The Barefoot King
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Part I (of V): Fight or Flight
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(Special thanks to weighed and measured for beta-ing!)
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A band of poachers dragged a dead male cat laguz down the dusty streets of Daein, mired in its half-human form, strangled by two lengths of rope cinched tightly around its neck. The burly, grime-drenched poacher at the head of the group held a severed, striped tail and bore it like a standard, waving it above his head proudly. A wall of people dressed in once-white tatters had gathered around to watch the spectacle, some flanking the poachers six, the rest trailing behind in an exultant swarm.
A blue-haired orphan boy named Pelleas stood in the storm and let himself get carried away by the wave, floating roughly wherever the crowd directed him. He was nearly thirteen, and like all of the children watching, he had been pushed to the back, forced to stand on the tips of his toes to see the precession. The crowd increased in size as they moved down the road, encircling the poachers, fighting to catch a glimpse of their catch. People cursed and cheered and thrust their clenched fists towards the sky, hurling slurs, some yelling for the cat's head as the corpse scraped against the coarse gravel.
"What's go—goin' on here?" Pelleas asked as people roughly pushed past him to get to the front of the mob. He knew enough about his homeland to know exactly what was happening but nonetheless felt the need to ask, and he asked several times before he could be heard over the din.
"What's goin' on? Well, what th'ell do you think's going on, kid?" A tall, burly man in a torn grayed-out shirt pushed his way beside Pelleas and put a hand on the boy's shoulder. Pelleas could barely hear his loud shouts over the human vultures' cacophony. "They caught one o' them sub-humans slinkin' around the market stealin' fruits. They're draggin' it through the streets." The man's lips contorted into a wide, crooked smile. "They're gonna bring it around, let er'ryone see it."
"I see. Bring it 'round," Pelleas said unenthusiastically, repeating what the man had just told him, trying to process it. He wiped the sweat from his face with the sleeve of his tunic. "So they caught one of those sub-humans."
Well… Pelleas thought, glad that his thoughts could not be heard. If that's the way it's supposed to be, then I guess there's no helping it, but...
He'd only seen a live laguz once in his life, and he'd never forgotten. He was ten, walking alone through the forest west of town when he'd came upon him, a cat with a deep scar beneath one eye and a spattering of blood on his vest, moving at a hobbled dash through the trees. Pelleas had seen it and stopped in his tracks, remembering the stories about how vicious the sub-human breed was when provoked, how they'd no more mind than a wild animal, weaned on flesh and fury alone. He remembered standing there, paralyzed, begging for mercy, but the cat had hastily cried "I mean you no harm!" before running away, and its eyes spoke of something Pelleas never expected of a wounded beast: fear.
"That'll learn 'em wot, reckon. Learn 'em not put their oily fingers on what's a human's own. Rats, each one."
"Ah...rats?" Pelleas asked idly, lost in thought as usual. "Why'd you say that?"
The man turned and spat a chewed stream of seeds at Pelleas's bare feet. On his face was an expression somewhere between incredulity and rough amusement. "Why? As'f humans needed a reason to beat down an uppity sub-human? Goddess made'm sinners all, trapped 'em in a state closer to th' beasts. Some say there's redemption in 'em—but fuck if I'dn't beat down the righteousest subby priest iff'n I e'er saw one." A self-satisfied laugh, and the man took his leave, rejoining the crowd in celebration.
Is that so...I didn't know sub-humans were ever so bad...
Hot and unmerciful, the sun abused Pelleas as he passed through. The sun must have been angry, as it never relented, growing hotter and more intense with every passing minute. Pelleas was thankful that the dirt road was only mildly warm underfoot; like everyone else in the barren backwoods of Iolana, Pelleas wasn't allowed the luxury of shoes.
He stood on his toes again and tried to see over the heads of the tall men in front of him. Sometimes he caught a glimpse of one of the poachers lumbering forward, and occasionally he saw the body briefly as it thump, thumped against the ground.
Amongst the other plain townsfolk of Iolana, Pelleas found ways to make himself inconspicuous, whether it was as one of the many dejected children at the orphanage or as a street urchin in the middle of the road or as a shadow of a shadow in the shadows of an alley between stone hovels and decrepit wooden shacks. Exciting happenings were as common as a total eclipse, so whenever anything remotely interesting took place, the townsfolk all gathered and reveled, and the revelry was always loudest and most joyful when it was cruel.
Stray elbows struck Pelleas in the ribs and people pushed him out of the way as they fought to the front, bouncing from one person to another, swept along in the growing tide. People shouted and chanted and thrust their fists into the air, and someone inadvertently punched Pelleas in the side of the face.
Pelleas followed the crowd, wondering where they were all going and when they would stop, when someone called out from behind him.
Pelleas' friend, a scrawny boy wearing dark green rags, ran from the street behind him, empty but for the trailing crowd. He pushed through a few rows of people until he met Pelleas with a loose handshake. The crowd moved along as they stood still.
"You hear what's been goin' on?" Miles said. His face was marked by freckles and covered in dull gray dust. His eyes were beady mires in his small, rounded face and his hair was dark red under the layers of dirt and oil and grime. He smiled and kept smiling, showing off his yellow-gray teeth and the gaps where two of them were missing.
"No, I—I haven't," Pelleas said. A gust of wind blew through the empty street and blew sand into Pelleas' eyes. "All I know is that they killed a sub-human, and they're draggin' it through the streets."
"Well, that's pretty much'n the all of it. He had it comin' to him, didn't he? They sayin' things are gettin' pretty rough. They don't want any sub-humans slinkin' around here, nosing up in a beorc's business. The hunters 'ave a keener eye for any no-gooders lately. Make an example of 'em, t's what I say. Kill 'em! Kill 'em all! Right?"
"Wait, w-what do y'mean that things are 'pretty rough'?"
"Somethin' about a subby insurgence, Pelleas!" Miles said. His green eyes lit and burned red. "There's going to be a war—well, sorta, but not really! They're massin' soldiers to crush some sub-human rebels! It's suppose'n to be a secret, but e'eryone around here knows about it. Cat subbies, tiger subbies, somma dem birds, King Ashnard's a'gonna kill 'em all—they say he like to bleed things, don't he?"
"There's going to be a war? Why?" Pelleas stopped and his friend looked impatiently from him to the mob, which was steadily moving away, breaking into smaller groups as the poachers dragged the cat into the heart of the village, towards the lone, small tree in the dead center of town.
"Things're gonna be a'changin', Pelleas," Miles said, grinning. Pelleas had never seen him so excited, bouncing from one foot to the other. "People're saying the king's trainin' more knights an' footsoldiers an' he's hirin' mercenaries—guys who fight for gold, y'know—from e'erywhere in Tellius, even Begnion an' Crimea, so he can get their swords an' their secrets!"
"Oh, I—why?" Pelleas stammered. He knew the idea of his country having lots of new soldiers should have excited him; instead it gnawed at him and left him with a sour feeling in his stomach. He felt stupid.
Now he probably thinks I'm stupid. I—I don't know anything about sub-humans either…
Miles did in fact look at Pelleas like he was stupid. "Why d'you think, Pelleas? There's rumors goin' around, but I know the truth. World war!" His eyes exploded with awe and he bore every one of his stained teeth like stubby little yellowed firecrackers. "Nobody says it in front of nobody else, but everybody knows that whenever the king gets all his new soldiers ready he's gonna take over the world. The world, don't'cha know? And Daein will own the world! I can't wait!"
But what does that do for us? Pelleas wondered. He smiled because Miles was smiling, but he didn't feel happy, and Pelleas wondered what was wrong with his brain. I don't get it. What did that sub-human do so that was bad anyways? Nobody said anything about that…
"That's—swell," he managed.
"What's wrong with you, Pelleas?" Miles asked, his mouth twisted into a strange sort of smile. "You sick or somethin'? You ought be more like th' hero Pelleas. You inn't nothin' like 'im. You know'in the story of 'im, the Terror a' Talrega? That's why whores an' housewives call their whelps 'Pelleas', wot? Inn't you ever hear the story? Inn't no one e'er told you of it?"
