The Boy and the Barrettes
'Ah… that idiot…' the young teenage boy trudged along through the cramped path, meandering around broken pieces of metal that acted as braces for the thick wall on one side, keeping back a tonne of trash on the other. 'Why'd he had to be a nuisance…?'
The moonlight fell between gaps in the clouds, occasionally tugging at the shadows on the ground. The boy tripped over the twisted shadows, trying to catch his balance as his shoe got sucked into the mud, and he fell over a metal beam instead.
'Who goes there-!?' came the shout. Nearby. Lights flickered around.
It was an instinct, such as that of prey when near a hunter, looking around for the danger. Something was dangerous. He was too far from home this time, too far from the safety of what could be called a nest. Someone was coming for him…?
He managed to shuffle back onto his feet, one shoe less, and tried to head back the way he had come, only to hear something whizz past his head and smack into the thick wall beside him. Bullet hole. A gun!? He froze. His blood froze. His heart froze. His mind no longer seemed to be processing anything. Bullet. A gun. Someone just shot at him. I should run, he finally realized, but his feet refused to move, held down by something more than oozy, sticky mud.
'Wait, it's a kid-'
'Don't matter, if they'd been listenin' t'us then we're all busted-!'
The boy's eyes widened. 'Flinch…?' he spun around. 'Flinch, it's me-!'
Another shot. For a moment, nothing else seemed to happen. Then he heard the shouting. Arguing. The people that he still hadn't spotted, hidden in the shadows ahead, were arguing and yelling and carrying on… ahead. They were ahead? The moon was ahead now. When did it fall into their world? It should have been in the… my chest hearts…
'You shot a kid?' one of the shadows grumbled, shaking their head in disbelief, 'Flinch, we should get outta here-?'
'But wasn't that the voice of-?'
Flinch stood over the body in the mud, shining his weak torch light over the boy's features. And he swore with recognition. Then he spun around, searching for something. That would do. He pulled on the metal beams, shifting them. The wall held back trash on one side, but the beams on the other side of the narrow path did little more than keep a pile of metal objects and rusted things aside. Shifting the beam let the trash topple forwards over the path, and the boy with a bullet hole in his chest disappeared from sight.
The scuffle and commotion wasn't unseen.
Another figure stepped forwards, rushing to where the boy had been and quickly moving the debris about to reach the body underneath. Bleeding thick black ink in the wavering light he had been granted from the sky… this boy… could he be…? The man grimaced, freeing him and picking up the unconscious figure. 'Wake up… come on, wake up…'
No reaction. The figure grimaced and glanced back at where the pack of hunters had already gone. Fine then. He disappeared into the night with the body, hoping and praying that there was still a chance.
Two shiny red barrettes, slim hairclips… a strange thing to do up a bandage with. And the shadow disappeared, leaving a youth half dead, bleeding, cold, and all alone.
Seven years later…
'Careful, you don't want that to burn, hon…'
Lystra nodded, stirring the soup in the pot and glancing back at the fire in the metal cage below. 'It's not even hot enough, mama… is there anything left for burning?'
Lystra's mother Seline paused by her side, frowning at the pitiful flames. 'Mm. I'll get your dad to find some woods or something. Ah, that's starting to smell delicious-'
Lystra said nothing, smiling politely while she kept stirring the soup. It was delicious because she'd managed to keep her mother away from it. They had the same metal tin box of spices collected in small teabags to use, but whenever her mother got into them, the food was barely edible.
'Mm, daddy will be pleased.'
Lystra shrugged. 'He eats your cooking happily, too, mama. As long as Orin eats it, that's what matters…' her reply was simple, and her attention went back to her task while her mother leaned against the broken doorframe to their strange little kitchen. It was a hodgepodge of whatever they could scavenge on the Outskirts, but it was a warm place and that was what mattered most. Orin indeed…
Seline sighed, frowning. Lystra's concern over her little brother's finicky eating shouldn't be there. She could care, true, but… Seline sighed again, just as the tall man with thick black hair entered, grinning at them both.
'Mm, perfect timing, need to ask you a favour…' Seline pushed the man back out of the kitchen, casting a worried glance back at her daughter, standing serious and stern by the firecage, stirring the pot intently.
'She's sixteen, she should be having fun, enjoying life while she can… instead she sits around trying different things to make sure Orin eats-'
Timeon frowned at his wife. 'Well, Orin is finicky-'
'I know that! But that should be my concern!'
'Ah…' Timeon nodded slowly. That point he understood. Then he smirked.
'My dear, you forgot one thing…'
Seline glared at him. 'What.'
'She's nothing like you…' Timeon replied, kissing his wife's cheek. 'But when she's ready, I think she'll fly.'
'Or poison everyone.'
'Mm, no, that privilege is strictly reserved by you.'
Lystra sighed with relief as she watched her little brother, a pale-faced child of only eight years, sip the soup suspiciously before shrugging and taking another spoonful. Feathers were sticking out of his knotted hair again, and the small backpack he always wore had a broken zip. The head of a dead bird gazed back at her with only one lifeless eye.
'Eugh… Orin…!?' Ebbylein noticed where her older sister's eyes had gone, and immediately she kicked up a fuss, demanding the dead food be put elsewhere. 'Honestly-!'
'Just leave him be,' a tired mother told them, smiling weakly nonetheless and glancing back at her husband. They were doing well. That was all she could say. But "well" was a miracle. They lived on the Outskirts, but their children were relatively happy, safe, content… over-protected from the harsh realities only a stone's throw away, starting from Redmound. As long as they never suffered to go there. They could be happy… could be… she sighed, trudging back to her own room.
'Where's mama going…?' Ebbylein asked quickly, but their father just smiled warmly.
