Note: The following excerpt is not a finished work and still requires several rounds of editing before completion.
There’s nothing quite so humiliating in life than to be bested in front of a pretty girl. Except, of course, when the one doing the besting happens to be that very girl.
Her fist came at me again. I had barely recovered from the last swing. I was on my knees, held in place by two thugs that looked more like they wanted to eat me than fight me. Her knuckles connected with the side of my face and my head whiplashed to the right. Something popped. My jaw and left cheek were throbbing, but I held my tongue and hid the pain, something I had been trained to do since I was old enough to walk.
I was seeing double. The two older boys released my arms and I collapsed.
Blood seeped from the corners of my mouth, forming a pool in the gaps of the worn cobbles. I rolled over to my back. The old buildings on either side of the alley towered over me like risers in a great coliseum with their attendees all bearing witness to my shame.
The pain was quite intense, but not as harrowing as having suffered the embarrassment of being whipped by an overly-enthusiastic girl. She appeared quite fond of applying her fists to my face, repeatedly. She couldn’t have been much older than I was, maybe fourteen or fifteen at most. Her long raven hair fell halfway over her face, partially hiding the profound look of superiority she carried, which made my stomach turn all the more.
I hadn’t been beaten this bad since . . . well, I’d never been beaten this bad. I was an Upakan after all. More than that, I had a gift. And not the kind of gift my parents used to give me when celebrating another year of my existence, but a gift that lives on the inside, a gift that set me apart from everyone else, a gift that inevitably turned my whole life on its ear.
In fact, it was this very gift that had brought me to where I am today—lying in a deserted alley, surrounded by a band of raggedy dressed street kids, most of whom were older and larger than I was, while waiting on a lanky girl with dark hair and a red leather vest to decide my fate.
I could feel the moisture building at the corner of my eyes. I choked back the tears. I would rather be hung by my toes than to let her see me cry. It had been an unfair fight from the beginning. Ten against one is hardly conducive to a positive outcome, but I had made sure to bring down half of them before the tall girl landed her first punch. Even I had to admit, it was a good one.
What was even stranger was the failure of my magic.
“What’s your name?” Her voice was deep. Deeper than mine. Just one more attribute to add to the already growing list of reasons why I should find the nearest rock and crawl under it.
My head felt fuzzy. I was having a hard time concentrating. I could barely make out her face as both my eyes were in the process of swelling shut. “Ayr . . . Ayrion.”
The girl with the deep voice and mean left hook leaned over to get a closer look, blocking the sun from my face. “Well, Ayrion,” she said with an arrogant smile as she tucked a strand of wet hair back behind one ear, “welcome to Aramoor.”
I could hear the faint sound of laughter as everything began to spin out of control and the image of the girl in the red leather vest faded into darkness.
This was turning out to be one of the worst days of my life, which I found rather troubling, considering I had only just arrived in Aramoor that morning.
The sensation of something wet sprinkling across the front of my face brought me back from my momentary lapse into unconsciousness. It must be raining. At least, I hoped it was raining. The thought of a stray dog standing there marking its territory on my head encouraged me to wrench open one of the swollen balls of puss that were my eyes.
I exhaled a raspy sigh of relief. No sign of a dingy cur, urinating or otherwise. At least I had one thing going for me.
The sun had obviously set during my involuntary sleep, leaving the alley covered in darkness. The soft orange glow from the street lamp at the head of the alley was hardly enough to cut away the shadows to where I was presently lying. I couldn’t help but wonder how long I had been out, why no one had bothered to help. Had no one seen me lying there? What kind of a place was this where a wounded kid could lie in the streets bleeding and no one bothers enough to take a look or even call the authorities?
I tried lifting my head, but quickly decided that the effort wasn’t worth the discomfort. I felt like I had been trampled over by a herd of zyntar. The searing pain of a sorely-trodden body fought against my better judgement of survival. It whispered in my ear the soothing temptation to just lay there and let the inevitable happen, but, in the end, I managed to make it to a sitting position long enough to realize that not only was my travel sack—with all my worldly possessions, including my coinage, clothes, food, and two long knives—stolen, but I had been stripped down and left with nothing more than a thin pair of under-trousers. And they were just an old pair my mother had resewn on more than one occasion to keep from the expense of having to purchase another.
“Well,” as my father always said, “If you’re going to do something . . . then do it right.” Apparently my assailants lived by the same motto.
Coughing up another thick wad of blood, I spat it out, and watched as it mingled with the pools of water forming from the runoff over my head. I tried scooting over to the side of one of the buildings, hoping that the overhang from the third story window would shelter me from the downpour.