Lost to his story, Miles spared a glance up the road.
"Whoa, look how far ahead everyone is!" said he suddenly. "C'mon, Pelleas, don't you want to see them string that subby up? They'll be all gone by th' time we get there, c'mon!"
Before Pelleas could answer, his friend was off, chasing after the poachers, laughing. Pelleas followed him down the long, long road, running at half-speed, listening to the sounds of distant celebration. By the time he caught up with the mob, it had already made its way to the center of town, hooting and shrieking like nothing human as it raised the laguz up. Pelleas had to stop and clutch his knees to catch his breath; his lungs felt about to implode and his legs ached.
Pelleas stood and tried to push through from the back of the throng. A man Pelleas could not see called out. "This what happn's to sub-humans 'round here! This what happn's to lesser breeds!"
By the time Pelleas sorted through the crowd, the noise had settled down and people started to disperse. Finally he saw. Pelleas had heard stories of sub-humans being hanged and strung up on trees before, and they were always hung by the neck. This one wasn't given even that courtesy. Already strangled to death, the cat had been dangled upside-down from the highest branch by a rope tied around one ankle and left to swing like a pendulum, its head almost scraping the ground. Its eyes were rolled back and its neck was red and chafed where the two ropes had wound around and cut into his flesh. He'd a scar beneath one eye. Its bare chest and stomach were covered with deep knife gouges, some of them fresh, and between its legs was a gaping fissure where its manhood had been (Twelve-year old Pelleas didn't even know if laguz had the same boy parts as beorc did, but he could only assume in horror.)
The sight made Pelleas want to vomit, and he did, right at the base of the tree, and everybody looked at him like he was crazy, just like Miles had. When he stood up and wiped his mouth clean, he felt countless eyes gawking at him. His ears and the back of his neck flushed hot and he wished he could disappear, maybe melt into the dirt until he was thick-gooey-Pelleas, a liquid hiding under the surface of the road. People started walking away, mumbling amongst themselves until the crowd had dispersed, and even Miles had left him without saying a word. A crow cawed overhead.
What if that was me? What if it was someone I knew? This can't be in the right...can it?
Unwilling to look up, Pelleas looked down at his dirty tunic, looked down at his bare, rough feet, and felt the dirt crusted on his face, and he knew he still looked the same as everyone else, and even his blue hair was nothing unusual. He knew that from the outside he mixed in with all the others, that he was the same as all the dirty little children in the orphanage, but for the first time in his life, he began to feel different from the people that came and went around him. And for some strange reason, staring down at the dirt, thinking about the life the cat might have led in another place, Pelleas retched again.
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Pelleas abhorred living in an orphanage. It was a simple life, and the only one he'd ever known: his first memories were of the three matrons who ran the place scolding him for something or other he'd done, and him, young and sensitive, blubbering in the corner, sobbing at so much as a raised voice. Despite all appearances—two were shriveled, cold-eyed old abbesses, and one was a young, dirty woman who never smiled—they were never cruel. They were apathetic, and the life and welfare of their charges was motivated solely by their reluctance to see them die on their watch. Any illness or injury not likely to result in death, they ignored, and they punished children only out of obligation to ensure they'd not backslide into crime later in life and reflect poorly on their "humble guidance." Pelleas had memories of watching his fellows ask for more pease porridge or gruel—he'd never been so bold as to ask himself—and seeing the matrons ignore them completely, not even lending them an eye. Children came and went to play in the streets or amble into town, and wandered back in whenever they liked, and the matrons cared no more than if someone sneezed. The orphanage's curfew was more suggestion than law, and if a child left one day and never returned, it was simply one less mouth to feed, one less hand to have to hold.
Pelleas never had the chance to become close to anyone at the orphanage. Most of the children ostracized him for his shy demeanor, matted dark hair, and preference to spend time alone thinking; those few he did befriend were without warning adopted by widows, wealthy landowners looking for farmhands, and infertile families desperate for companionship from as close as Nevassa and as far away as Begnion. Usually the children were all too happy to leave Pelleas and the dirty, poorly-lit orphanage behind. The patrons from Nevassa could at least afford to feed their children two full meals and perhaps an apple to break their fast, and those from Begnion were often amazingly affluent, seeking a child from Daein to prove how they could turn a "garbage child" into a marvelous high-class social trophy. The few girls Pelleas had enough courage to say hello to and lightly befriend were usually taken away to become scullery maids or cleaning girls at best, prostitutes at worst. But usually when the gentlemen and women, their skirts like brooms in the dust-so long you knew they were from out of town—came by, the orphans clamored, hunting down any excuse to run far, far away from their lives—"the life of pigs." For his part, Pelleas shrank whenever a visitor came. As dull and as meaningless as it was, he'd rather that to a life of suspense in the bowels of the city.
The one friend Pelleas knew that had always accepted him and hadn't gone away either by running to freedom or by adoption was a girl of twelve by the name of Illumina. Visitors quite frequently came to the orphanage where Pelleas bided his time, but no one ever as much as gave Illumina a second look, even though girls (oftenest the oldest-looking ones and the ones with the widest hips) were always adopted quicker than boys were. To hear Illumina tell it, she had been there two years and only one woman so much as inquired about adopting her.
He remembered when they met, too. It was about a year before, when he'd been sitting alone in a corner, biting back tears from something the other boys had said.
"What are you doing sitting here alone?" she'd asked innocently, her hands folded behind her back.
Pelleas had stammered and found not the words to answer.
"Are you lonesome?"
He'd rubbed his eyes with his sandy sleeves and was about to deny his loneliness utterly when she sat gracefully beside him, folding her small hands over the lap of her dress.
"Well, you needn't be lonely a'more. What's your name?"
"Pelleas," he'd answered; she'd told him it was a nice name and gave him hers in exchange, and from that moment they were friends, meeting every morning to walk about and talk. Sometimes he'd tell her about the stories of heroes he'd read in books, and she'd marvel at how he knew his letters and ask him to read to her, and when he did she always lit up and threw her arms around him in appreciation.
Illumina was short, even for a girl. She had short legs and short arms but long hair like reddened gold leaf curling down almost to her shoulders. She wore the same long, simple white dress every day, now stained an ashen gray from years of sleeping in dirty straw beds and playing in the dusty streets. A small, dark red bow rested comfortably at her collar. Pelleas thought the bow was cute. Pelleas thought everything about her was cute. She always looked sleepy, her eyes half-closed, but whenever she laughed she opened them, a beady and beautiful shade of violet. Her freckled cheeks were caked with dirt and blackened with soot, but whenever he teased her playfully, she turned rosy pink, and Pelleas thought it was the cutest thing he had ever seen. And even among the other girls, her smile was her one feature set her apart—and like a yawn, whenever she showed her smile it always spread to him. She didn't talk much, but whenever she talked to him or sang, Pelleas always enjoyed it. Pelleas loved the sound of her voice.
The other girls all made fun of Illumina. They called her faerie, brownie, stray cat, dwarf; always made her "it" when playing "finders, hiders" and then disappeared; never let her play with their soot-dusted dolls or let her join in when they sang "Little Old May"; never once let her jump rope with them, even though Pelleas had heard her ask them politely many times. Pelleas couldn't understand—couldn't even begin to rationalize—why anyone would treat someone with such lovely eyes so cruelly.
Illumina was the only person at the orphanage besides Pelleas who knew what chess was, let alone how to play. Whenever Pelleas wanted to play a few games, he went to her and they'd sneak up to the abandoned library where they could play and talk without being disturbed. Sometimes they spent the whole day there, playing and talking, and she taught him "Little Old May" and many other girly songs that the other girls wouldn't sing with her. In the dark, dusty solace of the library, when he knew that only he and Illumina were around, he didn't mind singing those girly songs, as long as she sang with him. Illumina was the best friend that Pelleas had, and the only one he was comfortable being himself around. He could never explain why that was, save for the unfounded belief that somehow, even more than the others, Illumina knew what it felt to need a friend.
