Seven…no…ten. No matter. He stared through a thick blur that sat on his eyes. His head was heavy with Ficasa, the dark molasses-like nectar, usually consumed from thimble sized cups. He drank his Ficasa from a horn attached to a thong about his neck. Sinking. Through mud. Foul. Stink…flying? First came the sound of his back crashing against the stone wall, then came the sound of a familiar “You smell like shit, drunkard”, said Creighton. “Do you sleep in pig shit? Let me hear you snort!”, Creighton demanded in his whiny voice. Get on…fucker. “What are you on about?”, asked Creighton. “I think under his mumbles he called you a fucker, Ole Crey”, teased the Pretty. Not pretty… Pretty’s dainty foot landed on the side of his mouth. He swallowed some blood and a tooth. So few left. “You going to say something else?” asked Pretty in a threatening voice. The Pretty brought himself low and grabbed hold of his mouth and squeezed. The Pretty had milky, lazy eyes. A face scarred from too many fights and diseased from too many whores. Pretty popped one of the sores that crowded around his lips and rubbed the puss on his victims mouth. “We should be friends really. Neither one of us is made for the looking glass”, said Pretty. Indignant, Creighton said, “at least you don’t bugger little boys like this one”. The taunting never satisfied Creighton or Pretty for long. It was only in the reprieve that Creighton and Pretty heard in a faint whisper, “lie…er.” It was then that the clubs came out. Yes. Heard. Yes. Maybe this time they will finally kill me.
The clubs landed haphazardly all over his body. Each painful blow the promise of release. He could finally say goodbye to a world he hated. His body lay limp on the cobblestones. It would be so easy to snap his neck, but Creighton and Pretty wanted his pain to linger. It won’t be long now. This body can’t take much more…crying? The Ficasa dulled his wit. The sound of a crying babe confounded him and for some reason stirred in him a sense of dread. He hated that sound. But why?
Creighton’s body was the first to fall into view, headless. He was tied to the cobble stones by broken ribs and bent legs to watch Creighton’s blood rush out of his open neck. He could hear Pretty begging for his life, and then his body lifted up. Pretty was gently propping him against the tavern wall. Someone was given Pretty commands but he couldn’t see through his swollen eyes. Then he heard the sound of hooves. Creighton was the Constable so it couldn’t be the law. Wheels creaking over cobblestone? A wayne? Yes. He was laying in the comfort of soft, clean hey. The sway of the wayne was lolling him to sleep. I was so close.
His death would not come today, and he had lost at least one tormentor. He could only hope Pretty had survived. Then to his absolute horror he saw the grey shield badge upon his savior’s baldric. His eyes dilated from the despair. The grey shield badge was empty of other heraldry which meant he had not been bonded to a house, an acolyte. The words “You can have no more of me”, clawed at his throat and pounded against his skull, but no more than a grunt escaped his lips.
“My name is Jin, I am an Acolyte of the House of Stewards. I have brought your Skene back to you, Alric the Stripped,”, the young man said. A boy really. He could furious rattling, but couldn’t see the box. The Skene wanted him back. His heart cracked open that it may soon have its wish. He heard another cry of the babe. No. It was a different cry, a second babe. And was that a Mahikee at the acolytes shoulder? Then the world went to black.
He couldn’t fight, at another time he could have easily taken the acolyte, but he was too weak now, too much like everyone else, frail, frightened and at the whim of the Stewards. “I have paid for my sins”, bubbled through the blood in his mouth, . Jin’s response was predictably cold and direct, “Not enough it would seem”. The diminutive Steward, lifted his huge half dead body easily from the ground and brought him near the wailing babe. He couldn’t move, half stilled from pain, but mainly from fear. He knew what agony awaited him, the infant could sense it too. Jin removed a battered black box from his cloak and set it on the table near Alric’s head. The box danced wildly on the table, the Skene inside desperate for freedom. Alric witnessed the tempest through thick tears. I pay my debt everyday, with blood in my mouth and broken bones I pay my debt. In the anger of this injustice he purchased a bit of strength, “No slave”. It was a much strength as his voice had exercised in years. That was it. All he had. In a whisper closer to thought than speech he said “I will kill you for this”. At this Jin showed the first sign of emotion, fondness even. “I know” he said, satisfied that his last task would be accomplished.
Jin swaddled the infant, shushing the babe rhythmically like wind through a tree. After a moment the babe begin to settle and Jin propped her on his chest, bouncing her up and up down. Jin gazed into the babes azure eyes and thought, she will be dangerous in so many ways. He then lay the babe to the other side of the box, which was now furious with anticipation, and cut the infant’s throat.
Jin drew the blade away, careful not to lose the infants blood, then drew the hungry edge across Alric’s throat. The box was now a million suns exploding in space. But to open it too soon would only weaken the dying couple. The tension was exquisite. It must be timed perfectly. The two must be brought to the brink of death. A subtle dance whose rhythm was hard to follow. The mistake was to look to the dying for clues. The Skene knows this, it can sense this as clearly as a mother can feel a child in her womb. Just as the fury of the box crescendoed into an army of clanging swords Jin struck the latch and the Skene exploded forth, wrapping itself around the couples throats and drinking their blood like a drought starved animal, and spreading over the rest of their bodies like ink on parchment.
Alric and the babe were covered head to foot in a crimson shroud, which muffled the gurgling sound of their choking. The babe went silent first, Alric moments later. They were two monuments of beauty carved in scarlet alabaster. The hardness of the Skene shimmered into a silkiness that rippled across Alric’s body as he fought to take a breath. With each strain of his lungs the Skene lightened in color and thinned. Within five breaths the Skene had been absorbed.
Within the moment of a sigh Jin’s dagger had been torn from his hand and planted in his skull. There was no malice in Alric, no satisfaction at how swiftly his threat had been delivered. There was only the all consuming desperation to care for the child.