'Mm, maybe she's just tired… resting. Finish eating…'
Lystra mulled over the spoonful of soup. Mixed bird meat boiled beyond recognition and a mashed potato. Neither of their parents had had any… and there would only be enough for a small ball or… Orin held out his bowl for seconds, and Timeon didn't even hesitate to pour the last of the soup in it.
They're not eating again… Lystra looked away. This hurt.
Timeon saw Lystra's eyes guiltily slip aside, and he left the room.
It would be easier… he had followed his wife, sitting by her side in their room - a small nook between broken machines and what might have once been a large, metal bin. They'd packed it out with anything soft to make a bed, and Timeon had made a desk that would fold out at the pull of a cord. Right now, Seline sat at that desk, staring at the notes and papers, her eyes blurring with tears.
'We're doing well…' he told her soothingly.
'But according to this-?' she clutched at the papers, and Timeon pushed them back out from her hands, pulling her closer to press his lips to hers. It would be harder for her to talk like this, he had figured, but she managed to anyway. 'I've checked what we know, another Purge is due at any moment, I don't think they are as random as people think-!'
'Ah… just let me kiss you, stupid.'
'We'll cope. Like we always do. We're doing well.'
They lived on the Outskirts of the Pit, the plantations were several Mounds northwest of them, but certain merchants and thieves always managed to leak a few left over items down even to the most desperate, lowest class. Merchants… thieves… really, they were one and the same.
Lystra eyed their goods and grimaced. They also seemed to have less shame than ever before. A small, clear plastic box caught her eye. There was something inside it, red and strange looking. 'Daddy, what are those?'
Timeon never let her go near the merchants alone, and always took over the deals and haggling. But at the sight of the red items, he just stared like a child. 'Uh… dunno…'
'Berries…' the merchant told them.
'What are you after for them?'
The sneak eyed merchant frowned, mulling over the rarity of the berries, yammering on about how they were mostly still ripe, and barely off. Then his eyes rested upon Lystra. 'Well, she looks plain, but if she's any good we can call it a fair trade.'
'Lystra, go to Aunt Loa, now.'
Lystra blinked in confusion, glancing up at her father but taking a step back at the stern gaze in his face. Aunt Loa wasn't their aunt - she was the old lady who guarded the entrance to the Redmound-Outskirts markets. Obediently, Lystra went away to the entrance, glancing back to see her father angrily speaking to the merchant. Angrily…? If I'm any good at what…?
'Child, you look puzzled…' Aunt Loa's voice cut her thoughts.
'Mm, Timi's up to his old tricks again, hm…? Heh, that's a new mercher, he'll learn soon enough… 'less he's stupid.'
'What do you mean?'
Loa laughed at Lystra's simple question. 'Your old man's personally threatened every mercher in my markets!'
'I see…' Lystra did not see. She stared back, her eyes taking in the scene but her mind unable to understand it, trying to blank it out instead. My daddy is so gentle, why is he yelling…? 'Loa…? What does he mean by "if I'm any good"?'
'Eh. You Outskirters are almost as bad as them Individualists!'
Timeon glared at Loa, 'how is it a bad thing? I view it as a privilege. Come along, Lystra, we're going-'
'Already? I thought we could see-'
There was no arguing. There was no room for it… Lystra looked away and followed her father, back out of the markets, away from the edges of Redmound, from their closest link to civilization…
It was the normal, everyday life. Lystra stirred the pot of food, grimacing at how little there was. Enough to feed them, enough to live, but it seemed so pitiful. Fourteen year old Ebbylein often whined about how it should be easier for them to have more, but each time, Timeon cut the conversation short, muttering something about dignity and respect weighing more.
'Shame we can't eat it…' Ebbylein would always add.
'Daddy, if there is a way to get more food, I'd be willing to work-' Lystra began - and Timeon clamped a hand over his daughter's mouth.
'No. Speak any more and something stupid will come out.'
How is it stupid to want to work for food? Her stomach growled as if to answer. We're lucky we don't get sick much though.
The door opened and Seline came inside, looking around worriedly. 'Did Orin make it back?'
'He had a fit at me, yelled and screamed and disappeared, I thought he ran back here…'
Three pairs of stunned eyes stared back at her. And Timeon immediately stood. 'I'll go-'
'I think I know,' Ebbylein sighed, 'he has a hiding spot, but I doubt he'd let anyone else nearby if he's in a bad mood… I'll go stay with him until he calms down, okay…?'
Lystra turned back to the food. Hopefully Orin was okay, then. She could sense the tension behind her though, something aggravated between her parents. Should she leave…?
'I need to go to check… something, anyway…' Seline muttered, leaving the home again.
'Just to check the traps by the woods. It's fine…' the door closed.
Lystra stared at flames flickering in the firecage a moment, the silence of only her and her father sitting in their warm little kitchen. And she took a deep breathe. 'Daddy… I wanted to ask something for a while now…' she spoke, her voice feeling like it wasn't her own. 'You never let me do anything, or go anywhere, without keeping an eye on me. I mean, not just me, us. You let Ebby and Orin go to that hideout only because you know where it is and it's far from people-'
The chair her father was sitting on had its legs scrape loudly across the floor as he stood. 'People are a dangerous, horrible breed of animal. Stay away from-'
'Also, you never say that when mama is here…'
Timeon stared at his daughter's back. This whole time, she hadn't turned to face him. All he saw was her mousy -blonde hair in a thick plait reaching down her back, an apron revealing the slimness of her waist, her thin arms poking out from the loose sleeves of her blouse. Tiny and thin. But so sharp. 'You are more like me…' he replied. 'You worry about everyone, you try to help and protect everyone… the Mounds are dangerous, and scary places. There are… Slavers who take people off the streets, and thieves, and murderers. We have little to barter with, but as long as you aren't a slave, people have their own bodies - that's all they've left to give… everything is terrible, and it's just better if we stay away.'