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Pelleas took comfort in his routine, in his habits. In the morning when he woke he always went for a walk, sun or rain, and in his own way he cherished being caught in a sudden rain storm, even if it meant spending the rest of the day soaked and returning to the matrons castigating him for risking an illness. In the dry season there was enough sun to share with all, and in times when rain was often scarce—for him and for everyone else—any water was precious to him.
If he felt well enough and his breaths didn't escape him—as they were wont to do after a morning walk—Pelleas would head southeast towards a lush grove past the bordering town, the greenest place in southern Daein, surprisingly close to the dusty valleys further to the west. He gathered water from the crystal-clear brook and made it a habit to visit the small shrine in the heart of the forest. There, alone with nature, was the only place Pelleas found peace enough to think, apart from the boisterous sounds of children playing.
By the time he arrived, he was usually out of breath and soaked with sweat, but sitting on a stump or in the soft earth of the grove made him feel better. The peaceful sounds of water trickling and birds cheeping happily always calmed his body and his nerves and before long he would feel rejuvenated again.
In a clearing of the wood, where the sun shined unfiltered through the canopy line, there was a very small stone building in disrepair, covered in spidery vines of ivy and surrounded by undergrowth. At the front of the shrine, a white-gray marbled goddess stood timeless vigil as though millennia could be witnessed in-between blinks. The goddess was Fortuna, one of the original deities worshipped across Tellius before the Goddess's word spread, and Pelleas reckoned that such statues only remained in Daein now. In Begnion, they had all been torn down and hammered into dust, or so he heard; according to the decree of the Senate of Begnion, there had never existed a "Fortuna" or any deity of her kin.
The Fortuna, the very real Fortuna, had fallen into ill health. In her left hand, her wheel with eight spokes was cracked and starting to crumble, and many years prior her right hand had fallen off completely, a feature which seemed only to make her appear more mysterious and entrancing. She was beautiful, as all goddesses are, but time had not been kind to Her Lady. Her cheek was beginning to chip, her eyes remained hidden behind a stone blindfold, and her cheeks were cracking and fading in the face of the angry elements. Her billowy marble cape—a master artisan's touch—was beginning to tear, leaving unraveled threads of stone lying beside her. The weathering and small cracks beneath her deep eyes almost gave the impression that she was crying tears of marble into her sunny smile.
And despite this, Pelleas found her very lovely. She was quiet and unassuming, and seeing her always smile as she did, so pleasantly and calmly, reassured him that yes, through cutting rain and wind or snow, she would remain there for him if ever he needed company. He was never shy or self-conscious in her presence as he was around other girls; hers were the only bare breasts Pelleas had ever seen, but a sculpted cloth kept her from being fully nude in the fashion of Begnion statuary. She leaned back against the wall as she was meant to do, and it seemed fitting that her legs were beginning to crack, so that only her sacred shrine at her back kept her from falling to her knees.
Pelleas sifted through the weeds and knelt at Fortuna's feet. She was supposedly a goddess of luck and good fortune, and since Pelleas had known a healthy amount of misfortune, he knew that he had found the perfect place to spend his time. Pelleas didn't know any prayers of any sort, so he usually asked Fortuna just to give him and his friends good health and money. He wanted to believe—and convinced himself to believe, with ferocious insistence—that if he wished often enough and forcefully enough and purely enough, that Fortuna might extend her hand to him and enrich him, if only a little. Above Lady Fortuna's head in the stone wall was carved the words "Fortune Favours the Bold" below a small engraving of Fortuna's eight-spoked wheel.
On either side of Fortuna there were small entryways where broken stone steps led down into a small room with eight unlit metal braziers in a circle and a low table roughly carved from rock. In the center of the perfectly square room—in fact, it was the only room in the shrine—the symbol of a wheel with eight spokes lay etched in the floor, identical to the wheel that Fortuna held. Pelleas always wondered exactly what type of ceremonies had performed here, but he could only assume that it involved fire somehow.
The street whisperers told a grim story about a worshipper of the fire goddess Igna, who had traveled to Sienne in the heart of Begnion, preaching the virtues of his goddess in a crowded plaza. When the Senate's soldiers found the disciple, they put his faith in this fire goddess to the test by binding him hand and foot and throwing him into a bonfire before a crowd of hundreds. The man had not been quite as devout as he had seemed. Pelleas chose not to believe that story. There were plenty other horrific tales passed around the streets of Daein by gossipers. Pelleas chose not to believe those either.
It was a day like any other. Two weeks had passed since the hanging and it was only a week and a half before his thirteenth birth-day. The shrine in the overgrowth was one of the only places Pelleas had found where he was sure no one would disturb his reading. Even the boarded up, empty library he frequented to filch abandoned books often had bats and large rats passing through, and that was a much darker and more frightening place to spend time anyway. The silence in the sacred shrine was comforting. Sometimes Pelleas wanted nothing more than some time alone to gather his thoughts and relax.
A finely-carved stone table sat almost against the far wall. Pelleas placed down the book he had brought, slipped his legs cross-legged under the table, and began to read. He had taught himself his letters in secret because no one else he knew could read, and he made a promise to himself that he would finish the book he had now, The Great Heroes of Old Crimea, before his birth-day came. By his estimate, he had only about two hundred pages left, and a lot of them had detailed, well-drawn inkings taking half the space or more. He had started reading three days earlier, and he had a feeling that with all the beautiful illustrations (some of them painted in with water-paint), a good friend of his might like to see it also. Pelleas had read about ten pages and saw a fantastic colorful picture of Rillant the Righteous with his blade Lionclaw when he heard the voices.
"This the place? This beat-up old shrine?" A rough man's voice.
"Yes, the old shrine of 'Fortuna'. This is it." Another man's voice, softer and more melodic than the first.
The shrine had entrances only on one wall, and the voices came from the other direction. Pelleas held his breath and crept to the far wall, peering out a thin vertical slit in the stone. Two men walked through the woods towards the building, their feet stamping through the grass. One man was tall and stout, in leather armor and a skullcap, carrying a large steel sledgehammer. The other man was short and young—no older than twenty—in priest's robes, fair as the sun, wearing a cream-orange cloak clasped at the shoulder and the royal emblem of Begnion on his breast. His skin was deathly pale and he coughed as he walked.
Pelleas waited until the two men circled around of the building, then hid under the stone table, pressing down against the floor, trying not to breathe. He closed his eyes and opened his ears.
"So that's what this 'Fortuna' lass looks like, eh?" the tall man said. He laughed. "Might be I'd like to have a ride on 'er."
The young man's brow contorted strangely. "That…thing is no more than a contemptible icon—no goddess and certainly no living woman. Ashera is the one true deity!"
The other man laughed again. "Right, then. You know, maybe you could get more of us blokes to believe in your Goddess if you let your priestesses do a little extra? A wee bit of 'prayer' in a quiet bedroom could do anyone good, inn't right?"
"You must not suggest such things," the young priest said between coughs. "Maidens who pledge their service to Ashera must swear a strict vow of celibacy. The Goddess does not take kindly to a woman despoiling herself by—"
"Ah, come off it," the tough man said, amused. "That's too high a stannard; I don't know how you little white-cloaks do it. No church c'd tell us what t'do, not where I growed up from. I don't know any virgins t'all, wot. Bloody hell, I don't think I c'd go wi'out fuckin' for a week, let alone f'rever!" He chortled and snorted loudly. "Listen'me, lad, girls inn't no angels. They don't grow no wings nor rise from the dead an' they piss like you an' me do, just from diffe'n places, innit right? This Fortuna here ain't no diffe'n' n'at—you look unner her robes an' sure as sunrise you'll find her cun—"
"Enough!" the priest shrieked, mortified, before going into a racking spasm of coughs. Pelleas wondered when he would stop, but finally he did, gasping for air, and took a deep breath to compose himself. The two men seemed to be right near the entrance of the shrine, and though they were some distance away from where Pelleas was hiding, they almost seemed to be coming closer with every word, their feet rustling noisily in the underbrush. Pelleas tried to crane his neck up just enough to catch another glimpse of them, but to no avail.
