Gret

Pulp Literature - - GRET - Lit­er­a­ture

My mam al­ways told me there’s three ways to pros­per best and all be­gin with L.

Lo­ca­tion’s one. No pros­per­ing’s ever done by thief or witch if the job be­gins in the wrong place or time. Lis­som tongue is next. No mat­ter how much wis­dom a gal has to her, good learn­ing don’t go far if she can’t talk her way out of a bad deal. And last is Light­ning Touch. That means the ef­fort­less slid­ing of nim­ble fin­gers in and out of pock­ets with­out bein’ cotched.

My mam knew these L’s right bet­ter than any I’ve met. She could charm the gold (and other things) right out of any feller’s britches. We’d a Red Lamp and Physic House just out­side the palace gates of the Grand Cor­sair of Roon. Back then us Red Lamp girls was good for much more than plea­sure to bod­ies in need. We were spies, heal­ers, and coun­sel­lors. We had the ear of high folks on Roon. And witch­ery. Mam passed hers on to me. No brag, just fact. She could fix the dy­ing so they might live again. She could deal with those what needed killing. She called it her lay­ing-on-of-hands.

My da was one who lived and loved, so she said. Word was

he’d been a Cor­sair, like so many were on Roon in my younger day, his gull-grey Xe­bec as swift and trim as any true sea­man’s craft could be. I guess I got his beak of a nose and his un­com­pro­mis­ing tem­per. Hand­some, mebbe. I can’t say. ‘Easy on the eye’ got him nowhere in the end. My da was hanged af­ter a fierce bat­tle in a lit­tle town called Sky­haven upon the rugged Isle of Inach. Hanged from their Raiders Gate along with the rest of his crew. The vil­lagers torched his ship, the fools. No good sense of true thiev­ery among the lot of ’em.

Rank, lub­berly fisher folk. Heads so far up their ar­ses they needed to shout to be heard.

Don’t guess Mam grieved at his loss. Not for long. She was a cool witch. For her it was busi­ness first and wom­an­hood sec­ond. Most like, I’d be just like her, save for my ’nun­cle Vongy.

The day Mam died, that sod­ding bag of dead man’s piss knocked me over my ten­der young pate and threw me into the or­lop of a pirate ship. I’d just turned thir­teen. So there I was, cotched and away out there on blue wa­ter. Now, that was a real bad lo­ca­tion. No sil­ver-tongued hap­pi­ness was gonna save my cherry. A lit­tle maid no more, I’d be­gun on the road to the witch I am.

Isk, the cap­tain, was no true Cor­sair. Pi­rates ain’t. Pi­rates’ll rut with a post if there ain’t no goats aboard, and the goats breathe easy if there’s girls. Old Isk was a bar­na­cle-bot­tomed fiend with a snout like a dead salmon. His breath smelled like toe­nail slime. His frow­sty peri­wig was so greasy even lice wouldn’t live on it. His hands were never still.

He didn’t bother to un­tie my hands. Keep­ing me bound got him randy. He’d a pref­er­ence for young flesh and he had it of­ten. He made it clear to his crew I was his prop­erty, bought and paid

for with his coin (least­ways ’til we got to the main­land and he could get a bet­ter trade for me).

I took his us­ing of me and I fes­tered with hate. Pre­tended I liked it. I used that lis­som tongue my mama had taught me, try­ing not to vomit in the do­ing. Knew well enough to wait my time ’til we made Trin­ce­port.

That first night we come ashore, just be­yond the oil and tar smell of the Trin­ce­port ship-yards, on our way to our louse-rid bed in the at­tic of some noisy ale-house, we passed a stink­ing mid­den. It lay be­side the hulk­ing fish-gut­ting house.

To my de­light I spied some fungi grow­ing near. A clutch of White Hoods! I knew ’em well. I man­aged to trip and fall flat on my face, my bound hands flail­ing, and snaf­fled one into my rags with­out Isk see­ing me.

How I longed for a de­cent time to dry them proper (more pain in the dose), but given my hasty need, I took the ghostly cap and sprin­kled the spores into Isk’s claret. He drank deep, got randy. I did what come un-nat­u­ral.

