Time for a new novel on Novel Mondays–Hope you enjoy the switch over to the Mages of Tindiere ‘verse and our slide back a thousand or so years into the past.
Adane barely escaped war in his homeland. He wanted nothing more than to hide in this new city with his adopted child Chisa by his side. But every choice he makes risks their quiet lives and every day brings the war that Adane fled closer to their doorstep. Soon Adane will have to choose between running away again or taking a stand against an enemy that can’t be seen and cannot be fought.
Transplant of War
by Meyari McFarland
Cobbles twisted Adane’s ankle sharply as he picked his way up the narrow street. He cursed under his breath only to stop abruptly, sweat breaking out over his forehead and back. His heart pounded against his chest, shaking his knees and grabbing at his lungs so that breathing abruptly became impossible.
Adane looked over his shoulder. No one was there. No one had heard. They weren’t hunting him. A great flying cart, as long as a block, stacked high with bricks for someone’s house, flew by overhead. Its magical flywheel whirred silently, the driver manipulating the glowing control disks so lazily that he looked three quarters asleep.
The driver didn’t look down at Adane cringing in his narrow, dirty alley. Probably didn’t even notice that Adane was there but still, it was a risk that Adane couldn’t afford. He kept the curses in his head after that, despite how uneven the cobblestones were under his feet. Too much risk, too many dangers; he needed to do everything right including navigating this tiny street.
If you could call it a street. It was a path between two rows of buildings with what should pass for cobblestones under his feet but Adane would have considered it no better than an alley back home. Less than that. Alleys had enough room for a proper cart to go through, space overhead where the neighbors could look across at each other, maybe windows in the walls so that passers-by could glimpse the gardens beyond.
Not here. The walls towered over his head, a good eight feet high. Most were topped with broken shards of glass that said more clearly than signage that no one was welcome to visit. The buildings beyond had no windows, no gardens. Those were all wrapped inside in central courtyards that only the privileged few could enter. Or at least that only the residents could see and complain about the upkeep that had not happened in far too long.
In this portion of town no one had time for gardening. They were too busy surviving, working for every penny they could scrape up. A far cry from his childhood before everything went wrong but this was what Adane could afford. At least here people didn’t ask questions. No one had commented on Adane’s flinches, fear sweats and barely covered scars around his wrists.
The street itself was narrow. Cramped. Worn. He gently brushed his fingers along the grey plastered wall to his left. Chips broke off, white on their underside, falling into the out of place cobbles below. One chunk as large as his head toppled to the cobbles in a crack that made Adane start. Underneath old worn bricks peered outwards, curling inwards at the edges where grout should be as though the grout was slime mold startled by the light.
A house. Here? Well, it was his fault for insisting on buying without first seeing more of the neighborhood. But beggars couldn’t be choosers and Adane needed a house more than he needed the assurance that it was in a safe neighborhood. He could, after all, defend himself should any of the neighbors decide to rob him. Or rape him. Or simply stab him. He’d done it before. Hopefully he wouldn’t have to do it again.
Unlikely, that, a stabbing. The few people he’d passed so far looked too poor and downtrodden to even own a knife long enough and strong enough stab someone to death, much less the will to do so. Worn out, dressed in carefully patched rags, dirty and clearly dehydrated; none of them were a threat unless they massed together and frankly he was fairly certain he could run away faster than they could chase. He’d outrun worse.
“Third from the well, down the Lane of the Hunter’s Club,” Adane whispered. “Still not sure that was a well.”
“Where you go?”
Adane started and whirled, looking behind then up as his very much stab-worthy knife appeared in his hand. A child with gapped front teeth and a huge black smear across its face grinned down at him, hands and feet carefully placed to avoid the broken glass on top of the wall. He sighed and glowered up at the child. Too young for a gender yet, possibly too poor to have its name and lineage recorded in the Temple archives once it reached the age for picking a gender.
“Why you ask?” Adane demanded.
“Want to know,” the child said and laughed at the little huff of outrage it prompted. “Can show you. For money. Got money?”
“Bought a house,” Adane replied with enough sourness that the child broke into delighted giggles. “Of course not.”
“Bought, then had money,” the child replied. “Maybe got food?”