"We were sent here to purge this monstrosity in the name of Duke Gaddos," the young priest said. He tried to raise his voice to some heroic standard, but to Pelleas he still sounded more like a sickly bard sucking on a medicine spoon than a righteous hero. "These 'elder gods' the people of Daein still worship…that these things still even exist is contemptible! With all this blasphemous iconography corrupting them, I am not surprised that the Daein small-folk still resist the goodly teachings of Ashera! We have come to do the Goddess' work!" The priest gathered in his voice all the venom and disgust in his voice of which he was humanly capable. "This…heathen goddess—kill her!"
The tall, strong man laughed loudly, grunted in the affirmative, and then there was the horrible crunching sound of steel striking stone, again and again and again. The first blow of the hammer startled Pelleas so much he hit his head on the bottom of the table, but fortunately his cry was muffled by Fortuna's dying wails.
Thump thump crash
When the song of metal stopped, the tall man sighed contentedly, and the footsteps moved around the side of the building. Pelleas slipped out from under the table, nursing the bump on the top of his head, careful not to move too suddenly. He crept to the wall, to the window, heard the sounds of the two men bickering over money and compensation and the will of the Goddess and other things, saw their backs slowly walk away, and soon their voices faded along with their footsteps, and Pelleas was alone again. He sat back on the ground and exhaled deeply, heart beating out of control. His forehead was glazed with sweat.
W-what happened? Were those people…from Begnion?
Pelleas gathered his thoughts, collected his book, and walked unnecessarily slowly out of the shrine and into the brush. When he saw Fortuna, he gasped. The sledgehammer had crushed her skull beyond comprehension, split into pieces no bigger than fingers. Her blindfold had been ground to bits. Her left hand was broken apart and the wheel with eight spokes was no more than dust blowing in the breeze. Her corpse lay in fragments, silent and soulless at the foot of the sacred shrine. She was gone.
"I can't believe it," he said, shaking his head. He felt his heart sink as if to mourn the stone woman. When he closed his eyes he could still see her smiling gently at him. "Why?"
Pelleas heard a rustling in the brush off to the side and suddenly froze, holding his breath. A rabbit bounded his way out of the bushes and hopped across the clearing, and Pelleas exhaled deeply. His hands trembled from fright, his heart beating out of control.
Pelleas returned to the shrine and tried to read, but as hard as he tried he could not concentrate on the stories. The words of heroes and legends tumbled around in his head and fell right out again, chased away by a man's laugh and the sound of a sledgehammer rising and falling, and finally, the silent sounds of a stone woman screaming. Unthinking, he shut the cover of his book and returned to the orphanage, silent as he passed the others. The sounds of an unseen violence repeated and repeated, deafeningly loud, within his head. He sat cross-legged on his bed of straw, and when Illumina came to ask him what he'd done that day, he felt a chill pass the base of his spine and said, "Nothing."
- O -
Pelleas did not think that anyone knew or cared when he celebrated his birth-day, let alone that someone might have thought enough of him to give him a gift. But on the day Pelleas turned thirteen, one of the villagers whom he'd spoken with on occasion during the harvest festivals approached him and clamped his hand on Pelleas' shoulder so hard the young man buckled.
"Yer thirteen now, heh Pelleas?" the man said. He was about forty, bald as an ox's ass, and blunt as hell. "And yer a decent lad, wot? It's time you got made a man of yerself."
"W-What do you mean?" said Pelleas, beginning to feel his cheeks turn to burning.
"Go down to the Pink Lady, pub south down the road—you good to go walkin' a bit, yer a young man now—and talk to the barman: big feller, big shoulders, you'll know him when you see him. Tell him you want a mug of Golden Serpent mead, it's the best around, honest, I ain't leading you wrong—then tell him you wan' see Felicia. She's the most 'spensive girl, but she's the best at what she do, take my word f'rit. Don't worry naught 'bout th' cost. I already done told 'im to do a 'man proper' wot you are a little favor. Aheh heh! Don't expect any more free rides, though."
The way the man laughed only unnerved Pelleas further.
"Who—who is Felicia? Is…is she a...whore?"
"What did you think? Ain't no way yer'll ever gon' be a man without hav'n' commerce with a woman! Now go, if ye wanna get back before sundown. It's no more n' an hour down'na road." The big man leaned down to Pelleas and he could smell ale lingering on his breath and in his unkempt moustache. "But th' Pink Lady's the finest bordell' around, an' Felicia is enough to carry ye well through the night, if you know my meanin', laddie."
He gave Pelleas a hard slap on the back and disappeared into the dust before Pelleas could say anything more. Pelleas knew all about brothels and the women who worked there. Most of the older boys in the orphanage and the villagers who lived in houses and huts along the dusty roadway saved their coin for days to buy a whore for an hour or several. No matter what he did, Pelleas couldn't understand what the allure was in buying a woman. Love was an unknown thing to him, carrying about as much import as whispers of Crimean politics.
No one would even tell him what it was a boy did with a girl behind closed doors; everyone always said 'Mind your own damn business' or 'Go see for yourself'. On that day, his thirteenth birth-day, it was partly morbid curiosity and partly the desire to prove to himself that he was brave enough to be a man that set Pelleas on the long walk down the road, south towards the next village where the infamous Pink Lady Inne stood.
When Pelleas arrived there some two hours later, out of breath from jogging, he found that the inn was no grand stage and certainly not what he'd expected a house of ill repute to look like from all the mystique and hyperbole bandied about by the boys. It was no more than a small stone structure, longer than it was wide, with a grey, water-worn stone facade and a creaking wooden sign above the doorway upon which was writ "The Pink Lady Inne and Tavern".
Lodged above the tavern's open door was a large wooden figure of a bare-breasted succubus with large bat-like wings and sharp fangs, her arms extended in greeting. In her hand she held a lantern that burned bright through smoky red glass, a beacon even through the rolling gusts of dust and sand that the winds kicked up through the lane. Ostensibly, The Pink Lady was merely a house of drink and revelry where travelers came to eat and sleep and move to better places, but oftener than not the drinking areas were empty. Anyone who knew anything about anything knew that the lustful demoness above the entry signified the presence of a brothel. Pelleas looked up; above, the succubus looked out over the dusty road, but the nipples at the end of her wooden breasts seemed almost to be looking down at him like knobby little brown eyes, peering deep into his soul. As he walked through the doorway, his body began to shake.
Excepting what appeared to be regular drunks sitting at tables and the end of the bar, the inside of The Pink Lady was utterly bare. There was no interior lighting save for a smoky-glass lantern hanging above the bar, one large enough to illuminate the entire room. On the far wall, a stuffed moose's head peered down at the few bar patrons with disturbingly empty eyes.
A broad shouldered man in a tattered grey coat tended the wooden bar, scrubbing a glass mug with a grimy white rag. He watched Pelleas as he entered and lifted himself up onto a high stool. The barman looked down on Pelleas.
"A-A mug of, ah…muh…mead. Gold—er, Golden Serpent," Pelleas stammered, and the barman cocked a thick eyebrow at him.
"What's yer name, lad?"
"Hm. Right, then." The barkeep snorted and rolled his eyes.
He was about to turn away when Pelleas said, as nervous and uncertain of himself as he had ever been in his life, "And Felicia! I-I want to see Felicia!"
The barman stopped. When he turned around, he smiled and laughed once. "As soon as they come of age, they come running right to her. What a lucky gal her."
"I-I can see whoever I want to be—to see!" Pelleas stammered, trying his best to be confrontational and failing miserably. "B-Bryant said I should come down here. I'm a man now! I can do what I want to do!"
After a few seconds of silence, the barman broke out into laughter, bringing his hand crashing down against the bar. Pelleas jumped.
"Right then, lad, I guess you are!"
