Marrow and Meat (1/2)

The faded letters on the street sign were barely legible, faded with age and rain into cryptic symbols. Sparrow looked down the crooked path that supposedly led somewhere. Trees leaned over the pitted dirt, making it difficult to see where any potential town began, if it ever did. Sparrow checked his phone, confirming he was still without service or position. Still he’d found the road and its sign on his own, a town couldn’t be far off.

It was far off. Sparrow walked until dark set it, bringing with it the smell of rain. He almost missed the first house, tucked deep in the treeline with black windows like holes and rotting steps. The second was easier to spot, but only because he searched for the hard silhouettes tucked into the mountain trees. The homes were strung out along the road, set haphazard like mismatched beads on a long chain.

Nestled this deep in the mountains, the place would see few visitors. Now as he leaned forward, searching for a flicker of light in the windows he passed, Sparrow could see why. If anyone lived here, he saw no hospitality.

The first sign of it came with the yellow glow of old electric lights. A lantern post stood at road edge, its dull illumination bright only in the dark. Behind it and down a mottled muddy path Sparrow could make out more light between the tree branches. They were windows. Weariness grew in his legs as the wind picked up, burning his nose as he breathed. Sparrow had lived months on the road at a time, he was no stranger to travel, but the prospect of a bed started a hungry ache in his chest.

Sparrow trudged up the path. The building was larger than the hovels he’d passed by, but made of the same damp wood that leaned and blended into the brush and rock. If not for the lamppost Sparrow might have missed it. He looked up at the words carved above the door. Marrowbone Inn.

He frowned at the antiquated name, but the yellow windows and gentle mutter of voices from within promised comfort. Sparrow knocked before trying the inn’s door. It opened smoothly, and Sparrow was met with a surprising number of curious expressions.

“This is an inn?” Sparrow knew it was, but he felt the question would explain his presence.

“It is. Come in.” He was waived inside by the bent old man tending the fire. Sparrow was greeted with several nods from the patrons already sitting around the single table. He returned them; perhaps this was more of a destination than he’d been told.

“Put your pack down, no rooms open tonight, but we’ll set you here with a cot.” The old man stood and straightened, brushing soot from his hands. Sparrow blinked and leaned back involuntarily. The old man towered over Sparrow’s average frame like one of the trees outside. The old man gestured to the table with a wiry arm. “Dinner will be out soon.”

Sparrow set his pack by the door and took the open seat. The four other guests smiled at him, they were all young like him and bore the grime and damp of long travel. The narrow, high walls of the common room almost seemed claustrophobic after weeks alone on the trails. “Hi. You all arrived today?” Sparrow asked.

A young woman with oily blonde hair nodded. “This evening. They are prepping the rooms, so we haven’t cleaned up yet. I’m Justine.”

“I’m Sparrow.” He supplied the name. Sparrow looked back towards the door the spindly proprietor had left through. “They?”

“The innkeeper and his wife.” The man next to Justine answered. His once fashionable dark mustache had grown out poorly into a scraggly beard. “Justine and I were prepared for at least another week of backpacking. Figured we were miles away from anything until we saw the street sign, and then the lamppost. Looking forward to a bed tonight.” The man laughed, and the others agreed, all grateful they’d seen the sign and lamp during their trek through the mountains.

“We all just found this place?” Sparrow asked the innocent enough question even as he felt and odd shiver prickle along the back of his neck.

“Lucky isn’t it?” Justine smiled at Sparrow.

Sparrow didn’t have a chance to answer, the kitchen door opened and the innkeeper and his wife returned bearing savory smelling bowls of thick stew. Like her husband, the innkeepers wife had to duck slightly under the door, balancing the food between rangy limbs. A murmur of appreciation rose from the table and a bowl was set before each of them.

Steam wisped from the greasy broth before him. Brown stringy pieces rose from the liquid without a potato or carrot in sight. Sparrow leaned back, the bloody scent of meat turning his stomach.

His discomfort did not go unnoticed, the innkeeper stopped. The old man cocked his head, bending down close enough for Sparrow to hear the odd creak of his bones. With long knobbed fingers the innkeeper pushed the bowl closer, as if proximity would entice Sparrow into eating.  “Something wrong? Travelers are a hungry sort.”

