall. Then he grabbed me by the throat, spun me around, and threw me to the ground.
That’s when I heard the noise, and everything seemed to stop.
After my troupe was murdered, there were times when I would dream of my parents, alive and singing. In my dream their deaths had been a mistake, a misunderstanding, a new play they had been rehearsing. And for a few moments I had relief from the great blanketing grief that was constantly crushing me. I hugged them and we laughed at my foolish worry. I sang with them, and for a moment everything was wonderful. Wonderful.
But I always woke up, alone in the dark by the forest pool. What was I doing out here? Where were my parents?
Then I would remember everything, like a wound ripping open. They were dead and I was terribly alone. And that great weight that had been lifted for just a moment would come crushing down again, worse than before because I wasn’t ready for it. Then I would lay on my back, staring into the dark with my chest aching and my breath coming hard, knowing deep inside that nothing would ever be right, ever again.
When Pike threw me to the ground, my body was almost too numb to feel my father’s lute being crushed underneath me. The sound it made was like a dying dream, and it brought that same sick, breathless ache back to my chest.
I looked around and saw Pike breathing heavily and clutching his shoulder. One of the boys was kneeling on the chest of the other. They weren’t wrestling anymore, both were looking in my direction, stunned.
I stared numbly at my hands, bloody where slivers of wood had pierced the skin.
“Little bastard bit me,” Pike said quietly, as if he couldn’t quite believe what had happened.
“Get off me,” said the boy lying on his back.
“I said you shouldn’t say those things. Look what happened.”
Pike’s expression twisted and his face went a livid red. “Bit me!” he shouted and swung a vicious kick at my head.
I tried to get out of the way without doing any more damage to the lute. His kick caught me in the kidney and sent me sprawling into the wreckage again, splintering it even further.
“See what happens when you mock Tehlu’s name?”
“Shut up about Tehlu. Get off me and grab that thing. It might still be worth something to Diken.”
“Look what you did!” Pike continued to howl above me. A kick caught me in the side and rolled me halfway over. The edges of my vision started to
darken. I almost welcomed it as a distraction. But the deeper pain was still there, untouched. I balled my bloody hands into stinging fists.
“These knob things still seem okay. They’re silvery, I’ll bet we can get something for them.”
Pike pulled back his foot again. I tried to put up my hands to keep it away, but my arms just twitched and Pike kicked me in the stomach.
“Grab that bit over there….” “Pike. Pike!”
Pike kicked me in the stomach again and I vomited weakly onto the cobblestones.
“You there, stop! City Watch!” A new voice shouted. A heartbeat of stillness was followed by a scuffle and a flurry of pattering feet. A second later, heavy boots pounded past and faded in the distance.
I remember the ache in my chest. I blacked out.
I was shaken out of darkness by someone turning my pockets inside out. I tried unsuccessfully to open my eyes.
I heard a voice muttering to itself, “Is this all I get for saving your life? Copper and a couple shims? Drinks for an evening? Worthless little sod.” He coughed deep in his chest and the smell of stale liquor washed over me. “Screaming like that. If you hadn’t sounded like a girl I wouldn’t have run all this way.”
I tried to say something, but it dribbled out as a groan.
“Well, you’re alive. That’s something, I suppose.” I heard a grunt as he stood up, then the heavy thumping of his boots faded away into silence.
After a while I found I could open my eyes. My vision was blurry and my nose felt larger than the rest of my head. I prodded it delicately. Broken. Remembering what Ben had taught me, I put one hand on each side of it and twisted it sharply back into place. I clenched my teeth against a cry of pain, and my eyes filled with tears.
I blinked them away and was relieved when I saw the street without the painful blurriness of a moment ago. The contents of my small sack lay next to me on the ground: a half ball of string, a small dull knife, Rhetoric and Logic, and the remainder of a piece of bread the farmer had given me for lunch. It seemed like forever ago.
The farmer. I thought of Seth and Jake. Soft bread and butter. Songs while riding in a wagon. Their offer of a safe place, a new home….
A sudden memory was followed by a sudden sickening panic. I looked around the alley, my head aching from the sudden movement. Sifting the garbage with my hands I found some terribly familiar shards of wood. I stared at them mutely as the world darkened imperceptibly around me. I darted a
look at the thin strip of sky visible overhead and saw it was purpling into twilight.
How late was it? I hurried to gather my possessions, treating Ben’s book more gently than the rest, and limped off in what I hoped was the direction of Seaward Square.
The last of twilight had faded from the sky by the time I found the square. A few wagons rolled sluggishly among the few straggling customers. I limped wildly from corner to corner of the square, searching madly for the old farmer who had given me a ride. Searching for the sight of one of those ugly, knobby squash.
When I finally found the bookstore Seth had parked beside, I was panting and staggering. Seth and his wagon were nowhere to be seen. I sank down into the empty space their wagon had left and felt the aches and pains of a dozen injuries that I had forced myself to ignore.
I felt them out, one by one. I had several painful ribs, although I couldn’t tell if they were broken or if the cartilage was torn. I was dizzy and nauseous when I moved my head too quickly, probably a concussion. My nose was broken, and I had more bruises and scrapes than I could conveniently count. I was also hungry.
The last being the only thing I could do anything about, I took what was left of my piece of bread from earlier in the day and ate it. It wasn’t enough, but it was better than nothing. I took a drink from a horse trough and was thirsty enough not to care that the water was brackish and sour.
I thought of leaving, but it would take me hours of walking in my current condition. Besides, there was nothing waiting for me on the outskirts of the city except miles upon miles of harvested farmland. No trees to keep the wind away. No wood to make a fire. No rabbits to set traps for. No roots to dig. No heather for a bed.
I was so hungry my stomach was a hard knot. Here at least I could smell chicken cooking somewhere. I would have gone looking for the smell, but I was dizzy, and my ribs hurt. Maybe tomorrow someone would give me something to eat. Right now I was too tired. I wanted nothing more than to sleep.
The cobblestones were losing the last of the sun’s heat and the wind was picking up. I moved back into the doorway of the bookshop to get out of the wind. I was almost asleep when the owner of the shop opened the door and kicked at me, telling me to shove off or he’d call the guard. I limped away as quickly as I could.
After that I found some empty crates in an alley. I curled up behind them, bruised and weary. I closed my eyes and tried not to remember what it was
like to go to sleep warm and full, surrounded by people who loved you.
That was the first night of nearly three years I spent in Tarbean.