'Why don't more people leave…?'
'People do… sometimes…'
'Most of the Outskirters I met never had a choice…'
'Ah. Of course. We don't have a choice. This is our lot in life. But we're doing well.'
There is was again. "Well". What was that even supposed to mean?
Lystra sighed, annoyed, just as a sudden shrilly beeping sound filled the air. 'Daddy?' she asked, just as Timeon ran to his room, accompanied by the sound of a metal door being yanked open and stuff crashing out.
Then he ran back in, grabbing Lystra's shoulders. 'Go get your brother and sister, and run towards Redmound-!'
'But you just said-'
'I mean go now! Now, Lystra! Listen to me!'
She nodded shakily, the piercing screaming sound still going. 'What about mama-?'
'I'll go get her, you take Ebby and Orin north, now!'
Orin collected feathers. As such, one of his favourite spots to hide in was a large, cement cylinder that stuck out of the flatground of the Outskirts. There weren't much in the way of trash heaps out in this buffer area, separating the Mounds and the short woods. Birds would often nest inside, and Orin had found the place only a couple of years before. As for what lay beyond the woods, there was a massive stone mountain, smooth and continuous. A grand wall… and beyond there, the Givers.
She found the pair quickly enough, but instead of turning to head into Redmound as her father had demanded, Lystra tried to head back home. She needed to. Something in the way her father spoke made her uneasy. But now she could see why.
Everything was burning, and the flames were spreading fast over whatever remnants of trash had blown over. Some Outskirters built their own homes, but that was all going up in flames now. Including their home.
The Purge had started.
Aunt Loa watched the three children as they entered Redmound, wide-eyed and horrified.
'I saw the smoke, they say it's another Purge?' she asked them, hurriedly waving them to come out from under the smoke stained sunlight, into her little shack by the market place. Right now it was empty of merchants and the like.
'Our parents…' Lystra started, just as Ebbylein began to cry.
'Mama, daddy, they're still…!'
'I'm sure them two folks looked for safety soon as, child,' Loa soothed, frowning again at Lystra, who looked away with a more dubious gaze. 'What is it, Big Sister?'
Lystra shook her head, her eyes dry but red. Maybe they would begin to water. Perhaps it would be the smoke… perhaps…
'Once the flames start to thin back, I will go check for them,' she decided.
Loa rolled her eyes. 'A Purge is a Purge, it will devour all in its path, mark my words… your ol' man's a cunning fool, I'm sure he has a trick up them sleeves of his… but meanwhile, you ain't goin' while no flames are still curling 'bout, hear me? You wait 'til they all gone died. You understandin' me, Missy?'
Orin tugged at Lystra's long apron. 'Lyssi, Lyssi? "Purge" is…?'
'A Purge is when the trashland can't take it anymore, gets so hot the land i'self catch flames and burns. Part o' the natural cyc… cycling of all the stuff here. It's normal…'
'Orin was too young to remember the last time it happened in the south…' Ebbylein murmured, 'remember? Daddy made a shelter…'
'See? Cunning fool, for an Outskirter…' Loa echoed. 'Meanwhile, I don't minds youse sleepin' here, waitin' it out. Can't keep youse longer than that, I'm 'fraid, not without puttin' ya lot to work…'
'I don't mind working,' Lystra replied quickly.
'Oh? And what 'xactly you gotta work fer, huh? What's yer skills?'
'I can cook.'
Loa stared at Lystra, peering into her face. 'Missy, the only thin' you got going fer ya is that yer plainness is whimsically stupid. Maybe you can pay yer way with that, dunno. You don't look strong 'nough to carry and build, and past that there's not much else for an Outskirter. But nobody gives a damn if you can cook.'
'That, and yer old man would yell a lot if I even suggested that… so I can't get yer any work around here. Once the Purge is done, be gone with ya, an' I'll wish youse all the best.'
There was nothing much left.
The little shack that was their home had become a crumpled, smouldering pile of debris, with only the metal bin still standing tall to one side. Whatever pictures and paintings had been on it were turned to a sooty armour. And the worst thing was the discovery that made Lystra turn away and vomit. Her parents had almost made it back to their home. Almost… it was the little things she recognized - her mother's necklace. Her father's ring. They were part melted, but she recognized them immediately and didn't want to see what was near that. They died together, though…
She paused, staring at the fallen roof of metal sheeting, and tried to move it, only to have it burn her finger tips. It was still hot to touch. An old metal filing cabinet was still relatively in one piece, overturned and covered by the metal sheeting, but the drawers had room to be opened.
These were still their things, she sighed, taking everything she could find from the drawers. A box of emptied teabags, jars of spices and herbs from the woods, her mother's favourite scarf. Odds and ends.
Once everything had been put in a half-charred blanket, she slung what little they had left over her shoulder and stared back at her family's home.
I'm the oldest… I have to look after Ebby and Orin…
Mama… daddy… what do I do…?
Nobody wanted to be responsible for someone they didn't have to - especially if there was nothing they could get back in return. It wasn't worth it. Not out here, in the Mounds that bordered the Outskirts. They walked along the cramped passageways lined with rickety shacks, whatever people could spare had been used to brace up the useless trash. Useless…
'Maybe I could work by trawling through that, and use whatever to make things that people would give in exchange for food…? Maybe necklaces or something…' Lystra mulled over the thought, glancing down at Orin as he stopped in his tracks to pick up a feather. It was bent and muddied, but he just wiped it on his coveralls and shoved it straight into his hair. And stared at her with puzzled eyes.
I need to be strong… I need to look after them. She sighed, smiling weakly. 'Mama's with daddy… but it's okay, it's my turn now, I get to try and be like mama…'
'Then…' Orin pouted, sucking on his thumb a moment. Then he blinked and glanced up in surprise. 'Ah, then who's daddy?'