They tumbled down to the street and then pushed its mass of curly black hair away from its face. They truly were too thin and young for Adane to venture a guess as to their genitalia. The child’s face had full lips, a broad nose and wide eyes, suggesting female, but the broad jaw and shoulders said possibly male. Not that it mattered, truly.
Adane shook his head, smiling a little as the child smiled winsomely and batted wide brown eyes at him. No matter what gender the child chose at puberty they would be stunningly beautiful.
“Shameless,” Adane chuckled.
“Hungry,” the child countered. “Food for guide? Won’t steer wrong.”
“Don’t need a guide,” Adane said with a shrug that the child clucked its tongue at. “Just need the door.”
“House,” the child said, eyes going wide. “Oh! Bought The House!”
The child darted off to Adane’s left, waving urgently for him to follow. Adane did, much more slowly and cautiously, only to snort when he reached the next narrow intersection and spotted the child dancing in front of a door.
His door. The seller had said that the proper door was painted green and ‘very sturdy’. Perhaps a hundred years ago the door had been ornamented with green paint but now only the faintest slivers of green glimmered in the cracks of the wood. Sturdy wasn’t a word that Adane would have used, either. The door looked more like a barely standing monument to dry rot than it did anything else.
“The House!” the child said, pointing at the door. “You bought The House!”
“The?” Adane asked as he pulled the big old key, brass, clunky, handle decorated with a viper’s head, from his pocket. “Special house?”
“Uh-huh,” the child said, nodding so hard that their mass of curls flopped into their face. They pushed the hair back, dancing a little with excitement. “No one ever bought The House. Cursed. Everybody dies. Walk in. Walk out. Die.”
Adane paused with the key in the lock, staring at the child’s earnest face. He sighed and allowed his shoulders to slump exactly as much as they wanted to. Of course he’d be so desperate as to buy a cursed house. No wonder no one else would want it.
“That’s why it was cheap,” Adane sighed.
“Hah?” the child asked. He stared at Adane, eyes wide and bottom lip pouted out at the, to the child, unintelligible words. Obviously the child had never heard High Tongue before.
“Cheap,” Adane said so sadly that the child burst out laughing.
“Bad deal, you,” the child snickered while pointing at Adane.
The laughter was totally justified. It was fairly obvious, now, why the seller had pocketed Adane’s precious coins with such a smug expression. He’d assumed that in the very near future Adane would be dead and the house would return to his possession. Adane wondered for a moment exactly how many times the seller had done the same thing, sold the house only to reclaim it when the new owner died.
Well, it wasn’t going to happen this time. Adane hadn’t traveled half across the world to die now. Rudrai City was his new home and he wouldn’t let anything, not even a cursed house, stop him. He had to prepare for his family’s eventual arrival and there was war looming that needed to be prepared for if at all possible.
The child grinned up at him, arms akimbo, while Adane shook his head and sighed. At least it seemed perfectly happy to explain, to interact with Adane. That was a pleasant change compared to the people he’d met so far. Most of them avoided Adane if possible and if not, were as short with him as they could be without risking lethal levels of rudeness.
“Adane,” Adane offered, thumping his hand to his chest. “You?”
“Don’t got a name,” the child huffed with a thoroughly scornful wave of his hands that all but shouted ‘don’t be ridiculous’. “Don’t got a family. Only families give names.”
“Handle?” Adane asked. He certainly couldn’t keep calling the child ‘child’.
“Heh, Sand,” the child said so proudly that Adane nodded with proper gravity.
It was a handle to be proud of. The sand dunes’ slow, inevitable creep across Rudrai had consumed entire towns. Fields were buried sometimes in years, sometimes in hours, depending on the wind. He’d heard people discussing a thousand spells to push the sand back but none had succeeded yet. The sand was just too powerful.
But it wasn’t human. Wasn’t animate and poor little Sand had to base their identity on something that had no true life and which only caused destruction.
“Back home,” Adane said slowly, watching Sand’s face for any sign of offense, “that would be pronounced Chisa. It means more than ‘sand’, though. It’s ‘small’, ‘delicate’… ‘perfect’.”
Sand stared up at him, suddenly showing their age in the way they sucked on their bottom lip, shivered and then quivered as if they wanted nothing more than a long comforting hug. Adane shrugged, uncomfortable with Sand’s emotion and his own desire to protect the child even though they’d only just met. He awkwardly shuffled his feet in the sand before nodding at the worn door.