Pelleas waited impatiently as the barman went into the back room to pour his drink. He came back with a large flagon filled so close to the rim with its honey-orange mead that every step caused some to splash down. With a little flair he smashed it down in front of the young man, who again nearly leapt from his seat.
"Well'n, 'sir'! Here's y'r drink, an' I'd reckon it'd be mighty manly t'finish it t'the grain. Aye, an' you c'n go an' see Felicia any time...she fin'shed up with her last a while ago...reckon he couldn't right keep up."
"W-Well, then, just—let me finish my drink, then!" Pelleas said, grasping the tankard in both of his small hands, trying desperately to avoid the embarrassment of dropping his drink and spilling it.
"Tell me when yer ready, then."
Pelleas lifted the mug to his lips, breathing in the cloying smell of the mead. He meant to take one sip, but accidentally tipped the mug and gave himself a tremendous gulp. Coughing and sputtering, he set the mug back down with a mighty clank. The mead was almost sickeningly sweet, like a lick of fresh honey, but also bitter, and utterly overpowering. Pelleas hunched over the bar, head against the grain, fists clenched, coughing the rest down, trying to fathom just what kind of hammer had hit his palate with such force. The barman merely looked at him, shook his head, and snorted in bemusement before turning away.
"Oi," Pelleas said, first softly, then louder. "Barman! I-I want to see Felicia." He pushed his flagon of drink away, not intending to take another sip.
The barman disappeared up a stairwell at the back of the tavern and reappeared a minute later.
"Lad!" he called gruffly. He wagged one finger as if calling a cur. "Follow me."
Pelleas followed the big barman like a man tromping to the gallows, head hung low, eyes trained on the creaking wooden floorboards as he passed by and up the winding stair. His heart pounded furiously, sweat forming on his forehead. He followed the barman down a hall on the second floor, past several sets of closed doors. The entire hall was eerily quiet and the only light came from a small lantern high on the ceiling, casting a pale orange glow throughout. When they'd reached the end, the barman rapped once on the door to the right with the back of his knuckles and pushed his way into the room.
"Here's yer charge for the day," the big bartender said, chuckling as he shepherded the young boy in. "Hope ye like babysittin'."
The barman left and Pelleas found himself alone with the woman named Felicia, who sat on the edge of the bed, watching the far window, not once turning to look at the visitors by the ingress. The room was painfully small, just enough for a cot and a small table carved crudely from oak at the head. There was nowhere else there to sit, so Pelleas sat down on the foot of the bed, kicking his legs back and forth. He blushed. Felicia took a drink from a cloudy green bottle, wiping her mouth with her sleeve when she was done. Pelleas managed a glance at her and for the first time she turned to look at him—and when she did, she started suddenly, almost imperceptibly, and then smiled.
"You're—a little younger than I'd've expected," she said, setting down her wine.
The whore's face was plain and unexpressive but her cheeks were sparkling clean and un-poxed and her chin was rounded and soft. Her hazel eyes beneath thin black lashes were ringed with shadows. Her long, dark hair tumbled and rolled ungracefully down her shoulders. She wore a dirty, torn white shift that barely concealed her heavy breasts and a pair of tight gray breeches worn low on her firm hips and cut off at the knees, as though someone had carelessly taken a knife to it. She was short and thin, and her legs were smooth and shiny. If Pelleas had to guess, she was somewhere between thirty and forty, and though he might not have called her cute in the way Illumina was, she was certainly not unattractive. A slightly tarnished silver chain hung around her neck, met at its end by a small glinting crescent moon resting on her bosom.
Pelleas bit his lip and looked away from her. "I-I'm not 'a little young', I'm…I'm three an' ten year today."
Felicia laughed. "Oh, my! My mistake. You rather seem three-and-ten! You are a big man, hm?"
"So…do we get started now?" he asked timidly.
"Only if you like."
"I—I don't exactly know what it is whores do," Pelleas said, blushing again.
"Well, you're going to find out soon enough, aren't you, sweet?"
Felicia was about to reach for him when Pelleas stammered, "M-May I a-ask y'something, miss?" As he'd hoped, Felicia stopped and sat back. His heart pounded. His neck flushed.
"Mmm...that isn't what I'm paid for," said Felicia presently, "but just for you, I'll do whatever you like."
"Do you like doing…what you do?" Pelleas asked, turning his upper body around to gaze at the whore. Sitting at the head of the bed Felicia swung her legs, taking a long draught of wine and setting it down again.
"Why not?" she said at last, shrugging. "What more could I ask for? I've a profession, a means to live on. I get paid for doing something I rather enjoy. What have I got to complain about? I'm happy with what I do. I've made my peace with the world."
Pelleas didn't believe her, but he couldn't place why. He was used to having feelings he didn't understand, having knowledge he had no idea how to utilize. Those feelings were becoming far too common recently, and he knew that if he asked anyone what they all meant, he would be told to "wait until he was older" or worse, laughed at. When he looked at Felicia, dressed in her short breeches and tight shirt, he felt something different. He felt himself going rigid, felt a tingling and a flush set upon his neck, and it was uncomfortable—physically and mentally, uncomfortable. He felt ashamed, and as usual, he didn't know why. He wanted to take those dirty little feelings and hide them away somewhere only he could see, somewhere only he could know. Pelleas shifted his legs and squirmed, but the whore looked down briefly and then back up, and he knew she could see right through him, see all his embarrassing childish secrets.
Stop it, stop looking at me…
"Do you want a drink of wine?" Felicia said, holding out her bottle. "It'll make you less nervous."
"No thank you," Pelleas said. The bittersweet taste of the honey-wine still lingered and stung inside his mouth.
"Look at you, beautiful," she said, and cupped his chin in her palm before he could recoil. "You're trembling. Go on, take a draught, it'll calm you forthwith."
"N-No thank you," Pelleas insisted and put up his hand to block the bottle.
"Well then. I guess now I'll have to show you what I do for a living," Felicia said, chuckling. Her voice was lusty and mirthful. "You know, they say it's the oldest job in the world."
"Oh. Really? Oh."
"You're all red."
"I-I'm sorry." It was all he could think to say.
Felicia laughed. "Ha ha, you're so cute when you're embarrassed."
"S-Sorry…" he said, more insistently. His cheeks and the back of his neck were on fire.
"You don't have to apologize, sweet. I like you." The whore reached out for Pelleas' breeches, and he recoiled. "What's your name?"
"I-I'm Pelleas," he answered, as if by reflex, before he could think to hide it from her.
"Pelleas, hm?" she said, and her smile widened. "It seems there are young boys e'erywhere called 'Pelleas' now, aren't there? It's a nice name. A nice, strong, manly name, hm?"
"My name is Felicia," the whore said, though Pelleas already knew. "So, Pelleas…are you ready? Most men don't wait this long before getting to it. You're a strange one indeed! She got up on the bed and crawled on all fours over to Pelleas, who still sat with his hands folded on his lap, trying to avoid gazing at her bouncing breasts or tart pink lips. Felicia turned his chin towards her with one of her long, ladylike fingers. She pulled his arms closer and made to kiss him when she looked into his deep blue eyes and stopped abruptly. She held him completely still, the smile disappearing from her face. Her fingers, once roaming, stopped and took hold on his shoulders. She was so close. He could smell the mint and wine, stale on her breath.
"You've—beautiful eyes," Felicia said.
"But that's of little account. You don't have to look someone in the eye to fuck them silly, after all."
"Now, it's my turn to ask you a question," Felicia said, laughing. "Where are you from, Pelleas? I'ven't seen you much around here."
"I'm from Iolana," Pelleas squeaked.
"Iolana, hm? That's near Noxus and Castle Nox, isn't it?"
"I-I don't know!" Her breath felt warm against his cheek. Half of him wanted to squirm away, wanted to pretend he'd never went there, never even set foot in a prostitute's den; the other part wanted to go further, wanted to see just how far he could go, wanted to know just how much of a man he could be if he pushed hard enough.
Felicia continued to stare at him, her eyes never leaving his, her fingers tracing the fringes of his tunic.