Lystra felt her heart seize up. This was harder than… no, she expected it to be hard. But not a tear escaped her heart as she kept smiling. 'Do you want to be brave and strong like daddy…?'
Orin didn't even need time to think about it. 'Nuh. He's bossy.'
'I guess you're daddy, too,' Ebbylein mumbled, not looking at her sister. She was old enough to understand. She saw the power of the Purge, and recognized the truth between Lystra's lies. That, and with Lystra wearing mama's favourite scarf, a pale green thing with light purple and pink flowers, as a headband, it was rather clear that their parents were not coming after them, nor were they waiting at home…
I don't know what to do, daddy, you would always be there, you'd always… she turned, half expecting their father to be walking along behind them, smiling at his children as they played house. But there was nothing there. Right.
'There's a gap in the shacks there,' Ebbylein pointed out a tiny gap, cluttered and dark, but appearing to belong to nobody. It would have to do for now. They settled themselves down, Lystra quickly rearranging the trash to make a bench for Ebby and Orin, while she sat on an old metal drum that had long forgotten what contents it used to hold.
They could stay here. At least for a while… Lystra felt the dead knot in her stomach as hunger chewed away at her thoughts. How to get food…? At least with shelter - the gap was covered thanks to the neighbouring shacks' rooves - they were safe from rain. If she could find something to make a door, even a curtain, they'd have some privacy from the path. She knew how to make a fire, but she'd have to find something appropriate to put it in first. It would be hard, but there was a chance at least…
'I guess we could do well…' she started to say, and trailed off as she stared at her siblings. Ebby and Orin were slumped against each other, eyes shut as they peacefully slept. Orin was already snoring.
Lystra sighed, curling her legs up to rest her chin on her knees and wrap her arms around herself. I don't know what to do at all, and I'm scared…
Is this enough? This, for a start…?
Her growling stomach didn't let her sleep at all, and she spent the night sitting on the ground beside Ebby and Orin, shivering against the cold. Between his snores, Orin started to sniffle and sneeze, so she pulled him onto her lap and wrapped her arms around him to keep him warm. She could keep him warm, but how long would that last? I'll kill us all if we continue like this…
The young man watched the rising sun as it warmed the swarming trash heap, his dark brown eyes taking in the scene with seemingly little care, but he was looking for something specific. Without looking like he was looking for something specific. That was tricky… he scratched his cheek and yawned as some burly Slavers walked past, talking amongst themselves. Nothing of interest was said, though.
He ignored them, pretending to be more interested in playing with his own hair. There was enough of it to tug on around his face, the thick waves were recognizable, along with his trademark tendency of pinning two, slim, red barrettes on the right side of his face, keeping his hair away from his ear to reveal a row of piercings that he'd done himself out of boredom.
It was a strange way to advertise, but occasionally people would ask him to pierce their ears, too. To have that many without any infections or ugly scars meant he must have had a secret technique to it. Infections were, after all, too easy to catch out here. People died, that was the way things were. Infections, mysterious illnesses, violence, there were plenty of ways to go. To him it seemed the luckiest were often those not born at all. Ah, what a terrible thought!
He slapped himself for it.
'Shard! Shard, I found you, damn it, man…' someone ran up to him, gasping to catch their breath. 'The… mayor… of Redmound…'
The young man, Shard, straightened, frowning. 'What of him?'
'He's started to get sussy 'bout you, Shard. Wonders if you're working… or working…'
'Tell him I work, I am very popular with my clients but as his wife may be one of them he might not wish to know the details of it…'
The startled messenger flinched and stared up at Shard in horror. 'What?'
'Kidding. Lemme guess, he thinks I'm a… what…? Thief?'
'He wonders. There are rumours, you know…'
'Pfft. Rumours are merely words trying to live on their own. Like I care-'
'Shard, you helped me out before. I'm just tellin' you what's goin' on… yer lookin' fairly guilty as is, you know? You lives on yer own, no responsibilities, nothin' to tie you down, and no one to see ya sneakin' off 'n' stealin' the like… and youse talk weird, he don't like that much.'
Shard frowned. 'He doesn't like the way I talk? I'm not from Redmound, that ain't even my fault…!'
'Yer also not defendin' yerself much now for anything but'cher tongue…'
'Tell your idiot boss to mind his own damn business. He's asked me to help him out on dirty business before, he shouldn't get too far ahead of himself. And as for my private life, just 'cause I don't advertise it doesn't mean anything! I'm married, I got people to care for, I can't go around trying to thieve, it's too dangerous! Idiot…'
'Shard is… married?'
Oh… now I've done it… Shard stared back at the messenger. And nodded. 'Yeh, just don't tell anyone. My lady clients mightn't like it.'
Shard didn't wait to explain, already turning away. Damn, damn, damn. Again? He'd have to leave. Again. This kept happening… but the only time he managed to stay in a Mound for a little longer, he'd developed a cunning plan… maybe it was time to try it out again? The strange man huffed an insult towards him, and marched away. So be it. Shard sighed, rubbing his forehead. Definitely time to try that plan again, but he'd need help of a willing idiot, and that would be hard to find.
'No, don't go that way, come back!'
The voice snapped him out of his thoughts and he looked up to see a boy run past him, dark mustard hair a knot of feathers, his face smeared with tears. Why feathers? Shard thought to himself, watching as the boy tripped - Shard reached out and pushed him back to his feet before he managed to fall.
'Careful there, kiddo…' he smiled warmly, one of his most charming weapons.
The boy blushed bright red, and turned around, chewing his lip as the bodiless voices continued to call from around the winding paths near Redmound centre markets.