The other guests paused their meal, all looking at Sparrow with varying levels of vitriol. It was both rude and stupid to refuse food so far from civilization.

“I’m letting it cool.” Sparrow said, noting the old man’s breath stank like the soup. He smiled weakly, wishing the innkeeper would rise and back away. “Thank you.”

The old man’s mouth tightened, and he hovered long enough for Sparrow’s pulse to quicken. The long moment passed, and the innkeeper and his wife retreated with murmured promises to turn beds and prepare linens. Sparrow didn’t touch his stew, even after the steam stopped rising. The gesture was enough to earn him terse replies and sideways glances from the rest of the guests until the fire died to embers. One by one they retreated upstairs with cold shoulders, leaving Sparrow to his bedroll in the common room.

He almost left then, chancing himself to the night and rain. But as the storm picked up, the tall trees cradling the inn began to bend, and scratch, drawing their knobbed branches against the walls. Sparrow listened to them whisper, remembering of the spindly creak of the innkeeper.

Sparrow crawled beneath his blanket, settling down for a sleepless night in the common room.

The second half of this story will go up next week. This particular piece is in response to Mindlovesmiserys Menagerie’s Wordle Prompt. 

Legal Theft: Fox Spring

Zedri’s feet slid over the pebbles as he picked his way past the shallows. His clothes, day pack, and spear were set neatly back on the rocks, far enough to keep them from accidentally slipping into the cloudy spring. It was good to be back.

The place was quieter now without the crash and boast of his then adolescent friends. The trees seemed thicker with long shadows filling the spaces between them. That might have been his imagination though, it’d only been a couple years since they’d stopped coming to the hot springs and graduated to the bathhouses in town. Not enough time for the trees to grow terribly much. And shadows always seemed darker when you were alone.

He kept his eyes on the dense tree line that ringed the spot. There were no flashes of red fur in the deep green. Zedri sighed and let his feet fall out from under him, submerging his head beneath the sulfurous water. The little currents of the springs tugged against his ankles. He let them pull him gently along the bottom for a bit, Zedri was a strong swimmer and had done this before.

Zedri surfaced, feeling the warmth of the water give way to the chill in the air. He opened his eyes and scanned the shore again. The mud and rock was still empty. That was years ago, you’re being foolish, Zedri thought and flipped on his back to float and stare up at the graying sky.

It was the sound of metal upon rock that roused him. Zedri righted himself in the water, whipping his head towards the noise. Across the white foam of the spring, on the shore, his spear had rolled from the perch he’d set it on.  Next to the fallen weapon a young fox stared unabashed at him, her nose twitching in the steam from the spring.

After the moment passed, the creature went back to rooting through his pack with its delicate black paws. Zedri smiled wide. “I knew it.”

His voice interrupted the fox. It lowered its head, appraising the young man in the water with narrowed eyes.

Zedri didn’t approach, but continued to tread water and watch the creature that’d given the name to their secret spot. The foxes here had always been fearless towards visitors, but never friendly. Once younger and spurred by his friends’ dare, he’d tried to touch one. It’d darted away easily, taunting him with a flashes of red fur in the surrounding green. “Are there more of you?”

The fox of course did not answer him, but it did stop going through his now mussed clothing. Instead it sat, as if content to watch Zedri’s upper chest bob in the water. Whether there were lots of foxes, or simply one seen often, had been a matter of debate among his friends. Zedri thought the former more likely, they’d never seen two at the same time.

It meant, Zedri thought watching the fox as it watched him, that this could be the same sly-eyed animal.

“Just you then.” He said conversationally, starting to swim lazily again. The fox stretched. “You know, the bathhouses aren’t bad, but there are not any foxes there. It was odd at first, because I’d gotten used to seeing you here. We all did.”

They’d all suspected there was something strange about the wildlife here. Not only was the fox bold, but it seem to exhibit a fascination with the secret spring that rivaled their own. Years ago, one of the boys had made to throw a rock at their mascot. Zedri had plucked the stone from his friend’s hand before it flew. No one wanted to disturb what they’d had here.