"Your eyes are so lonely," Felicia said finally. She sat back and shook her head. Dark locks fell around her face. "Have you found a purpose?"
"A…purpose?" Pelleas blinked. "I—I don't know what you mean."
In an instant the whore's demeanor had become serious. She narrowed her eyes and when she spoke again it was as if a different person were speaking through her, deep and dark and sad.
"Listen to me, Pelleas. This world will be plunged into darkness. There's no salvation for us. We are sinners all. Yes, even you, Pelleas, poor Pelleas, poor child." She shook her head and soundlessly began to cry.
"The Goddess, she weeps for us. We are beyond her help. We have committed sins too grave to be forgiven. We must turn to the dark lords and pray forgiveness! If we surrender ourselves we can be saved. But you must listen—you must! Listen!" she shrieked suddenly, and Pelleas started. Felicia took his shoulders in her hands.
"One day this world will be covered in shadow," she said, hands shaking. "The Three Dark Lords will appear to us corporeal and those foolish people who think they worship a merciful goddess will be consumed, consumed! We can't go on like this, wondering if our hubris will consume us. We cannot!"
Her voice grew louder, her breasts heaving with every exclamation. Pelleas felt the sudden urge to get up and run, run away as fast as he could, but his legs were paralyzed and Felicia's fingers had a tight grip on his shoulder blades.
"We must embrace them, the dark arts of the Three Dark Lords, their dark punishment! We can be saved, if only we believe in them and pledge ourselves to them. Please, you must understand! Their Cause is to redeem us, to allow us atonement for our sins. But we have to give our worldly things away. Only then will we be saved from the wave, the terrible wave of shadow, the consuming wave that washes over us, the Great Flood born anew! We have sinned, child! We've sinned grave against our eternal masters and we must be punished!"
Now she was shouting, heaving mightily with every gasp, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Submit to the dark salvation! Surrender to the Cause! Repent!"
At last, the whore released her grasp on Pelleas's shoulders. He waited soundlessly and watched as Felicia took several deep breaths and several long draughts of her cloudy wine, holding onto the edge of the bed with her small hands, clinging onto the bedsheets with her long nails. When she turned back to Pelleas, her gaze was not as unflinching and her eyes did not have the same terrifying glint. Her forehead was glazed with sweat. She took another drink and sighed deeply.
W-What was that about? What's going on?
"There's a salvation in darkness, Pelleas," said she at last. "The dark few, those few who worship the Three Dark Lords who whisper to us from the world beyond and loathe us for our transgressions you believe in their dark Cause—truly believe— then you will be saved." She looked up at the ceiling. "I used to worry. All the time I worried about the choices I made and the people who wronged me, but it doesn't matter now, none of it matters. It doesn't mattered that you've sinned, not if you surrender all you have and embrace the Three. Everything I earn I give to the dark few, the dark worshippers. They collect all the evil gold, all the greed of humanity and purge it of its dark taint by sending it into the Abyss. Only then can we all be saved—that's all that keeps me going now. You have to surrender everything."
Pelleas had nothing to say. He sat on the edge of the bed in stunned silence, unable to believe anything he had heard, unable to believe anything about darkness and Dark Lords and Causes. He recalled the fellow who'd sent him here had said that Felicia was the most expensive girl at the Pink Lady, and Pelleas finally understood why she wore rags and drank cloudy-looking wine despite this. He felt a sudden surge of something that might have been pity, and it manifested itself as a wave of nausea.
"Give away everything you have, sweet," Felicia said to him, nearly pleading. "It won't do you any good. It won't make you happier.
"You only have to believe, Pelleas. Just find something to believe in. That's a lesson all young men should learn. Some men never learn how to have faith, to submit themselves to an outside power. All they want is control. To save yourself, all you need to do is…submit. Just give up your control. It's so easy. Just lay back, close your eyes…and smile. Enjoy it." The whore paused and smiled, her eyes closed, and for a few seconds she appeared to be in another world. Pelleas thought she looked sad, but he couldn't be sure.
"I'm sorry…that's probably too much for you, isn't it? You're probably confused about all this. Well, you don't have to learn all your lessons today, so…"
"Lessons?" Pelleas said. She was talking to him like someone might talk to a child, but he bit his lip, too shy to voice his frustrations. "What kinds of lessons?"
Felicia laughed and took a drink. "All young men learn the same lessons in life, sweet. The only difference is how they react. Do you run away or do you stand forward?"
"I—maybe I should leave," Pelleas said. His teeth were still chattering, his hands twittering. He was unsettled for reasons he didn't think he could explain.
Felicia reached down and mussed Pelleas's hair, pausing and leaving her rough hand there to rest, fingers curling around his dark tangles.
"It—it isn't right," Felicia said suddenly. She didn't look at him. "For a kid like you—"
"What? W-What do you..."
"No, no, it's nothing. I met a man with floppy, messy hair like yours once," Felicia explained, at first speaking to Pelleas, and then looking away until finally she spoke in scant more than a mumble to herself. He was more than a boy, he was a man—a sad man who didn't know his place. And he was ne'er happy with his life neither. He couldn't learn to just...accept like I've done."
She took another drink and her fingers choked the neck of her bottle. She reclined against the musty cotton sheets of her bed and looked up at the ceiling. Pelleas could not tell what she was thinking, and didn't want to know even if her words stung him with a curious poison. She was so utterly alien to him, so unlike anyone he'd ever seen, so possessed with a precarious calm that Pelleas simply could not place. Something in the way she spoke smacked of disingenuousness, and a part of him wanted her to sit up and scream at her, yell at her, or take him by the shoulders and shake him. A part of him wanted to run away, and a part of him wanted to stay there forever.
"I feel sorry for you," Felicia said at last, sitting up. She took another drink.
"You do? Why is that?"
"Don't you know what you want?"
"Er, what I want? What do you mean?"
Felicia laughed and smiled, her legs crossed. Pelleas tried not to look hurt. He was used to people being condescending. He was used to the way people talked as though he couldn't hear them clearly. He could hear them perfectly well.
"What do you even think you're doing? Do you think all there is to life is eating, sleeping, and running ragged in the fields? You're still just a little boy. Real men know what they want…and what it takes to get it." Felicia stood up and finished what was left of her drink. "I have to get back to work, all right? It's going to be a busy day, sweet. Run along now. If you ever find yourself back here some day, come see me. I can show you what the world is really like." She took the bottle by the neck and held it out for Pelleas to take, and she left the room without looking back, her hips swaying all the while.
Pelleas looked at the bottle in his hands. He was angry and he didn't understand why. Pelleas threw the empty bottle against the floor and kicked it aside. He felt small and insignificant, and talking to Felicia only made him feel more immature. He didn't belong in taverns talking to whores, and he didn't belong on the streets wandering as the dull-eyed rats did. He felt empty, and his head throbbed unmercifully. He wanted to go somewhere, but he didn't know where or why. Only that he needed to go.
Pelleas left, and he did not look back, though he wanted to.
- O -
Besides Fortuna's shrine in the glen, the long-abandoned library some ten minutes down the road from the orphanage was Pelleas's favorite place to spend time. The door was firmly sealed by layers of wooden boards, and all the windows were sealed, but Pelleas never let that stop him. Whenever he wanted to find an old tome to peruse, he'd sneak in through a gap in one of the boarded up windows, climb up the half-broken flight of stairs to where a railed wooden walkway supported by large beams encircled the upper part of the building. Pelleas liked to lean over the railing and look down at the few tables and bookcases on the dusty floor some fifty feet below. The shelves were largely empty—it had been that way since before the library had been abandoned and left to gather dust and shadows—but nonetheless there were enough interesting books to keep a knowledge-hungry, perspicacious young man occupied for years.
