Saturday, 12 April 2014

Glory Brats: fragment

Sparrow stuck her head outside the tent door. The air smelt of damp grass and wet canvas. She could only just make out the shapes of the other tents in the field. A bird hooted from the tree-line and she drew her head back inside quickly. 'Coast's clear.'

As Sparrow re-laced the door, Fiony turned her torch on, shining it in Minnow's eyes.

'Hey, watch it...'

'Sorry!' Fiony giggled and stuck the torch upright in her tin camping mug, padding it out with her facecloth. She angled it away from the other two girls.

Minnow sat up in her sleeping bag and hugged her arms around her knees. She watched Sparrow pad over to the third mat and shuffle back into her own bag.

Sparrow's feet were warm, in her two pairs of socks with her pajama bottoms tucked in under the top pair. She had a jumper on too. It felt odd, and bulky, but it was cold at night, and she'd promised mum.

Fiony cleared her throat. 'Are we going to get started or what?' She tossed a bag of chews in her hand, up and down.

Sparrow stretched out her arm to grab her rucksack. She rummaged around for a bit and pulled out a small packet of sweets. Minnow produced a slab of foil-wrapped chocolate from her wash-bag. Sparrow stared. 'How'd you get that past old sharp-eyes?'

Min looked smug. 'She never even checked my wash-bag. She asked me if I'd got it, and I held it up and she said Good, Next please...!'

'Shhh!' Sparrow shushed the other two through her own giggles.

'I hid mine up my sleeve...' Fiony put a chew in her mouth and offered the bag around, 'They're orange flavour.'

Min snapped the chocolate into three bits, 'Here, don't get the crumbs on your pillow case or we're done for.'

Sparrow's sweets were all the same size, but different colours. She picked out all the purple ones, 'I like the blackcurrant best.'

Fiony swallowed, and licked chocolate off her fingers. 'Let's tell scary stories. I know one that really happened. It happened when my cousin's class were camping here.'

Min burrowed further down  into her sleeping bag and pulled the hood over her head. 'I don't like scary stuff.'

Fiony looked across at Sparrow. Sparrow shrugged. The thin walls of the tent sucked in and out in the wind. Rain spattered against the canvas. Fiony sighed dramatically. 'That poor boy...'

'What poor boy?' Minn's voice, filled with suspicion, came from under the blanket.

'My cousin told me about him. It was a coupla years back now. You know how we don't camp near the trees?'

Sparrow nodded.

'Well back then the camping field was much closer to the forest...and it was the tent nearest the trees, that this boy was sleeping in. It was after lights out, and they were all talking, like we are now, except this boy didn't want to, so he hid in his sleeping bag...'

The lump that was Min shuffled, and gave something like a snort. 'You're making this up.'

'Am not. I told you, it was my cousin's year. Anyway, he fell asleep, and only woke up when he heard the tent door flapping in the wind.'

Sparrow tried not to, she really tried, but couldn't help looking over at the front of the tent. The door was still laced up.

'He looked over at the other two sleeping bags, but they were empty...and all torn up, like someone had slashed at them with a knife. He got his torch and crept to the tent door. The feeble light just reached to the tree-line, where he saw one of his friends being dragged along the grass by something invisible...'

'If it was invisible how could he see it?'

'Shut it, Sparks - he saw the FRIEND being dragged. So, he saw his friend dragged into the trees and decided he had to go after him.'

Sparrow rolled her eyes, 'What an idiot.'

Fiony blew through her nostrils, and looked at Min, now wide-eyed and white-knuckled,  'ANYWAY, he pulled on his gumboots and followed the trail through the wet grass, and ducked under the fence into the forest, but there was no sign of anyone...only a sort of ditch in the ground that led right into the middle of the trees. He thought, well at least I'll be able to follow it back, so he went further and further into the woods. Still no sign of his friends. It started to rain, and he thought he'd head back to the camp, when his torch showed a building just ahead. He remembered that it was a long way to the edge of the trees, and the rain might not last long, so he thought he would shelter in the building. It was made of concrete, and sort of sunk into the ground. It looked like no one had been there in years. There wasn't a door or anything, so he just walked right in, crunching dried leaves and twigs under his feet . By this point his torch batteries were going...and by the last bit of flickering light he just saw that at the back of the room there was a...' Fiony stopped to check that her audience was still listening, '...a load of rubbish, all piled up, like bits of sticks and stuff. So he sat down in the dark to wait until morning.'