'Someone's missing you, it seems…'
The boy nodded shakily, and glanced up at him again, face turning bright red a second time. Then, without another word, he ran back to whoever was calling him. Shard smirked, shaking his head. What a bizarre kid… he froze.
And leaned back against the trashwall behind him.
The paths here intersected; some lead to more rows of shacks, some to other Mounds, and one path to the Redmound Slavers. People had just come from the last one, and they'd already spotted the boy and turned to follow him.
Damn… Shard sighed sadly. The kid was random. And kind of cute…
He tried to walk away, but then a thought struck him. Whoever was calling the kid sounded like a woman. And relatively young. Somehow, he knew it wasn't the kid's mother. An older sibling then? Ah, but they'd have to be close to the kid's age… he paused, listening again to the shout of relief around the corner at the sight of the boy. Ah, quite an age gap, actually…
I have no reason to be involved…
He tried to turn and walk away. I told the mayor's bratty messenger that I'm married. If they show up…? He swore and turned, pulling something out from behind his back.
'Sheesh, Orin, why'd you have to run off like that…?' Lystra moaned as she wiped a bit of mud from his cheek and then used the clothe of her skirt apron to rub Orin's hands clean. 'Honestly…'
'Don't wanna eat…'
'Doesn't mean you run away like that! As for food, you have to. Your stomach is crying-'
'Don't wanna eat that, can't make me!' Orin yelled back, ready to turn and run away again, but Lystra held his wrists tightly, stopping him.
'Orin. Stop it.'
'Yeh, you'd best stop it, little kid!' a sneering voice laughed.
Lystra glanced up and breathed in sharply, startled to see three large men walking slowly towards them. Slowly, with purpose… bad intentions… her heart twisted and her gut told her to run, but somehow the three men had spread themselves out across the path, blocking them in a gap. They couldn't run.
'Whaddya think? A pretty payday for this girl-' one of the men grabbed Ebbylein's arm and pulled her to his side, studying her face intently. 'Yeh, definitely a beaut. Could fetch a lot at a workin' house-'
'Kid's good for standard labour…' another muttered, staring at Lystra. She had her arms around Orin, teeth gritted, a sneer in her face as if she were a cat ready to attack. The man frowned, and suddenly stepped forwards, smacking Orin aside, out of her hands and pushing Lystra against the wall. One hand clenched over her jaw, the other pinning her arms, he turned her face one way and the other, studying it intently as thought searching for some sort of comment.
'Well, she ain't as good as this one,' the one holding Ebbylein groaned. 'But one outta two ain't bad-'
'Nuh, this one might be kay, too. Jus' pullin' ugly might of a face…'
'Leave us alone-!' Lystra tried to pull free, only to have the man slap her across the face, the hit sending her sprawling to the ground.
'Sheesh, if she's only average, at least don't damage her more!'
What is happening…? Lystra tried to sit up, mud covering her hands and clothes, her eyes burning tearlessly. Why are they…? What are they talking about…?
Another figure approached, whistling cheerfully to themselves before pausing at the sight and grinning at… Lystra tilted her head. Is he grinning at me?
'Ho! Took youse long enough, stupid, d'ya get lost, huh?' the stranger asked… her…?
Lystra frowned at him, but then she saw Orin jump a moment, pointing at the stranger, grinning. What…?
'Oi, I said, d'ya get lost? Ya shouldn't do that, stupid…' the stranger looked up at the men, still grinning cheerfully while waving a rifle absently, tapping it against his shoulder as if it was a mere walking cane he'd used for fun. 'What do you lot want with my folks?'
A rifle. The slavers exchanged a glance. It wasn't worth it… they had knives, sure, but the stranger didn't need to come much closer to kill them. They muttered their apologies and took their lives with them as they scurried off.
'Phew… honestly, Redmound Slavers are scummy cowards…' he trailed off, glancing back at the three youths staring back at him. 'Oi, I just saved you lot, least you could do is not look at me like I'm the horrifying one here…!'
Lystra said nothing, her eyes going to the rifle. At least the three men weren't really armed. This could be worse… she reached out to pull Orin closer to herself.
And Ebbylein said it. 'You have a gun.'
'Huh?' the stranger paused, studying the weapon in his hands, 'this thing?' he started laughing as he chucked it over his shoulder, a strap keeping it slung across his back. 'It's just a prop!'
A prop. A toy. Not real… the words made sense and had meaning, but as the stranger came closer, Lystra pulled Orin closer still.
'S-stay away from us!' she yelled at him.
'Oh?' the stranger's face melted into something gentle and disappointed, innocently pure. 'I was just trying to help… right kiddo?' he held out a hand to Orin, who blushed bright red and grabbed his hand.
He never touches strangers… Lystra stared at her little brother. What kind of a reaction was this…? She stared back up at the stranger. 'Uh… I guess I should at least thank you, for helping us.'
'No worries. You three look a ripe mess, you'd best get home and-'
'No home left for us…' Orin murmured, rubbing his cheek on the stranger's hand. 'No home left…'
Lystra's face went red and she pulled Orin back. 'Stop that…'
'There was a Purge,' Ebbylein said, pointing back towards the south. 'We lost everything…'
'You three are orphans?'
Lystra flinched. And Ebbylein nodded.
The stranger stood a moment, posing with the arrogance of a stage performer, rubbing his chin in thought. 'Hm… let's see, then… I got a place, not far from here. Least I can do is let you lot clean up. Your looking like orphans as well as actually being orphans is gonna attract the attention of more slavers, you know?'
'We're fine, we have a place,' Lystra replied. She didn't want to talk to strangers. It was too dangerous. She could tell by his speech that he was hiding something. He was also watching her too closely. Her, and Ebbylein. He wanted something…
'Nuh, seriously, I really think you should accept a bit of help. I've got food, too-'
'We don't need any food,' Lystra grumbled. But reality undid her words swiftly.