Zedri watched the fox out of the corner of his eye as he swam. The fox completed its round about the spring, settling back next to his things with a small yawn. Zedri had never thought himself very clever. Some boys were smart, some were handsome, and others were strong. Zedri was content with the last two, but even he guessed there was something notable about the creature.

Not sure if he was simply being overly nostalgic, Zedri shrugged and let himself sink beneath the water again. He should get back, lest he incite a need for supervision. Zedri’s head broke the surface a minute later, catching sight of the fox immediately.

Her russet head was deep in the pile of his clothes again. “Hey!” Zedri forgot himself and called out. The fox jumped to attention, the loops of his belt and breeches held between her sharp teeth. They stared at each other for one long moment.

Then on a blur of swift black feet, the fox bolted, dragging Zedri’s breeches with her into the verdant underbrush. “Hey!” Zedri cried out again, suddenly slipping against the spring’s bottom in and attempt to rush the shore. His arms scrambled against the bank, pushing himself into a lurching run.

Zedri ignored the rest of the clothes and his pack as he lept into the forest after the thief.

Thieves come in all shapes and sizes, just like the ones who stole the fact that there are no foxes in the bathhouse for their own pieces. Check out the other foxes, or the lack thereof, at the Legal Theft Project.  

 

Til’ Death

Weddings were trite affairs. They trotted out the same threadbare traditions in new awful colors. Sooner or later the awful music, cheap food, and cloying sentiments blended together in one chiffon and lace wrapped mess.

One particular shade always stayed the same though. The white dress, this one classic and slim, its virginal hem now muddy and grass stained  from the zealously watered ceremony lawn. Paige sipped her table wine and admitted that the bride did look lovely in her boring white dress. Everyone else admitted it too, loudly and repeatedly. Paige nodded to each simpering comment, trying to keep her expression from going as sour as the wine she was drinking.

The endless barrage of speeches only served to turn the groom more pale, as his mother, best friend, and new family all served to remind exactly how fun he’d been before he’d met the woman currently sharing his undercooked steak. Paige smirked at poor guy, who was actually rather good looking, and went to get another drink. Her path led her near the couple’s table and she sent the groom a slow, heavy lidded look as she walked by.

Between the shimmering dress, focused lights, and heavy makeup the bride was beginning to look a bit shiny. She sagged in her father’s arms during the patriarchal vestige dance, and hastily returned to her seat afterwards with a flurry of tittering bridesmaids. Once slumped into her chair she downed her champagne, trying to stave of a sudden fit of wheezing. The matching women around her were undecided on what to do, some pulling towards the bathroom, while others kept her sitting. One simply blotted ineffectually at the bride’s sweaty face with her wrap.

Paige realized she was being followed into the hall once she’d made it through the line and ordered another sour chardonnay. When she turned, glass in hand, the groom was standing there watching her.

“Hi.” He said. Being the groom he had to smile at the people who passed them and their congratulations, but his focus was on Paige. “How do you know Emily?”

“I’m one of the the cousins’ girlfriends.” Paige sipped her new glass, meeting his eyes with a purse of her lips. “Congrats by the way, it was a beautiful ceremony.” She drawled, waiting for him to step aside. He didn’t.

“Then how do you know my dad?” The groom asked. “He’s been watching you all night and pretending not to.”

Paige shrugged, feeling a slight stomach pinch of alarm. This wasn’t the first client of hers that couldn’t keep their cool. Inside the reception hall the sound of loud hacking finally rose above the music. The groom didn’t notice and pressed. “Did he ask you to do….something?”

Well her job was done, no harm now. Paige waived her hand almost dismissively. “He said you weren’t as psyched about marital bliss as everyone else here, something about her family, you, problems.”

Behind them the reception hall music cut off abruptly, and the sound of a lot of people yelling incoherently built up. Paige took a step away as the groom whipped around to the sound.

He looked back at her just as she was turning to the country club foyer and the exit where her car waited outside. Paige smiled at him again. “Looks like you’re off the hook buddy. Call me.” She blew him a kiss, checked the metal vial was still safety hidden in her clutch and walked out the front door.