The existence of a library in that part of Daein (or anywhere in Daein save Nevassa, for that matter) was itself strange. It was a remnant of hundreds of years past, when, according to local legend, a group of traveling mages came through looking for a place to read and study their magicks in peace. Soon after, they again left, taking their most valuable tomes with them, leaving only storybooks and instructional texts behind. Pelleas was also surprised to also find a set of marbles hidden in a nook behind one of the bookshelves, and a chess board with pieces lying in another near a book on the history of the game. Although the library was dusty and dark, Pelleas liked nothing more than to sit in a shaft of light filtering through the partly-splintered wooden roof and read.
On a bright, cloudless day some two weeks after his thirteenth birth-day, Pelleas woke up early and asked Illumina to come with him to his little hideaway and play a few rounds of chess with him. They walked together down the dusty lane, completely empty in the early morning winds, and came upon the library. She followed him up to their usual place—the upper walkway, in the biggest shaft of light there was—and sat with him on the floor with the chessboard between them. She brought with her a small satchel of marbles
"Pelleas," Illumina said when they had settled cross-legged on the creaking wooden floorboards. Her voice had a surprising gravity. "You had your birth-day recently, right?"
"Ah, well, I ne'er did say happy birth-day! I'm sorry!" Illumina tried to curtsy while sitting down, which amounted to little more than a quick flip of her dusty dress. She broke into a wide grin. "Happy birth-day, Pelli! Reckon I forgot it, an' I felt right bad, an', an' I said t'myself 'I have got to say it right quick'!"
"Aww...thanks, Lumi." Pelleas felt his ears get a little hot. "I'm glad you remembered me."
"So, what's it feel like t'be three-n'-ten?"
"Uh…" Pelleas stopped for a moment, his hand lingering on the base of his wooden knight. Finally, he moved it forward and said, "It's not much different than being twelve, actually. I don't feel too strange or aught like'n that."
Pelleas turned to Illumina and caught a glimpse of her beautiful eyes. "I-I feel the same as I did back then, at least." As soon as he said it, seeing her look innocently at him, he knew it was a lie. He did feel different, even if it was only slight, even if it only came in fits and starts when he walked down the road and felt the need to hold his head up higher and stand up taller and act like a man, even if it was only a butterfly feeling in his chest when a girl looked his way. But he couldn't tell Illumina that—those feelings were strong enough for him; he needn't encumber her with them.
"I'm only twelve, y'know. I'll be thirteen in a coupla months though, honest."
"Oh, your birth-day is coming soon, Lumi? I'll make sure to find you a present, somehow…"
"Ah! Now I remember!" Illumina said. She scrambled to her feet, in her clamor almost knocking over the pieces on the chessboard. "I hid something special for you. Wait here."
Pelleas watched Illumina as she ran around the walkway over to the steps down and charged to the lower level. She disappeared into a small alcove, and when she returned, eagerly bounding back up the staircase, she was holding a large, leather-bound white tome under her arm. Illumina ran up to him, nearly stumbling on the way and almost knocking over the chessboard again, and handed him the book.
"What's this, Lumina?" he asked, taking the tome.
"It's a book!"
Pelleas laughed. "I know that…silly duckling," said he. "Where'd you get it? Was it on one of the shelves?"
Illumina shook her head so violently that her long auburn hair became tousled, scattering helter-skelter across her shoulders and in her eyes. "No, I…got it somewhere else."
Illumina paused. She sat down opposite Pelleas and moved a pawn two spaces forward.
"I had it for a long time…I don't know where I got it from, but I've had it ever since I can remember…I couldn't read it, so I never did. I want you to have it, though. Sorry I didn't get you it sooner. Happy birth-day, Pelli!"
"Lumi…thank you," Pelleas said at last, nearly speechless. He held the book up to the light. There was nothing on the cover but a familiar image of an eight-spoked wheel in the center. As gently as if he were holding an infant, Pelleas opened the book. On the very first page, written in black ink with a long, flowing script, were the words "Fortune Favours the Bold". Pelleas gently shut the book and set it down beside him.
Pelleas reached out his hand in gratitude to touch hers and he left it there, his rough, dusty fingers lingering on hers, squeezing gently. He felt his heart murmur just a little. Illumina merely stared at him, happy but oblivious.
"Where did you find such a lovely book?"
Illumina paused. "I'm not sure," said she. "I've had it since first I could remember. Maybe my mummy gave it to me—but I...I don't remember her but good 't'all."
Illumina looked down sullenly and Pelleas decided not to ask any more. Instead he gently pushed the chessboard nearer her and said, "Come, Lumi. Let's play."
They began to play again
"One day I wanna learn my letters," Illumina said cheerfully, rocking back and forth, hands on her knees. "That's what I wanna do."
"I know my letters," Pelleas said, unable to avoid feeling proud of himself. "I could teach you how to read books, an' stories, an' things if you want."
She giggled. "Ohh, you're so sweet, Pelli! And so smart. I knew you would know your letters! That's why I gave you my prized possession, my little book. 'Cause I knew you were so smart."
"N-Not really," Pelleas said. He moved his tower two spaces forward. "I-I'm not that smart, honest."
"Well, I think you are," Illumina said, so matter-of-factly that Pelleas had to laugh.
"Thanks, Lumi," he said, blushing. "You know, how about this: As a birthday present, I'll teach you how to read, aye? I'll start early, so by the time your birth-day comes 'round, you'll know your letters right good."
"Yes, yes!" Illumina clapped her hands together happily. "I like the sound of that."
Pelleas and Illumina talked for nearly an hour as they played their game of chess, stopping in-between so Pelleas could tell her about some of the books he had read recently. He still had his copy of The Great Heroes of Old Crimea, and he showed her pictures of Rillant the Righteous with his silver sword Lionclaw and lion-charged shield, and Edmund of Jouand with his steely greatlance Serpentia.
"They're all so grand!" Illumina said. "Are there any girl heroes in there?"
"Aye, there are a few heroines here," said Pelleas, smiling. He pushed aside the chessboard—the game about even in material—and slid beside Illumina, rapidly fingering through the old, yellowing pages of his tome. He was almost to the page with the colorful, full-page picture of Astrina, Sage Extraordinaire, when he heard a terrible thump from the floor below and his heart jumped against his ribs.
"Pelli?" said Illumina as another loud thump racked the side of the building. The boarded-up wooden door trembled and buckled. "Pelli, I'm scared," she said, clutching onto Pelleas's arm.
"Shh, shh, it's okay," Pelleas whispered urgently. He wanted to grab onto her hand or at least stroke her hair comfortingly, but he couldn't work up the nerve. He only stared down through the wooden railing at the door below, waiting on a single breath.
I'm scared, too…
There was a third tremendous thump and finally the door caved in, splintering into jagged pieces. A large foot kicked the rest of the door down and three men burst into the abandoned library, looking around.
"Get down, Lumi!" Pelleas hissed quietly, pressing himself down against the floor as Illumina did the same. He crept closer towards the rail and looked down as the three men below searched around, pushing over bookcases and flipping over tables.
"Where the hell is she?" one of the men barked. "You said y'saw 'er go in here. Where the hell is she, Goddess damn it? I want her! If you were fuckin' lyin' to me, I swear I'll—"
"No, no, oh, oh," said another, a man with a squeaky voice. "I saws her, I saws her, I told you, I seens her go here lots of times with some wee bastard, oh, oh. I saws her go in here before, I know you that, oh. An'—an' I heard voices, honest, honest! Go n' look, I swears it, I do!"
W-What's going on? Pelleas thought. Are they looking for Illumina? Who are they?
"Look, the stairs!" the first man said, a big shirtless man with mussed black hair. "Get up them, maybe she's up there!"
Pelleas watched in horror as the three men bounded up the stairs to the upper walkway. Beside him, Illumina sobbed quietly, shaking.
They're gonna find us. They're gonna find us. Oh, Goddess, help me…
"There they is, oh, ohh!"
Before Pelleas could gather his thoughts, the three men were upon them, staring him and Illumina down threateningly. Pelleas slowly helped Illumina to her feet. She wiped the tears away from her eyes and clung tightly to him.