“Really cursed?” Adane asked.
“Really,” Sand confirmed. “Anybody goes in, dies. Walk around, look at stuff, come back out, stagger a few paces, thump. Dead in the street.”
Adane frowned thoughtfully. “Did their ankles swell? Foaming at the mouth? Any bite marks? Screams?”
“Ankles, yes,” Sand said. He gestured as if the victims’ ankles had swelled to the size of watermelons. “Foaming, no. No bites or screams. Just walk out, thump, swell and die.”
“Huh,” Adane grunted as he studied the decaying walls around the door far more cautiously than before.
There were only a few creatures he knew of that could survive in Rudrai City that would kill in that fashion. The swollen ankles made one in particular quite likely and possibly quite profitable. Shiraida looked like gigantic scorpions but their sting was far more lethal, especially the young ones that had just shifted from larval form to adult armored form. More importantly for Adane’s future in the city, the flesh of their tail was considered a great delicacy that the rich and powerful paid huge sums for. A single tail brought in a month’s wages.
“Stay there, Chisa,” Adane said. “Might know what it is. Need… assistance.”
Sand started when Adane called them ‘Chisa’, first opening their mouth and then flushing brilliantly red as if embarrassed. They shrugged and rubbed at the smudge across their face, eyes looking everywhere except for at Adane.
“No reason to stay,” Sand mumbled. “Just in the way.”
“Pfft, no,” Adane said scornfully enough that Sand actually looked at him again. “Saved my life. Would have entered, died. If right, you get half.”
“Half nothing, still nothing,” Sand said though they did stand a little straighter and look a little more happy about staying there on guard.
Adane looked around, scanning for anyone listening to them. “Probably full of Shiraida. Half a dozen? A hundred? Not nothing. Lots of money.”
Sand whirled and stared at the door, hands spread out as if he wanted to bat the Shiraida away. He looked at the decaying walls too, moaning and shuddering. Everyone knew how Shiraida burrowed. Exterminators who dared to capture Shiraida often had to lay their traps under walls and in cellars. If the Shiraida did have a colony inside the house then the walls would be full of burrows and the plaster only barely held them in by this point.
“No touching,” Adane said.
“No, no touching,” Sand agreed. It peered up at Adane suspiciously. “Really? Half?”
“Swear on the love of the Mother Goddess, yes,” Adane said solemnly, tapping his closed fist to his forehead and chest.
That appeared to reassure Sand enough that they nodded. They still eyed the wall as if they expected a horde of Shiraida to erupt out of it, tails raised and pinchers at the ready to attack them. Adane hurried away, doing his best not to curse at the heaved cobbles around his house. That was something he would have to pay to fix, always presuming he could actually live in the house at all once the Shiraida were gone. They could have destroyed everything by now, leaving him with nothing put a crumbling ruin.
It took nearly half an hour to gather three Shiraida hunters with traps, each working for different families. Along the way he also gathered a small entourage that included the old owner of the house, his burly son and a local official from the Planning Office who had been strolling through the market when Adane hurried back with the Shiraida hunters and their heavy steel cages in tow.
To his shock, Sand was still there, still nervously eyeing the door. Sand looked like they wanted to burst into tears when he came round the corner. As soon as Sand saw the others, though, their face went still and proud, hiding any traces of its fear.
“That many?” Sand asked.
“Probably more,” Adane said, shrugging. “This is it. Set up the cage by the door, shield the door so they can’t get out and then I’ll open it.”
“Still think this’s a waste of time,” the oldest of the three Shiraida hunters muttered.
His skin was burned so brown that he looked like an old leather boot, complete with wrinkles cutting deep into his skin around his mouth and eyes. Still, he hefted the iron cage off his floating cart easily enough, setting it in place before casting a little warding spell over the entrance to Adane’s house.
The hunter’s son leaned on the handle of their cart, boredom written large over his coarse features. Behind him the other two hunters and their kids, one girl barely five years older than Sand and a zhan that looked to be a skinny thirteen or fourteen under their tight-wrapped veils, chatted together. They all ignored the town official as he pressed past the cart to frown at Adane and Sand.
Adane carefully set the key in the lock again, rotating it as softly and gently as possible. He could have sworn that he heard scrabbling sounds but it was probably his imagination. Biting his lip until blood bloomed in his mouth, Adane pushed the door open.
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