The groom was torn, half between catching the strange girl implying horrible things, and the horrible things going on behind him in the reception hall. He gave up, the doors were already swinging shut behind the stranger, and raced back to his wife.

Legal Theft: Distant Views

Imagining the city before her in flames was torturing. Like a starving woman envisioning a fresh cooked goose, picturing the destruction only left her salivating with no satisfaction.  Seva took another long drink from the bottle and set it back on the rail, cringing at the sweet taste of rum as it coated her throat. The balcony, her balcony she corrected herself with a sneer,  and its view only served to darken her mood.

Set on the east of Cliffwalk, as far from the docks as a city villa could get, her new home looked over the winding streets and multi-layered districts that made up the largest social hub of the country. A year past, Seva would have fallen upon the rich maze of bars, whorehouse, powder dens, and underside degeneracy of Cliffside with gluttonous abandon. Now the thought left her sick. Above those bars and dens the other aristocracy in their villas watched.

Someone settled themselves on the balcony rail next to her. She stiffened, only two people freely came and went through her rooms. She didn’t want to face either of them right now. Coward, the word came floating up through the sickly haze of rum. She promptly told whatever pansy-ass-introspective part of her brain that was mouthing off to stow it, and turned with a sigh.

It was neither of the people she was avoiding. “Hey kid.”

Leon narrowed his eyes at the nickname she sometimes pulled on him. He was older than Sean, but Seva never called the brawler kid. Leon only mentioned the reason for that when at a safe distance from both of them. “Enjoying the view?”

She didn’t answer that, just took another long swig from the bottle. From the corner of her vision, she could see him open his mouth. Seva interrupted before he could get the question out, eyes still on the distant and moonlit waves. “So help you, if you ask me how I am fucking feeling I am going to throw you off this fucking balcony.”

He laughed at her, and Seva debated doing it anyway. “Fine.” He said.”How about a gift instead?” Leon drew something from his left pocket, splaying his hand over the rail. Three small square pieces glinted in the moonlight.

Seva squinted at the iron. “Dice?”

He nodded at her.

She picked them up. They were heavy and rough against her fingers. The mark etched deep into her back stirred, the skin tightening across her shoulder blades like an old burn. Pure iron, she could feel it calling to the magic in her veins. Seva set the dice down quickly.

She didn’t want to talk about the mark growing over her back, its effects on metal, or the nobles overjoyed it was happening, but this was her own damn balcony and Leon looked too comfortable leaning over the balcony rail. Seva starting counting down the minutes before she scruffed him and dragged him back to his sister.  “You want me to help you win at crown and anchor? Talk to Sean, or Dirk. I don’t cheat at dice.”

“Might want to start.” He looked at her sideways. “Could be good practice.”

Seva growled. Brat, coming in here, telling her how to do her thrice-damned job. A messy flop of hair obscured his eyes, she couldn’t tell whether he was serious or if this was particularly effective jibe.

Leon continued. “You know, before you have to impress that council and their teachers. Get a feel for the small stuff.”

She felt her her lip twitch into a snarl. Next week, she had until next week before the lessons started. They wouldn’t have her crashing ships or shattering swords. The lessons would be safe, controlled, and infuriating. “Don’t you have someone else to bother?”

He grinned at her but took a step back, swinging his arms. “Yes. You were just first on my list. Enjoy the view.”

“Fuck you.”

The salute he gave her was barely recognizable as one, laden down with mockery. Seva listened to his footsteps off the balcony and through her new chambers. She’d shake him down for whatever he pinched later.

The city before her was still serene when she turned back to the view. Seva took a deep breath, another long drink of rum, and pocketed the dice.

Pirates, thieves, and degenerates, I have them all. The librarian over at The Gate in the Wood can be thanked for this week’s prompt three metal dice. See what they, and the rest of the thieves too, did over at the Legal Theft Project. 

Legal Theft: The Usual Arrangement

There is a fine line between ‘If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be’ and ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ She remembered both adages from a childhood spent sitting in these very pews. Isra was inclined to agree with the latter and happy enough to cut out an unreliable, if divine, middleman entirely. She’d become very adept at helping herself since those days spent blearily listening to the robed priests.