Orin's stomach growled. And Ebbylein blushed as hers did, too.
The stranger smirked.
Shard introduced himself to the trio, and listened intently as Ebbylein explained their entire situation. He nodded soothingly, agreeing with their troubles, and finally told them precisely what had happened to them that day with the burly men. Slavers. They would take anyone without a name or protection and enslave them. But thankfully the Slavers down here in Redmound weren't that big of a deal and preferred to save their own lives than to work hard and risk anything. Weaklings. Saplings, he said. Scummy cowards.
Lystra had stopped listening to the conversation, her mind preoccupied with studying the little shack. It was smaller than their home had been, the kitchen area having only a small oven looking thing and a large metal bucket for washing up. A few cupboards, one missing a door. There was stuff everywhere, but it wasn't the trashpit in its natural state. It was Shard in his own natural state. Clothes. Underclothes… she stared, feeling the bright red flush go over her face.
Oddly enough, she never had felt that flush washing the family's clothes. Daddy's and Orin's and mama's and Ebbylein's underclothes never really… this was a stranger.
Shard seemed to have noticed that her mind was miles away, and he followed her sight. 'Oh… sorry about that, wasn't expecting guests, you know…' he apologized, without even moving to remove the offending garment from the shelf. Strange place to keep it in the first instance, really. Lystra shook her head. The kitchen area. A door leading to a deep cesspit behind the shack somewhere where it wouldn't catch their noses. And another door, a metal one. Bedroom, perhaps? Or a safe? And the last spot was a curtain and a small area behind there that she couldn't quite see. A tiny place…
'You're really studying it all intently… planning to move in?' Shard laughed.
'N-no, I don't… I'm not being rude… I just…'
'We've been living in a gap between two shacks for the last two nights,' Ebbylein answered.
'Eh? Do you have any other shelter?'
'No…' Orin piped up, and pulled on Shard's hands to study the man's fingers a moment. Unperturbed, Shard ignored the kid, and kept staring at the two teenagers before him.
'I see, so you're in desperate need of more than just a bit of food, huh? And you don't have a name-'
'Our family name-'
'Yeh, doesn't sound like much, does it. Got any power behind it?'
Shard sighed. These girls were innocent idiots… he paused, flinching at a memory. 'We all have to start somewhere. Welcome to the real world. You Outskirters don't seem to know anything about reality…'
'Uh…' Lystra felt his tone, the condescension, and she wanted to fight back, argue against it. But he was right.
Truth silenced her.
And he nodded at her reaction. 'Yeh. Basically, nobody gives a damn 'bout anyone else, it's each soul for themselves, yeh? That's why you ain't gonna find much in the way of help out here. If you don't have a stronger name to protect yourselves behind, it's gonna be tough… and Outskirters don't have names. I don't mean the name people call you, either. I mean a name, an origin. I'm from one of the central Mounds, people on this border know enough but don't bug me about it, either. That's the power of a name.'
'Mm. You three go out there again, you'll find them Slavers breathing down your necks… and trust me, it won't feel nice…' he trailed off, glancing back at Orin. 'What are you doing?'
Orin glanced up at him in surprise, still trying to stick a feather under Shard's leather wristband. 'Um…'
Shard frowned at the feathers, but finally just shrugged, passing the boy a biscuit, 'you should eat something.'
Orin stared up at him, and opened his mouth, waiting for the biscuit.
'Huh, what…?' Shard glanced at Lystra, 'um, what do I do-?'
'Just feed it to him, he gets like that sometimes, doesn't want to touch food himself with his hands…' Lystra shrugged at the everyday occurrence. Orin would usually rather use a spoon to shovel up his food to his mouth, even if that meant smacking a cracker into oblivion across his plate and using the spoon to scoop the crumbs up.
'Actually,' Ebbylein grinned, 'if he lets you feed him like that, it means he doesn't mind you…'
'Really?' Shard grinned, happily holding the biscuit while Orin bit a corner off. 'That's cool…!'
No, it isn't, Lystra thought to herself. She didn't want to stay here any longer, despite the fact that she didn't want to leave, either. It was comfortable. The ground was paved over with flattened bricks and covered in some sort of wooden planks. It was dry, safe, and warm. It would be warm at night, too. The longer she stayed, the harder it would be to take her two siblings back to the cold gap between shacks.
The longer… she finished her cup of inky warm water, and stood up, nodding to Shard. 'Thank you for having us. I think it's best we go-'
'Oh?' Shard frowned in surprise. 'Go where, exactly?'
'To our… spot…'
'Mm. It'll be a cold night, you know…'
Lystra clenched her fist and gritted her teeth. She knew that.
'Mm… if you want, you could stay here.'
There it was. The invite she knew would be… wait. 'You said nobody helps anyone out here… I still don't know why you helped us this much in the first place.'
'Mm, you're absolutely right. I'd need something back in return.'
Lystra felt every muscle and nerve in her body stand taut and stiff, ready to run at whatever threat might be announced against her. What would he demand from them? What could he possibly demand from three orphans without even a name?
'I'll let you all stay here, and care for the three of you; food, clothes, even medicine if need be, and in return,' he smiled with the empty grace of a genuine airhead, 'one of you girls has to marry me!'
Shard watched them go, Lystra Corres slamming the rickety door shut behind her.
'Wha… why are you angry? Hang on…!' he shouted to fill the room with noise. Alone again. It was empty. He frowned, trying to figure out where he had gone wrong. Did they doubt his offer? Did they think he was lying? They had every right, and honestly, it was probably better to make that assumption than to fall for a scam… but he was being genuine. What was so wrong with that?