Later that night, when them White Hoods took ef­fect, when that bug­ger was un­able to do more than whim­per, I thumbed out his eye­balls and fed them to him. I didn’t bother with his tiny balls. With­out his eyes, his sailing days were over.

I grabbed Isk’s meat knife and a ban­nock or two for my tat­tered pock­ets and I was out that windee and into the shore mist faster than a clam can fart.

Far­ther up the hill above the scum-shacks of Trince lie the palaces and the high houses of the mer­chant guild. I didn’t dare go there, though I was hun­gry; I’d heard enough from Traders in Roon to know that was folly. Those bug­gers have dogs that can chew the skin off your face.

I ran out-town in­stead, warm­ing up some as I ran. (I re­fused to take that bug­ger’s cloak with his smell and his rot in­side.) I stole some eggs and some wind­fall ap­ples from a fisher-folk steading and got as far away as I could be­fore any­one knew what I’d done to Isk.

I lost (and I do mean lost) my­self deep in coast dunes with a nail-par­ing of a moon light­ing my way and then the black­night hulks of trees so old they were stand­ing even when them in­fer­nal Kahin lived in these lands. Back then there were some places where the trees were tall as moun­tains. No un­der­grope ’neath them mon­sters. I ex­pected bears, or pards, or even rest­less ghouls, but noth­ing on our God­dess-green soil was gonna make me stay where Isk’s crew might find me.

At first, that for­est could’a been aflame from the rage in my heart. I cussed the dark, I cussed old Vongy, and I cussed what­ever might try and git me be­fore I got a chance to set­tle my score with that arse. I et my ap­ples and my ban­nocks and I cussed my­self sick.

By then, my chest hurt bad. Felt like the Gods was carving me empty with a trowel. Fact was, I wasn’t sure I’d fol­lowed Mam’s ad­vice and picked a good lo­ca­tion. I’d no sil­ver, no map, and no true di­rec­tion, and prob’ly no straight way of get­ting on any boat back to Roon wouldn’t sink like a boul­der in a gen­tle swell.

I limped bare-footed over the cold, damp ground and the night come for me, into my heart and into my soul. I spewed out ev­ery­thing I’d et into a pile of tree nee­dles and I went on. Empty and done withal. My in­nards went to ha­tred, cold and icy and sure. Could’a put my heart in a sling and used it for shot. That’s when I started to cuss the God­dess. “It’s you what

brought me here, damn ya, and I hate you, ya hear?” I hissed. Mist snorted from my nose-holes, quiv­er­ing like ghosts be­fore my night-sharp eyes. “We did naught but do your will, Leete. Both me and Mam. We was al­ways true to ya with yer share of the sil­ver we took. Now, how do ya pay me back?”

I shud­dered with the force of my hate. Around me the air went cold as the vaults of the Spirit King­doms. Around me the screams of death. A stoat at a hare. A vixen scream­ing like a de­mon spirit. The snort of some­thing huge.

Bear? Boar? I hun­kered and froze. I clutched my puny knife tighter. Then I heard some­thing strange. A clank­ing noise. My ears pricked. I knew the sound of good coin hit­ting metal. If any mu­sic could’a woke me up that was it. Luck was, it scared whate’er had been snuf­fling to­wards me. That thing give a ‘whoof ’ and bolted off, crash­ing away though the brush like a hut on legs.

“Fook!” breathed a voice not far off. Des­per­ate. Young and skinny, I guessed, more by his voice than his form. A Red Lamp gal gets used to telling lots about folks with­out see­ing ’em.

The clank­ing re­sumed. I crept soft and stealthy over the spongy ground.

It was black out as Garani’s bow­els, but I went care­ful. Breathed slow and soft. Got closer to the clink­ing noise, peeked over the lip of ground made by a ter­mungous tree-root.