Isra bent her head, mimicking prayer behind her dark veil. The large nave was all but empty, just a few parishioners seated to offer a late prayer or promise before the priests closed the cathedral doors to the public. Only a single robed man watched the flock, but Isra did not pay him mind. He was not the one she had to worry over.

For good measure she offered up her own prayer, that God would keep to himself, leaving her to muddle out her own affairs. This was their usual arrangement after all. Then she stood making as if to exit the church, but before she got to the doors Isra slipped to the side. Isra tucked herself into the corner of the vestry, settling down into the shadows behind a narrow column.

Ever the more patient than pious, Isra waited the hours until the last of the parishioners departed and the priests shut the great church doors against the night. It was not until the last candle had been extinguished that she padded back towards the center of the church and the doors there.

Had she been a common thief, the gilt and gold of the altar would have been hard to ignore. The wealth of the church glinted even in the dark, the little light catching upon the tables and inscribed texts. Isra’s dark veiled figure passed the sacramental riches by without pause.

The unlit ways into the private hallways and poor priests’ quarters were largely unlocked. The holy men trusted public decency and decorum for security. It was all the common of them could afford. Isra’s fingers barely brushed the handles of their doors, instead she pushed herself quickly up the winding staircases.

Now she hurried past stained windows, the crimson and gold glass coloring her black skirts in the moonlight. She could imagine the priests who resided here, staring out the windows over the city with small satisfied smiles. Isra leaned gently against one of the handles. It was locked.

She smiled behind her veil, so much for trust. Her  destination was up another flight of curving stone stairs and past a lazy pair of guards. Patience served her again as she waited for them to move along on their patrol before pulling lockpicks from her skirt and rush to the desired door. The lock broke two of her picks, causing her briefly to rethink her stance on divine aid, before the third slipped into place and the torque turned.

Her brother’s study was meticulously cluttered. Holy texts and treatises of his own make lay across the desk in a manner that was not organic, but Isra suspected, was perhaps instead for an observer’s benefit. Isra closed the door behind her, making note of the window before she did.

Something was going on within her family, and she was unwilling to let her brothers determine what was ‘meant to be’ before she got a good idea of what that was. With that in mind, Isra began helping herself to the contents of her brother’s desk.

This week’s impetus for larceny comes from Bek and her line There is a fine line between ‘If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be’ and ‘God helps those who help themselves.’. Check out her piece and the rest at the Legal Theft Project. 

Flash Fiction: Always Fruit

“Why is it always fruit?” Madeline asked, gazing at the framed monstrosity before her. The two workmen holding the painting froze like rabbits before a hound, their eyes growing wide as they worried the lady might actually want a response. They’d been promised that beyond the little monologue their Lord had written, there would be no requirement to speak. Madeline stepped forward, her gown whispering against the foyer’s tile as her eyes narrowed at the offending canvas. “Who told the men of this country that women are exceptionally fond of produce?”

The servants did not know what to say to that, and thus prudently said nothing. It was Madeline’s maid who saved them from answering the question, crossing her shawl covered arms and sending her charge a pointed look. “I think it’s a very nice painting.” The older woman said.

It was a nice painting. The technique professional, the shadows placed in the proper location with the subject matter in question looking realistic enough to be both appetizing and dull. Madeline sighed, arms falling to her side as she turned from the gift. “Oh it’s very nice. Two years in the marriage market and I am veritably drowning in nice paintings.” She sighed and waived the painting away. They’d find a place to put it, her guests already assumed she had an unhealthily obsession with fruit and boring pastoral landscapes, one more would not do any harm.

“You could just pick a suitor, staunch the influx of paintings.” The maid suggested, watching the workmen begin the arduous process of turning over the gift to Madeline’s own staff.

“And when I finally receive some grand illustration of great battle or even a risque garden scene, perhaps I will consider it. But I don’t want to marry a man who thinks the mere sight of a banana will turn a woman amorous.”  Madeline enjoyed the sudden fluster of her maid and swept from the room, smiling to herself as she went.