'S'not the only thing that's a load of rubbish...'

'You're a load of rubbish, Sparrow Jones.'

'Well you're full of --'

'Shut up, Sparrow, I want to know what happens...' Min pleaded. Fiony stopped glaring at Sparrow.

'He musta fallen asleep, cos when he woke up, the sun was shining straight in through the doorway. He stood up, and the twigs crunched again, 'cept now he was able to see that they weren't twigs but...bones...' Fiony paused again, pleased that even Sparrow was listening now. 'He looked to the back of the room, and the pile of rubbish wasn't rubbish, but human skeletons, all piled up one on top of the other, their clothes slowly rotting and hanging off the bones. And on the very top of the pile, he saw two skeletons that had pajamas...'

'That's sick.' Sparrow punched at her pillow.

'Well it's true! My cousin said...'

'Your cousin's a liar. My dad said they planted the trees to make the air better, that's all. All the cities have them. Why should just this forest have ruins and stupid skeletons in it?'

'Dare you to go into it then.'

'Fine.'

'Dare you to go into it now.'

Sparrow turned round in her sleeping bag and shut her eyes, 'Don't be stupid.'

Friday, 4 April 2014

[Northspell 7] the princess discovers the market

Irena was woken by the rat-tat-tattering of wooden wheels over cobbles. She opened her eyes to see a line of brightly painted wagons and carts trundling past. Every part of her body ached, her head most of all, and the colours swam before her eyes. She leaned back against the wall and watched the carts go by, not really seeing them. People walked alongside the wagons, some carrying baskets, others with bundles of fabric balanced on their heads. The clothes they wore were like their wagons - a clash of colours and patterns. Children were everywhere - some dangling their legs off the backs of the carts, others running to catch up. They were noisy, calling out to each other in a strange dialect.

'Hey!'

Irena closed her eyes again. She wished she could close her ears too.

'Hey, you!'

Something landed in her lap and she knocked the back of her head against the wall in surprise. It was a bread roll with some kind of seeds on top. A boy in the last cart sat back, laughing, and bit into a roll of his own, his jaws moving up and down.

The top of the roll was too hard, so she bit from the underside, tearing away at the softer dough with her teeth until only the crusty, seed-studded top was left. She broke it into bits and ate the pieces slowly, letting them soften in her mouth before swallowing. When it was finished she looked up at the now quiet street. A few children crouched down to rake in the hollows between the cobbles, hunched over, protecting their finds: little beads or sometimes a carved wooden toggle. They were not like the children she had seen running by the wagons. Their clothing was plain, and they did not shout or laugh.

The door beside her was wrenched open, and the children scattered like the beads they had been collecting. A guard stuck his head out and looked up and down the street. He glanced down at Irena and raised his arm.

'Get moving.'

So he could see her. The boy had been able to see her too - and well enough to aim the roll he had thrown. She pushed herself unsteadily to her feet, swallowing down the fluttery feeling in her stomach with the last taste of the bread.

'You deaf? I said get moving.' 

She grasped at his arm. 'But I...'

He batted her away with as little effort as a horse flicking its tail. She tumbled backwards into the road.

'Gutter rats like you make the place look untidy, see?' He brushed imaginary dirt off his tunic with a dismissive hand and folded his arms impressively, waiting for her to leave.

Thief, Northwitch, gutter rat...she had been called so many different names since leaving her rooms. Irena Marie Imaldi tilted her chin upwards and turned away. There would be a different way in, and nicer guards who would see her for what she was. She looked down at her dirty feet in her even dirtier slippers, the bedraggled hem of her nightgown, and her crumpled coat. The silk on her left slipper had worn through and she could feel the cobbles through the hole.

Something small hit her back, then her legs. She whirled round, but the guard had shut the solid door again. A stone pinged off her cheek, making her skin smart with the pain. She rubbed at the spot where it hurt.

'Shove OFF, new girl.'

She held a hand up against the sun and looked for the owner of the voice. Children crouched in the shadows of the alley where they had hidden from the guard. A boy stood up, bunching his fists.

'You threw stones at me!' Irena raised her voice in indignation. He was only a little boy, after all, much smaller than she was.