The three men were all big, ugly, and they smelled like cheap ale and the deepest part of a latrine. Just seeing the horrible glint in their eyes as they leered at Illumina made Pelleas want to vomit. The big man in the middle of the three had a huge great-axe slung over his back, and the others had hatchets hooked onto their belt. They stood several feet away, and neither Pelleas nor Illumina had the nerve to move even an inch.
I could run backward but I couldn't get away if I did. And Lumina…
"Just bad luck she happenin' to be an ugly one," the most muscular of the three said, spitting in Pelleas's direction.
"She ain't that ugly, no, no, oh?" said another, a short man with rustled brown hair. His skin was an uneven tan and his forehead and cheeks were pockmarked. "You don't gots to look at her face when you're havin' her, what, what, just close yer eyes, what, what, oh?"
"No, but she so tiny she goin' be ripped bloody when we all done wit 'er and what we do then, won't be no good then," said the third, a tall man with a sunken voice and sunken eyes. His skin was pale and grey and in places peeling. His nose curved slightly downward.
"Oh, oh, then I gets it first, come on!" the weasel man said excitedly. "So's I gets her all new an' clean-like, hmm hmmm? An' you I like them young, hmm hmmm—"
The muscled man backhanded him with his fist so hard that Pelleas could hear the crack. The weasel man screamed and grabbed his face.
"Shut your bloody mouth and know your godd'ss damned place. If she's a maiden I take her first, no damn questions," the big man said. "Just for that, you get last go. You can go 'round the back way if there ain't nothin' left for ya. I've somethin' learnin' for her what can't learn in books." He smiled with an incomplete mouth of gray teeth.
The weasel was too busy whimpering and covering his bloody face with his hands to argue.
"So what we do with her when we done, she got no family or nothin', an' no one to sell her to for," the tall man said.
The muscled man growled. "Bugger that! We try an' know that out later!" he snapped, and he walked quickly towards Illumina.
"D-Don't come any closer!" Illumina stammered. "No!"
Pelleas opened his mouth but nothing came out but a nearly inaudible squeak. He wanted to do something, anything, but his legs felt like jelly and his timpani heartbeat shook and rattled him into inactivity. Finally, he held his arm out to hold Illumina back and stepped in front of her.
"N-N-No….no, don't," Pelleas said, but his voice was no more than a dead man's murmur. He reckoned he might as well be dead, for all the help he could be.
Just don't hurt Lumi, just don't hurt Lumi, take me, but leave Lumina alone, please…
"Bugger off, lad," the big man said, smothering Pelleas's face with his gigantic palm and pushing off violently. Pelleas flew backwards several feet, falling against the floor so hard he felt the breath being jolted out of him. Still on his back, with the world spinning around him, he could only hear Illumina screaming as the big man grabbed her and slung her over his broad shoulder.
Dizzy and in more pain than he had ever felt in his life, Pelleas staggered to his feet, resisting the urge to fall to one knee and block out his view with an arm.
"P-Pelleas!" Illumina cried, beating at the man's shoulder with tiny fists as he carried her away. She looked over at Pelleas. Her beautiful purple eyes were drowning in tears. "Help! Please!"
"Shut up!" the muscled man snarled as he stomped away across the walkway, and struck her sharply in the back of the neck. Illumina fell silent. "Lil' bitch…"
Pelleas called out her name, and when she didn't respond, he stepped forward unsteadily. The tall man pulled a knife and held it in front of Pelleas' face, barring his way across the narrow walkway.
"We ain't havin' no problems with you, now, so don't go cock up and get'chself hurt too. There ain't nothin' you can do, bloke," he said. When the two other men had left, the tall man pushed Pelleas down, sheathed his knife, and turned away. "Best go on memberin' this, lil' bloke, that life ain't no fairy-tale and you ain't no hero."
Pelleas waited until the tall man was gone, then scrambled to his feet, down the stairs so swiftly he almost tripped and rolled to the landing. He took the last three steps in one great leap, then charged to the door and leaned out, cocking his head back and forth, looking through the dust storm that shrouded the horizon lines with sandy grays and yellows.
"Lumina! Illumina!" he cried. The dust-winds whined and whistled. Pelleas looked to the left and looked to the right down the road, and looked across the street, but the men were already gone. He wanted to go left, he wanted to go right, but his feet wouldn't go. The more he yelled, the more sand flew into his mouth, suffocating him, causing him to choke and cough and almost retch.
"Where are you?" Pelleas cried out, standing alone in the dust storm. "Lumina, where are you? Wh-where—I can't help you if I can't find you! I—I'll find a—I'll come…I'll…"
The wind whistled. Pelleas suddenly felt sick—nauseous, shaky, his mouth turned to cotton. When he clenched his teeth, he could hear and feel sand crackling, coarse and thick on his lips. Pelleas lowered his head and shielded his eyes with his hand and walked down the street.
Minutes later, or maybe hours, Pelleas found himself at the orphanage, the familiar weather-worn gray shutters clink-clink-clanking in the storm.
Pelleas sat on a windowsill searching the angry outside, baring his face to the breeze and letting the wind choke him until he purpled, whereupon he drew back and tried desperately to breathe.
"I'm sorry," he muttered to no one at all, though several of the orphans turned in his direction and looked at him strangely.
Pelleas couldn't sleep that night, and the next morning he refused to leave his ratted little straw bed, occasionally falling into dreams, dreams that trampled him underfoot like wild horses. Sometimes it was the flames that trapped him, and sometime a man with no face and a long knife for a hand, and sometimes it was a demon with three heads that ate him alive. But worst of all was when he dreamt of Illumina falling from the sky, bound by legs and arms, crying and screaming to him to help her, come save her, but his legs had turned to stone and right before he woke up, he had to tell her "I can't." He woke from that dream with tears in his eyes, and he realized with dismay that it was barely even mid-day.
He told the two old matrons of the orphanage that Illumina was kidnapped and they did not believe him. They would not even look him in the eye as he pleaded to them for aid. She ran away, of course, like all the rest. Give her time, she'll come back. Sit down and behave yourself.
Pelleas wandered through the streets, asking whoever he could find if they'd seen a cute girl and three scary men, and invariably the answer was no.
Lumina…where do I look? Where are you? Don't leave me…I need you…Lumina…
That night, Pelleas did not dream. The next morning, he left the orphanage without breaking his fast, walking south along the dusty road towards nothing in particular. He wandered until the cobbled road turned to a dirt path and snaked through a field of low grass. He kept walking until somewhere along the way he found his answers.
Pelleas once believed that no one would ever hang a human unless they committed some vile treason or brutal murder. He once believed that the gods and goddesses would smile upon the good and give them happiness and health. When he finally found little Illumina, hanging naked from a tree beside the roadway, Pelleas knew he was wrong. Oh so wrong.
Her captors had left her there, maybe to die, maybe already dead, strung upside-down with a hemp rope tightly wound around her small ankles. They had beaten her almost beyond recognition, her tiny skull caved in, her beautiful eyes hollowed out and crawling with maggots, her cheeks purpled and sunken, her lips split, her bare chest caked with blood and grime. In death she was loudly silent, her little smile now a sickening inverted grin. Pelleas saw her, and when he saw her he clasped his hand to his mouth in horror, turned his back, and ran, ran as far as he could until he collapsed at the side of the road and started to sob. He didn't want to remember her that way, as a shell of the girl he once knew, beaten and defeated. He wanted to run away forever and never look back, and maybe when he finally stopped he could meet her again, maybe in another world.
For four days, Pelleas' world was sand and rain and cold. For four days, up was down and left was right and light was dark. No one else in the orphanage knew why he was sobbing or even that something was wrong or someone was missing; they didn't really care one way or the other.
For four days, Pelleas cried uncontrollably, as lonely as he had ever been in his life. He felt as though he had more than lost a friend; he felt as though he had lost a part of him, however small as it might have been. Every morning he woke again to the realization she was gone, and every time he looked down at his hands he remembered how her tiny fingers dangled down, lifeless.
For four days, Pelleas mourned. On the fifth day, he knew what had to be done.