'Ah…' he blushed as he realized. 'I forgot to say "pretend"…'
'What a total loser…' Ebbylein limped through the words, giggling, 'but I like his hair… maybe I should have agreed-'
'Ebby, be sane. You can't marry a stranger, that's just stupid-'
'Mm… but I do like him. He's nice…'
'He was being nice because he wanted a…' wife? No. A girl. She shivered. Some thought about the elusive "work" everyone had mentioned came to mind. She wasn't completely uneducated in that matter - mum had mentioned it to her, and warned her. What was it again? Pervert. He was a pervert. Leaving was the best thing to do.
They settled back in the gap between shacks, cold and wet as it had drizzled an hour before. Water leaked in from the roof of their neighbour, and the ground was thick mud.
'Well… home sweet home. I think I'd be ready to face all sorts of torture just to stay in his shack a little longer,' Ebbylein mumbled. 'At least, that would be my decision. I could go, you know-'
'Hang on, what?'
'I'll marry him. If you hate him so much, you don't have to come,' Ebbylein picked up Orin, cuddling him tightly despite his weight pulling on her arms. 'I'll take little Orin with me!'
'Ebby, sane up, now!' Lystra yelped out, staring, still staring. 'Is that seriously what you believe…!?'
Ebbylein put a puzzled Orin back down. 'Honestly…? Lyssi, I'm just scared, okay… its' cold out here, and wet, and we're always hungry… I hate it…'
Lystra looked away. Was that really the only choice…? She shook her head. 'No. Tomorrow, I'll put my plan into action, we'll go for a scav, see what we can find, and work from there. At least… we need to do something, we need to make it on our own… and…. we'll do well enough, I know it.'
It was another cold night. More rain fell.
By morning time, Orin had slipped off the little bench and woke up covered in mud, giggling over the sloppy texture and staring in horror when Ebbylein screamed upon seeing the little mud monster beside her.
But Lystra had already gone out, finding a nearby gap in the shacks to crawl through, trying to climb the trashpile behind it. Paths always seemed to be lined with shacks, and few people built their shacks off the paths in the trash. That had been a little odd about Shard's shack. It wasn't completely off the path, but he certainly had put some distance in between. Weird stranger.
She nodded to herself, nodded at her decision. I can look after them. I'll be fine… she trawled through the items that the Givers had dropped in over time. Sometimes a person could find a real treasure while out on a scav, though usually the local bosses would get there first with their own people. Everyone else was an afterthought. The Givers for Gate Five had a long overhanging beam that dropped supplies in just at the border of Redmound, Southmound, and the Outskirts. That was the best chance, really. Everything else would have been checked so much, time and time again, that there was likely little left.
So she went to the Outskirts, pausing after climbing the fresh pile to stare out towards where her home had been. A home. A place to stay, a place that was safe… the gap between shacks wasn't safe… Orin could get sick… her stomach clenched and turned, more at her thoughts than the smell around her. The problem of fresh supplies was the stench. Somehow, the older Mounds had less pungent a smell, thanks to generations of people carefully sorting everything - anything organic that would start to fall apart and stink was always removed and taken to a separate area of the pit. The Plantation was often the end place for rotten food scraps, as it made fantastic compost. There was also certain days when new supplies came in, always rotating, always helping. It was a symbiosis, not that she knew what the word meant. Mama had mentioned it a long time ago, and her father had scoffed in strained agreement.
'A sort of symbiosis indeed… unless you're an Outskirter.'
An Outskirter… life was harder. Because we don't have a name… Lystra sighed, kicking at the plank of wood near her feet. Daddy did a brilliant job looking after them, protecting them, but now…? She didn't seem to know enough about what to do, how to live, how to exist… we could go back to the Outskirts. It was also an option.
She looked down in her hands. She'd managed to find a knife with a broken tip, but it was enough to split open the plastic bags and study their contents. She had two scraps of thicker plastic bags covering her hands and tied around her wrists so that she didn't have to touch anything with her bare hands. Sometimes there were strange things in these bags that nobody would want to stick their fingers into…
Despite last night's rain, the day had cleared up, and the cloudless sky meant the sun could pound into her back while she worked. Another hour and it was unbearable. She was hungry, and happily found a packet of unopened crisps. She ate a few - unsurprisingly a little stale and past their best before date by a lot - to fool her stomach into believing there was a meal, and she saved the rest for Ebbylein and Orin. She could do this.
Things were going well enough, she smiled up at the sky, just watch me.
Orin didn't want to eat the crisps. 'Biscuit man…'
He pouted, arms crossed over his chest. 'Biscuit man.'
Ebbylein started giggling. 'Maybe we should've let Orin marry him.'
Lystra rolled her eyes as she recognized Biscuit man's identity. 'Good grief…'
The mud was still thick and had started to smell, and the owners of one of the neighbouring shacks seemed to have returned; they could hear the occupants arguing over some point or the other. This place didn't feel as good as it did a few nights back.
'So what else did you get anyway?' Ebbylein asked, sitting on the bench, ready and attentive to her older sister's spoils.
'Mm, there was a bag of jewellery, if we make our own stall at the markets, we could sell them after I clean them up a little, fix 'em.'
'Oh, can I see?'
'We have to sell them, we can't keep-' Lystra warned as she tipped the bag into her lap. Already Ebbylein had snatched up a necklace, grinning at the pearly pendent.
'I like this one-!'
'Just one won't hurt…!'
Just one… Lystra sighed, and nodded. 'Fine. Keep it. I also found some clothes, they might be a little worn out so I'll have to stitch them up first, but it'll be good. We're doing-'
'Don't say it,' Ebbylein spat back quickly, 'I don't wanna hear it.'
Well. Lystra looked aside. Yeh. Flippin' fantastically well.
It wasn't going to last. Of course it couldn't. Terrible times never struck with only one or two strikes, no, but a series of violent jabs.