“Fook!” he sighed again. He was less than five strides away and work­ing hard at some­thing on the ground by his knees. Was he a-run­ning like me? “He’ll kill me. He’ll bloody kill me,” he moaned. His ter­ror hit me like a fist. He searched blind at the ground,

look­ing lit­tle more than a flail­ing hump in the dark. Then he be­gan to keen. “No. Please. No! Pleeese.” Stupid arse! My fin­gers re­laxed a lit­tle on my knife and I got care­less. Some­thing crack­led be­neath me. I heard a gasp. The back of my neck fair prick­led. I stayed as still as a salted cod­fish, but it did me no good. “I know you’re there, girl,” he said. What­ever had been there in his weak­ness were gone. The voice of him didn’t sound the same nei­ther. It rat­tled like bones and stung me with a Power as old as the stars.

“I smell you, lit­tle witch, both blood and will. I am minded to take you as one of my own, one of my dark Azghillin,” he said. “Come out now, and it’s well. Try to hide, and I’ll take your soul.” Oh, Gods. What in Hells is an Azghillin? I cringed as some­thing out of my ken hit me. He was gonna take my soul any­ways. I might not be able to read minds like Clan do (thank all the gods), but the witch in me knows the sound of a lie. “Be light,” come the smooth com­mand. Light bloomed un­der the trees so the young thief glowed like bog fire. He was mebbe six­teen or so — could see a throat ap­ple on him that told me his nuts had dropped.

His black duds spoke of his trade. Coal-dusk hair in long braids, high cheeks, with up-tilted lids spoke to me of his peo­ple. Na­tive Clan. A sack spilling coin lay on the ground just at his knee and spoke of his prob­lem. I saw the hole in the stitch­ings what caused the spill, and a glint of a sil­ver tube just pok­ing out. He’d been into a hoard of some kind.

But it wasn’t him had con­jured up the blue light around him. He was took over. By a ghoul or de­mon mebbe, or even some­thing worse. His eyes were rolled back in trance so only his white eye­balls showed.

“Drop that knife and come here,” he said, star­ing at me with them ter­ri­ble eyes.

My guts crept in­side me like spi­ders. Power gripped me. I stood. I dropped Isk’s knife. My feet dis­obeyed my will and walked me to­wards him. I wanted to scream out a ward­ing cantrip, but my lips were like corpse lips. This was no de­mon nor ghoul. This was Rogue Magic. Sorcery. “Ah, Gret,” he said. “You are so like your mother.” I gaw­ped even as my gul­let closed. Garani’s black tits! This Rogue knew my mam. Even now his voice tweaked the strings of my mem­ory harp. I re­mem­bered a tall, grey-eyed Trader who’d come to our House when I was wee enough to dan­dle. He’d a load of sil­ver with him too. He’d been noth­ing like any other of our pa­trons. Quiet, aye, and oh, so po­lite, but boil­ing be­neath with some­thing so wild I couldn’t bear to look at him straight.

Mam had shut the door be­tween me and her and him, but even so, I scarpered down be­neath the ta­ble’s cloth and shook like a jelly un­til he left.

The Rogue ges­tured to the ground just be­fore him. “Sit there. Face me. I would look in­side your mind.”

I sat. I obeyed like a fet­tered hound. By Gods, I’d of rolled and begged if he’d wanted me to. An in­vis­i­ble hand gripped me by the face and held me so I couldn’t look away.

“Choose to serve me as your mother did; or choose not, and die,” he told me, like he was dis­cussing the weather.

Mam would never serve a Rogue! I wanted to cuss him aloud, but my lips were clamped. No? The thought come fast to my mind. Think on her suc­cess, and on her death.

You killed my mam, and the babe she had in­side her. I didn’t care I was touch­ing minds with a Rogue, I was that bloody mad. The God­dess killed them. Not I. She will brook no ri­val in me. I snarled. Even with a bound muz­zle I could still do that. I shut off my mind with all the rage I could sum­mon.

The boy-lips moved again. “You are strong. Your ha­tred tells me you be­lieve what I say. You dis­owned your God­dess tonight. I saw that mem­ory still hot in­side your head. You have bro­ken your ties with Her. Your un­cle Vongy be­longed to the God­dess, my dear, not me. He’s Her pawn but I can make him your pawn, Gret. Make him squirm like the louse he is, be­fore you crush him.”

