An Heir to Thorns and Steel is a serialized fantasy novel updating once a week for free on Tuesdays, and again on Thursdays and Saturdays if tips reach $15 and $20, respectively. Single reviews of existing stories posted to Amazon count for $5 toward the tip total.
Blood Ladders, Book 1
That day blurred into the night and into the morning that followed, and the afternoon and evening… all a smear of cloudy skies and the splash of hooves in puddles and the roll-and-bump of the wheels beneath me. Bitter, bitter poppy and I, and a sword in my lap and a pendant in my hand, all my senses blunted and attenuated into a numb pall… we made the trip all together, a circus of mismatched freaks.
That fourth evening I found myself assigned to the floor again, and so great was my drug-addled haze that it mattered not a whit to me, and I set myself on the bare floorboards as if on a king’s bed. With, I thought dreamily, the same amount of privacy, remembering the historical accounts of King Odward the Humble’s bedchamber through which the peasants could process, there to witness the king’s diligent attempts to create an heir and offer their many and varied suggestions for ensuring a healthy boy. King Odward had been unable to keep a wife; several had divorced him despite that marrying him made them queens. I had to imagine having spectators crowded around their beds every night had something to do with it.
I set my head on my joined hands and stared at the distant hearth, waiting for its flames to knit together into the shape of a dragon or a demon or a king, but I could not concentrate long enough to hold any forms together. I drifted, losing the passing moments, so that when the master of the house stopped before me I did not know how much time had passed.
“There’s a girl outside to see you, sir,” he said.
“A girl?” I asked. What girl? My mother? Ivy? “What’s that you say?”
“A child,” the man said. “Perhaps eleven or twelve.”
“I don’t know any children that age,” I said.
“You are Morgan Locke, yes?”
“Yes,” I said.
“She asked for you by name.”
Perplexed but unable to worry, I followed him outside and toward the edge of the building. There was a little cloaked figure standing there by the corner, head lowered with the hood drawn so deep I couldn’t see her face. She wore an innocent gown of white eyelet lace, the visible folds shining against the soaked gray dark of the rain-spattered alley, and matching white stockings with tiny blue pinstripes. Her shoes seemed a little big for her feet.
I approached her, curious, stopped a polite distance away. “You asked for me?”
The hood nodded, and then the girl turned and walked into the alley. I wondered if this was some new hallucination, but no… looking over my shoulder I could see the puzzled look on the face of the master of the house. With a shrug I followed her.
No sooner had we gained the dubious safety of the wet shadow of the building than she pinned me against the wall, pressing me into the brick. “I thought you’d never come out,” Kelu hissed.
Even poppy-drowned I could be shocked. “What are you doing here?”
“I need you,” she said, grabbing my wrist and beginning to unbutton the cuff. “And you were on the floor surrounded by people, I couldn’t get in there. I had to get you to come out.”
“But how… where did you find this dress? And how did you… your face is not a child’s!”
“I stole the outfit,” she said. “No one locks their windows around here. As for the house-master…” She snorted, shoving my sleeve up past my elbow. “Proper children never look up at strange men, yes? I kept my head bowed like a modest little girl and asked for you.”
“Kelu,” I began, but she was sinking her teeth into my arm, grinding me back against the wall in her desperation. My head dropped forward against hers; the trails of blood flying over my skin were the hottest thing in me, the only real part of me, escaping, fleeing, leaving me a-drift….
“GET YOUR HANDS OFF HER!”
Kelu ripped her teeth from me, taking two shallow channels of flesh with them, and fled deeper into the alley. Her hood fell off, hair gleaming behind her as she fled, white lace, pale tresses. I was left with my back to the wall, staring after her until a hand turned my face forcibly back and I found myself staring into the eyes of a much taller man.
“Take off your glasses,” he said.
“P-pardon?” I asked.
He did it for me then, an intimacy I could barely protest, and handed them to one of the men standing behind him.
And then he cocked his arm and smashed his fist into my cheek.
I fell in the mud and skidded and then they were all on me. I didn’t even know why until one of them said something about molesting children.
“Not a child,” I managed then, words slurred.
“That’s what they all say,” one of the silhouettes said, and gave me a fist in my stomach for my trouble.
I let them hurt me; I couldn’t stop them. And I was so far into the opium’s embrace that it was a dream, a phantasmagoria of shadowed faces, wrestling body parts, of unexpected agony, of nausea and confusion and the iron tang of blood mixed with mud.
They came to a halt at last. My glasses were set with incongruous care on my nose. Several of the men were drifting away… I watched them because the movement attracted my wandering eye. It was only when their leader jogged my bruised jaw that I looked up at him and wondered how I had not recognized him before. But then, perhaps he had not been the one who’d taken my glasses off. I had lost the track.
“Because you were given into my care as a friend of the family by Lord Chester,” the head driver said, “I will do you this one favor… even though you are nothing but a drug-addicted, dissolute, baby-raping worm.” He smiled and shoved me back against the ground. “I’ll give you an hour. If I find you anywhere near here after that…”
I looked up at him. “A joke.”
“A mercy,” he said. “And I won’t tell you twice.”
“I’ll let you keep your life and everything you’ve got on you. Consider it a bargain.”
I stumbled to my feet and wobbled there. The ground didn’t make sense. I couldn’t find the edges of my body. But somehow, I managed a mocking bow.
“Don’t push me,” the driver growled.
I smiled a lopsided smile and limped into the dark after Kelu.
I didn’t find them; they found me, collapsed outside town beneath a knot of trees, unable to order my limbs or my thoughts and my body turning a patchwork black as dark as my hair.
“Master!” Almond exclaimed.
That abruptly I was exhausted, tired of them, tired of their voices, their angelic smell and warmth, their demands on me. “Just go away,” I said.
“Don’t tell her that,” Kelu said. “She’ll do it, weeping all the while.”
“You abandoned me,” I said after a moment’s contemplation.
“I had to,” she said. “If I’d stayed, we’d both be locked up somewhere, me as a curiosity and you because you know something about it.” Her voice lowered. “I didn’t want this to happen to you.”
“Don’t lie to me,” I said, not knowing where the words came from. “You hate the elves. You were glad to see me beaten to within a breath of my life.”
“You’re right,” she said. “But somehow it’s less satisfying when you don’t look like one of them. If you could just thin out and get prettier, then… yes, I would have watched and enjoyed every fist in your face.”
“Your candor is much appreciated,” I said, closing my eyes. “And now, you will have to drag me bodily someplace safer, because I’m not sure whether they intend to make good on their implied pursuit.”
“Are you always this coherent when you look this bad?” Kelu asked.
“I am when I’m drugged core-to-skin with opium,” I said. “Now help me up.”
We just, just squeaked over the cap today, with three reviews and one donation. Thank you all. :)
I think Morgan is grumpy. I have no idea why. >.>