He drew back his arm and threw another stone. This one hit her coat and slid off harmlessly, but another followed, and another. They advanced on her now, whooping as she raised her arms to protect her head, and giving chase as she stumbled away. Eventually there was a lull in the noise, and their stones fell short of the mark. She rounded on them, their arms linked across the width of the street like a barrier. The little boy stepped forward, more confident in his bare feet than she was in her worn slippers.

'This is our patch. Go find your own.'

***
She followed the cobbles as they cut a meandering path through the smaller streets and dirt-paved alleys, always hugging close to the high palace wall. The enclosing walls of the street were sometimes pierced by an open gate way, offering a glimpse of an inner courtyard festooned with clothing drying in the sun. Women leaned out of upper windows, chatting to other women at other windows just across the street, raising their voices above the clamour below. Hugging her coat around her body, Irena pushed her way through the crowds, feeling them push back against her and jostle her from side to side. Once, she came up against a man with a barrow, piled high with clay bricks. He pushed his way down the street, scattering those in his way. She jumped to the side and the barrow birled past, as she stood close against the brightly painted wall, gulping down air to catch her breath. The crowds rolled back into place and the street was full again.

This time the cobbles betrayed her, leading her away from the safety of the white-plastered palace wall. They led her through blocks of houses stacked like toy bricks one on top of the other, the street getting narrower as the houses grew higher, until they almost met at the top. Strings of washing spanned the narrow distance, although they hung limply in the shade, dripping onto the heads of passers-by.

The walls here were covered in flaking layers of paint, one colour overlapping the next. Crudely painted slogans scrawled over every surface: above doorways, and across the wooden shutters. They fought for space, overwhelming older slogans that were still faintly visible under the new paint.

The buildings on either side finally met overhead in a stone archway. The space underneath was packed with people, some sitting on old rugs or bits of matting, and some crouched on the bare cobbles. They stretched out their hands to those walking past, and Irena pulled away from their touch, her feet tripping on the uneven surface. She followed the general surge of the crowd and stumbled into a large open square, flooded with sunlight.

The square was filled with tables, laid out in straggly rows, and loaded with all manner of things, from bowls stacked three apiece to sacks full to brimming with smooth shelled nuts. Where there wasn't a table, stuff was simply spread on the ground instead, filling every available space that wasn't needed for the passage of people. Irena wandered in and out of the tables, unnoticed. She saw fragrant-scented, pale yellow apples laid out in trays, fluttering song birds caught in thin woven baskets, and bite-sized, fragile looking fruits the colour of a bruise. She remembered they tasted grainy, but sweet, and picked one up as she walked past. Juice ran down her chin as she bit into it, and she wiped it away with the heel of her hand.

The things on other tables were not familiar: wooden barrels with copper-coloured fish hanging over them, thick smoke slowly turning the flesh dark. Branches that blossomed into vibrant orange flowers with a warm, spicy smell, and tiny powder-blue berries that blushed purple when touched.

A boy slumped behind the table, eyes half-closed against the sun. Every so often he would sit upright, look around and sink back down again, stretching his mouth in a yawn. His breathing slowed. Irena edged closer, looking with envy at the soft blankets covering the crates he was sitting on. She wasn't used to standing all the time. He didn't wake as she sat down on the cool cobbles and rested against the blanket. She took the bowl of berries from the table and sat with it cradled in her lap. The skin of the berries slipped away under the pressure of her fingers, staining them pink. She licked them, but it wouldn't come off. The berries burst between her teeth, one by one, until the whole bowl was gone. She sat the bowl back on the table and shut her eyes.

The sweetness of the fruit and the heat of the sun made her sleepy, and the noise from the square faded away. She curled up under the table, shaded from the sun and out of the reach of passers-by.

THUMP. The table above her shuddered and she opened her eyes. Someone was shouting, and someone else was yelling, but she didn't listen. She was about to crawl out from underneath the table and away from it all when the words suddenly made sense in her head.

"...ate all those berries!"

The boy was trying to speak but the man had grasped him by the back of his shirt and it was like the words were being shaken out of him.

"But I didn't, I did not, I..."

"Don't deny it, Oska. I leave you in charge and you eat my best stock and take a nap. You'll get the thrashing you deserve, whether you're kin or no."

Irena hid under the table and listened as the yells turned into muffled sobs. She clenched her hands so hard that her nails left marks on her berry-stained hands.