His words teased me. Aye they did. I could al­most feel Vongy’s neck in my grip. If I’d only guessed his mind be­fore Mam died, I’d of slit his pipes first and fed his vul­ture’s giz­zard to the Grand Cor­sair’s wild­cats. “You are so much stronger than this craven boy,” said the Rogue. The boy’s form wa­vered, be­came that of Vongy. Sly, greedy, mean, soul­less bas­tard. This felt like no lie to the witch I am. It felt like a true See­ing. With a purr of sat­is­fac­tion Vongy reached out and grabbed one of the coins from the ground. “All mine now, dear Lady,” he whis­pered with a sleethy sneer. “I thank you for show­ing me which of her poi­sons to use on my sis­ter.” Oh Gods. My hands trem­bled. He de­serves ev­ery­thing you do to him, my dear. Choose my path and you

will pros­per. All I ask is that you aid me to put Her down. Among those coins be­fore you lies a sil­ver Scroll. Within it lie the seeds of my Be­trayer’s un­do­ing …

His anger hurt so deep in­side me it had no fathom. The sem­blance of Vongy van­ished and be­came the thief-boy once more, and of a sud­den the pres­sure at my face re­laxed.

“What’d the God­dess do to you?” I said aloud at last. I stayed where I was. It could be folly I was lis­ten­ing to this Rogue, yet I felt his an­guish.

“She took me from the Stars and made me love her. So long ago, it’s folly to count the years. She took my magic to her own, be­came a God­dess with my Pow­ers. She stole from me, and worked to de­stroy me.”

“You want re­venge, like I do on Vongy,” I said. That this be­ing—what­ever he was—was a Rogue, I did not doubt. Yet he spoke Truth. I felt it in my bones. He’d been done ill, like me.

“I want jus­tice, Gret. I am old. Older than a dragon with his fires out. Re­venge is such a petty word for my last and deep­est need. This fickle God­dess has thwarted the Stars, and the Stars do not for­get. I am of the Stars — a Star lord. I had the power to move Suns and Moons, but now, I am di­min­ished. Body af­ter body I have taken over the cen­turies, for­ever on the watch for those like you to serve me. Will you join my band of young as­sas­sins? You would surely be one of the best. Will you be one of my Azghillin?” “This boy’s an as­sas­sin?” I replied. My wits were at war now. “A use­less one and a worse thief.” The Star lord made a noise of dis­gust. “These coins upon the ground, this pre­cious item. He has lost him­self in this for­est like the fool he is. If you join

me, Gret, I ad­vise you to take the sleeve knife he bears and kill him. He will only hin­der you.”

I looked at the full sack of coin. I didn’t guess it counted any­where near to what I’d lost in Roon, but it’d be a start. “Kin I have what’s in this sack?” I asked.

He nod­ded. “All but the Scroll. That comes to me. But more, I will give you Power. You are strong, lit­tle witch. You have great will. I do not doubt you can be taught to con­jure and to cast, once you have learned from me. Are you with me? Speak swiftly. It is dark and this failed as­sas­sin tires.” “And Vongy’s mine?” He grinned like a wolf and ex­tended his hand to me. “I can teach you to take him to pieces and throw him to the Rift Demons.”

I stared at his open palm and sighed at such prom­ise. To be able to cast a soul into the Rift of Shadow? Great Gods! Now that was Power! Even the sen­su­ous fin­gers of comely men have never held such power in my hottest pas­sion. It wasn’t a boy’s hand I’d be tak­ing. I’d be tak­ing the hand of a God, or some­thing as close to one as made no never mind.

The failed as­sas­sin set there like a post. I could kill him. He was use­less. The witch­ing part of me that sniffs out foul­ness told me he was al­ready lost. His soul had been took by Garani a long time ago. More­over he was a cow­ard. I’d heard that in his whin­ing ear­lier. I didn’t shrink from the thought of be­ing an as­sas­sin. More­over I hun­gered af­ter re­venge on Vongy and I sniffed that sil­ver. There’s dark in me. “You gotta loose me if ya want my hand,” I said. “Be freed,” he replied. “Come here, Gret.” And I did, though this was no com­mand, I leaned for­ward with full in­tent to seize his hand and do his will.

Yet, right in the midst of my move I re­mem­bered one last thing my mam had told me.