Their neighbours noticed the orphan squatters and turned them out, taking the bagful of odds and ends that Lystra had collected and claiming it to have been "unsolicited rental payment" - whatever that meant. Most likely they'd made it up on the spot to sound more authoritative. Homeless yet again, and all of Lystra's hard work in the blinding sun was turned into nothing other than a slight sunburn on her nose.
Ebbylein said nothing as they tried to climb further up a trashpile, away from the paths. Nobody would bother them if they set up a shelter in here… shame about the strange man's offer. If he was genuine…
'You're immature,' Lystra suddenly told her, cutting her thoughts with a broken-tipped knife.
'He could be genuine. He could be crazy. Daddy warned us to be careful, he didn't say that just for fun or to scare us. What if he was like a murderer or something?'
'Pfft,' Ebbylein keeled over laughing, 'yeh, right! D'you look at his face!? Most of the time he seemed stunned like he's surprised that he's capable of breathing or something!'
'Ebby, you can't judge by what you see… and, fine, he didn't look like he might murder us, but we don't know him at all. He could be dangerous somehow anyway. And marriage?'
'Mm… sex, isn't it?'
Lystra's cheeks went red, and Orin frowned at both of them. 'What's that mean?'
'N-nothing, Ebby's just…' Lystra grimaced, shaking her head. 'He could just be a pervert, yes. He's older-'
'Mm, maybe a little-'
'You seriously considered it!?'
Ebbylein shrugged, a cheerful grin over her face, 'why not, he's kinda, well-!'
'I can't believe we're still talking about that guy-'
'Biscuit man?' Orin threw in the name.
'Yes, Biscuit man.'
'Biscuit man's nice… I found another feather for him.'
Lystra paused, watching as Ebbylein glared at her then crouched beside their little brother to see what feather he had found for the stranger.
'Oh, it's so dark-'
'Like his hair, but,' Orin turned the feather around, pointing out the sheen of vibrant blue that was only visible in flittering glimpses as he slowly twisted it about, 'he looks like this.'
'Ah, like glimmering light, hm?'
'Mm-hm. Biscuit man…'
'We don't need that guy,' Lystra said simply, nodding to her siblings. 'We'll be fine.'
Movement above made them turn to watch, just as a group of burly people stumbled over the peak of the trashpile, and stared back at them in surprise.
For a moment, nobody said a word. Lystra had already recognized one of the men as the Slaver who had grabbed her. She took a step back, aware that her footing was unstable. 'Ebby, get Orin and run away from me, I'll lead them away-' she started to whisper in a rushed, panicked hurry.
'No way, stupid sis-!' Ebbylein whimpered back, holding Orin close to herself.
'Then head to your left back towards the markets, go now-!' Lystra ran forwards, towards the Slavers, startling everyone. The broken knife, the only thing she had left from her failed scav - it was still a weapon, and she darted between the furthermost two Slavers, blade in front of her. They weren't sure what was happening, but at least Shard had given her something useful - the Slavers were more preoccupied looking after their own life than taking an unnecessary risk. Thanks for the info.
The only question was, would they view her as a risk?
Ebbylein saw nothing to do, no way that she could help, and as Orin started to cry, she grabbed him and ran as quickly as she could back down the trashpile. Bags and refuse shifted below her feet, and she found herself horrified of constantly thinking that every step was a failure. Any moment now she would lose her balance, and find herself impaled on a plank of wood or twisted bit of metal. Any moment now - her footing slipped.
And someone grabbed her.
'You okay, kid?'
She clutched her rescuer, confused. Was it a Slaver? She looked up, and grinned. 'Mister Shard!'
'The hell's with that "Mister"?' he muttered, glancing further back up. 'Oh, that stupid-!'
'Please, help her!' Ebbylein yelped out, clutching at his coat.
'Isn't this her way of proving that she's fine without my help?'
'Biscuit man…' Orin grabbed his hand and held it tightly. 'Please…?'
Lystra ran down the other side of the trashpile, hoping that the two Slavers she'd scratched with the knife tip would come following her. Anger, right? They should be after her… she stopped to look back, and sure enough the group was coming after her. She wasn't strong enough to do any more damage, but she was a nuisance and they were gnashing their teeth at the chance to repay her kindness.
The trashpile soon ended and she tumbled out onto the path, quickly glancing both directions before sprinting of one way, and pausing to jump back, hiding under the shelter of an open fridge. She pulled the door shut and waited in her hiding spot. Would they notice? Would they come closer? Ah, but if they couldn't find her, they'd go after Ebbylein and Orin. Hopefully those two were closer to the market… Slavers wouldn't take two kids in broad daylight from a market place… would they?
She waited patiently. If she jumped out too early, they'd still take her. Did they notice the fridge? She was thankful that the shelves had already been taken out. It made it easier to jump in quickly… how much longer did she have to wait though…? It was a small space. Dark, cramped. The door could somehow jam up. What if it fell? Something could block the door.
Not a sound seemed to reach her ears, and she pushed door open a little, peaking out through the gap. Nothing. No movement, no angry shout. She opened it more and carefully stepped out, eyes peeled, studying the area as her wavering lungs took a fill of air. Nothing. They must have continued their search using the paths… with a sigh of relief, she hopped back down to the flattened path and straightened her skirt. Pants might be easier to move around in, but they were a little trickier to make and she'd never had a chance to even try.
'There she is-!'
No way. She spun around, seeing the Slavers coming back towards her.
'Damn brat, I'm gonna neck ya myself-!'
She ran. She ran back down the path, turning corners and hoping for something. A miracle. She'd been impatient - this was punishment. Her heart was beating mercilessly, her blood pounding in her ears.
A hand reached out and covered her mouth, pulling her back into the shadows and out of sight as the Slavers ran past, desperate in their futile search.
Once the shadows claim you, nothing can find you.