Carefully, I began to test the movement in my joints, taking stock of the damage. I didn’t require a physicker to know some of my ribs had been cracked, if not broken. Every breath felt like a knife being slowly shoved into my chest. Not that I knew what that felt like, but I could guess. I had just begun to wiggle each of my fingers when I realized my ring was missing.
“No!” I spun around, enduring the lancing pain brought on by the quick movement. I scoured the rubble. No ring. “Where is it?” I hobbled as fast as my injuries would allow, bare feet smacking the tops of the worn stone, back out into the open alley and began to search.
Desperation took over and I fell to my hands and knees, crawling from one side of the dirty stone passageway to the other. I examined every crack, crevice, and puddle, but there was no sign of it.
This time there was nothing to hold back the tears as a sudden wave of emotion ripped them out of me. What started out as a soft whimper quickly turned into a full-on wail with chest heaves and running snot. I hadn’t cried this hard since the day I found out I was to be banished from the Upakan Clans, forced to leave my home and family behind.
Never had I felt so truly alone as at that moment.
“If you’re looking to go swimming, might I suggest the potholes over in Cheapside.” I lifted my head to see a short figure standing near the front of the alley. With the street lamp to his back I could see nothing but his silhouette. “They tend to be a bit deeper than the ones you’re lying in right now.”
I glanced down at my current location, sprawled out in the middle of the walkway with bare chest and feet. I looked insane. I was too exhausted and in too much pain to care.
“If you’ve come looking for an easy mark, you’re too late.” I tried struggling to my feet but collapsed back into the pool of water. “I don’t have anything left but my underpants, and if you want those you’ll have to kill me first.” I pushed my way back to my feet once again. I had to at least try to look like I could defend myself. Although, the sight of my knees quivering like a drunken sot with a full bladder did little to sell the illusion.
The figure started for me. He was shorter than I was and walked with a very noticeable limp in his right leg. As he neared I lifted my fists.
“Calm yourself. Your wet skivvies are about the last thing I would ever want.”
I slowly lowered my guard when the figure moved alongside of me and angled himself enough for the street lamp to light his face. He was just a boy, even younger than I was. “What do you want?” If there is one hard lesson I had learned today, it was that no one could be trusted.
“Apparently, I want your sodden undergarments.” He just stood there staring at me with a smug grin. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to be funny or serious. “Actually,” he said, “I want to help.”
“Why?” The question just blurted out of my mouth. I kept my fist clinched and ready to raise if the conversation turned sour.
“Why? Someone offers to help you and the first thing you ask is, ‘why’? Not very trusting are you?”
“Today was my first day in Aramoor.” I glanced down at my ruined state. “Do I look like someone who needs to be trusting?”
He took a moment to look me over. “Good point. You look like someone who just received a royal welcome from one of the tribes and lived to tell about it.”
“What’s a tribe?” My desperation took over. “How can I find them?” I stumbled forward and the boy caught me before I fell. I needed to know who that girl was and where they had taken my stuff, more importantly, my father’s ring.
“If you have to ask, then I’d say your best bet is to come with me.” He worked his shoulder up under my arm for support. “Besides, I doubt you’d last the night without it. With your luck you’d probably run across the one tough out there who’d be more than happy to have your soiled skivvies.” The boy’s chuckle wasn’t very encouraging.
“I need to get my stuff back. I had a ring . . .”
The boy grunted. “Your stuff is long gone. You won’t be seeing it again. The sooner you come to grips with that the better off you’ll be.” The boy began walking back toward the alley entrance. I couldn’t tell who was limping more, me or him.
“No. You don’t understand. She took my ring. I have to get it back.”
“She?” The boy twisted his head around. “Who’s she?”
“The girl who took it, of course.” Was the boy as gimp in the head as he was in the leg?
“What did she look like? Did she have black hair?
“Yes! And a red leather vest. Do you know her?”
The boy released an all-too-knowing sigh. “Oh yes. Everyone knows Red.”
“Red? Is that her name? What kind of a name is that?”
“That’s her street name. I’m not sure what her real name is, but out here she goes by Red.”
“Where can I find her?”
“You don’t, she finds you.” We hobbled to a stop just outside the alleyway. Looking both ways, the main street appeared to be quiet. Most of the windows were dark, shutters drawn. Their occupants all tucked in for the night. Turning to the left, he started us moving once again.
“Where are you taking me?”
I was hardly in the place to turn down the possibility of help, and so I said nothing more. Instead, I focused my energy on placing one foot in front of the other.
“By the way, I’m Reevie,” the boy said as he strained to keep his balance under my weight. His crippled leg was causing him more than a little trouble as he fought to keep me upright. There was something about him that made me naturally want to lower my guard, though.
“Well Ayrion, in case no one has said it yet . . . Welcome to Aramoor.”
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