The worst lo­ca­tion ya can ever git in is a place be­twixt the Gods in a bat­tle. Naught but Garani’s own mis­chief can come of such folly. If ya find yer­self in such do­ings, drop ev­ery­thing, git out, and don’t stop run­ning. Now here was me, do­ing just that. I didn’t seize the hand held out. With Light­ning touch, I grabbed that Scroll-tube in­stead. It was hard as a club and it did just fine. I ironed that boy’s pate so hard he went down like a butchered ox. The bog-fire went out of him and I knew in the dark I’d kilt him. Smelt it too. Wet brains. By Gods, this round is yours, came a last wisp of thought as that Star lord lost his grip on my mind. Then noth­ing. Into me come a great free­dom and I set there think­ing un­til first dawn. It was a grey day, but a good one. I snaf­fled them coins and the Scroll I’d gonked the as­sas­sin with and wrapped them all back up in the sack (well tied) and, re­mem­ber­ing the ear­lier sug­ges­tion, I found the as­sas­sin’s lit­tle sleeve knife in its soft leath­ern wrist-sheath. Sharp as a bod­kin it were. Its hilt was yel­lowed bone. I knew enough about saw bon­ing to tell that bone had been culled from a hu­man arm. I strapped that unholy thing around my own wrist and stuck Isk’s blade into my new Azghillin boots (too big, but my feet were still grow­ing).

I turned the dead as­sas­sin on his side, fum­bled about his corpse in the half-light, and found a wel­come pouch tucked be­tween his back and his cloak. As I’d hoped, there was food in it (hazel­nuts, dried fruit, oats, and jerked beef) and a de­cent wa­ter skin at his belt. I snaf­fled his dark cloak and hood. Hells,

he didn’t need them any­more, did he? The rest I left and turned him back on his face. Though he didn’t de­serve such, I whis­pered a cantrip over him to keep the ghosts away and the ravens from peck­ing out his lights. More to save the souls of any who might stum­ble across his bones than for his dark shade.

By then, the sun was ris­ing. Felt new warm upon me. Now I knew where East was. It was time to git.

I spent that whole day hik­ing uphill through wilds and think­ing. That damned Scroll weighed heavy in the sack at my shoul­der. As long as I had that thing, that Star lord would find me. Knew it even worse as I come to a cliff from which I could stare down on the val­ley of the Great River. I watched a war­ren of coneys jump­ing about like they’d not a care in the sky. Lucky coneys.

Be­fore me the whole of the South Dales spread out around the great fan of the River. Felt like any­body could find me up there — or I could find them. I was my own witch now and that’s how I wanted to stay. No­body’s fool but my own.

Be­low me splashed a falls. I could feel it through the rocks be­neath me. I set on my hun­kers and dug out them nuts and munched. Tugged that Scroll-tube from my sack. It was a rich and sparky thing, an­cient grav­ings along its sides, some­thing a-rus­tle within that smelled of musty magic. That it held some­thing po­tent I sensed. I didn’t look within. Didn’t want to. Didn’t need what­ever curse lay in that thing to foul up my three L’s.

That it would fetch me de­cent sil­ver, I knew—maybe even a trip back to Roon and Vongy—if I sold it to the Mer­chant Guild. But that way, soon or late, it would git to that Star lord. He’d fol­low the path of trade back to me, and I wanted that link bro­ken. He was more than I wanted, both then and now. See, I knew a bad deal when I smelled it.

I et from my store, set a snare, caught a coney. Knew I’d not go hun­gry that night. I stood at last and faced the drop be­fore me. “I don’t want this, I tell ya,” I called to the air. “I don’t want you and I don’t want Her. Ya hear me?” Thought I heard laugh­ter on the wind. “Well, fine!” I cried. “You laugh at me, Star lord. I don’t care. I’m my own witch. I ain’t yours and I ain’t Hers. Here’s at ya!”

I took that thing and I heaved it, as far as I could, up and out. It flashed in the air, turn­ing and turn­ing, till it fell into sound and deep. I heard it clink on the rock, and then a far splash.

I sighed. Now it was out of my ken and car­ried by wa­ter. Be­yond the touch of sorcery. I hoped. “Find that,” I told him.

Laugh­ter an­swered me. I laughed back.

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