Grey City XVIII

Monday August 11, 2008 @ 10:59 AM (UTC)

The Grey City I
The Grey City II
The Grey City III
The Grey City IV
The Grey City V
The Grey City VI
The Grey City VII
The Grey City VIII
The Grey City IX
The Grey City X
The Grey City XI
The Grey City XII
The Grey City XIII
The Grey City XIV
The Grey City XV
The Grey City XVI
The Grey City XVII

Eirian stayed huddled in the flotsam at the edge of the Warrens long after the Runners had turned back into the darkness. Shudders rocked her, and set up tinny peals in the metal fence palings in which she sheltered.

Carys was dead. She had known at once but in an animal way, a kenning without thought to future or meaning. Carys was dead, and she had been driven to a wild, unknown part of this horrible city. Where would she go? How could she escape, and who could she ask now that she was alone? She huddled, oblivious to the light building in the hazy air by the minute.

There was a scent of tobacco smoke, and a footfall crunched on the cinder street. Eirian clutched at the poles around her, held her breath.

“Whaddid they want?” said a boy’s voice, and a much older girl replied:

“Wanted a good scare, most like, so they come down t’have a look at the Warrens.”

“Ran away quick enough.”

“Why they calls ‘em Runners, in’it?”

The speakers slouched a little closer to the gate, and Eirian saw them — a slab-faced boy of about her age and a terribly skinny young woman in a man’s waistcoat and trousers, smoking a bit of tobacco rolled in paper.

“Nothin’ goin’ on ’ere,” declared the girl. She tugged her cap low over her eyes, turned, and tossed the stub of her cigarette into the debris. Eirian yelped as the brand hit her cheek, and the strange girl’s hands were around her wrist before she realized her mistake.

“Intruder!” cried the boy as the other dragged her captive out into the ruddy bonfire light. “Who is it, Sly?” he said, shrinking back.

“It’s only a girl.”

Eirian felt moved to protest. “You’re a gi—”

Sly’s hand clamped under her chin and turned her face to the firelight. “Look what a fresh face she’s got – and the clothes! A Country lass, no doubt.” Her words were light, but she didn’t blink, and her chin had the set of fury.

The boy stared at Eirian’s illuminated face. “What’s that by her mouf?”

Sly said, “Looks like blood. Must have bit ’er lip, then.”

Eirian shook her head free and said, “I have not!” She scrubbed at her cheek with her already filthy apron, and glowered at Sly. “I bit that Runner.”

The boy’s eyes widened. “Bit a Runner? And lived to tell? Sly, maybe we should take her home, for all she’s a girl? P’raps somefing could be made of her.”

The lean girl scowled but nodded. “First, let’s show ’er the sights. Show ’er the secrets of the Warrens.” She leaned close to Eirian’s face, and her breath was full of stale smoke. “Then she’ll be one of us, like.” She spun and set off across the street, the boy prodding Eirian to follow.

“Keep ’er close to me, Mouse,” Sly ordered as she reached the stoop of an empty-windowed house. “Don’t want ‘er fallin’ into any traps, do we?”

Mouse chivvied Eirian along, into the house and up a stair to the second floor. “First floor’s weak,” he said. “Fall right froo to th’basement.”

Sly traversed the second floor and leaned out of a long window, its sill dirty from many feet. After looking both ways, she stepped out. Eirian followed and found herself on a broad metal beam wedged between this building and the next. The big girl led across and paused on the sill of the opposite window. “Don’t touch the floor,” she said to Eirian. “I mean it.” She ducked into the house and swooped out of sight. Following, Eirian was nearly hit in the brow with a returning trapeze fashioned from two ships’ lines and a hefty ladder rung. She peered across to where Sly hunkered on a face-down wardrobe, then peeked over her shoulder. Mouse flapped his hands encouragingly.

She tightened her grip on the rung and pushed off from the window. She barely made it over the broad, bare floor, but Sly grabbed one rope and she was able to hop onto the creaking wardrobe. “Why can’t we touch the floor?” she puffed as Mouse made his flight.

“It tilts,” Sly said. “Flops down an’ dumps you onto great rusty spikes. For the Runners, Lor’bless’em.”

Similar dangers were pointed out to her, or occasionally avoided with such habitual grace that her guides forgot to mention them. Eirian leaned on a handrail, and Mouse had to grab her to stop her falling to a pavement far below. The deeper they went, the more certain Eirian was that she would never find her way out alone without misadventure, and the more people they heard or saw. Once Sly shushed them as they walked along a flat roof where five grown-ups were taking out pens and inks, wax and seals, preparing to harness the full morning light. Eirian peered at the pages before them, very official-looking, but Sly grabbed her sleeve and pulled her on.

Now the path returned to the ground, tracing a strange worm-trail between flimsy buildings and along streets almost crowded out of existence by ramshackle houses. Many corridors or alleys Eirian glanced down came to a sudden end at a wall, or stopped in a flurry of doors giving on various improvised shelters.

Sly paused to roll another smoke, and strolled along smoking and raising her cap or hand to passers-by. Some people, like the scrivening group, seemed to be setting about their work as the sun rose above the level of the buildings. Others were returning, heavy bags over their shoulders and strange implements in their hands. Women in bright clothes stumbled back likewise, some arm in arm with tough-looking men whose pockets bulged forth clubs or gun-butts. Their brusk calls and beery good-mornings set up a background babble like the cawing of crows.

“What is this place?” said Eirian.

“’Tis the Warrens,” Mouse said, confused.

“I know, you’ve said, but what do all these people do here? How do they eat? There is no market, no shops, no gardens…why do the roads go nowhere?”

“You ’ave ventured far from ’ome,” laughed Sly. “The Warrens is our place, in’it? A place for pickers, mashers, smashers, slickers, wheelers and nances, any as makes their way on the East side of the law. There’s plenty for sale for those as knows where to look.”

“You’re thieves?”

Sly rolled her eyes. “Such a flat. Yes, Bo Peep, we’re thieves.”

Mouse nodded. “An’ you can be one too, for a few years any rate. Girls make more as nances, once they get big.”

“But Sly-” Eirian began, but the girl grabbed her arm and twisted it, pushing her ahead.

“That spot there’s where Tooth Charlie killed Archie Deuce over a repeatin’ watch,” she said with feigned enthusiasm, and pointed to a broken hitching post. “Greatest smasher’s ever was, an’ Charlie mashed ’is ’ead in on that post.”

She shouldered onwards, and led them into twisting alleys where gray-faced women divided meager breakfasts for their broods. A tight squeeze between two clapboard sheds, and they were on a high wall above the broad, fetid river. A few yards downstream, a vast hulk of stained stone jutted into the current, and Mouse broke away towards it. Sly pushed Eirian along the wall to the bridge.

For it had been a bridge, once. Though the wind scoured this part of the river of its full fog, Eirian could not clearly see the remnants of the bridge on the other side, but one arch persisted on the Warrens side, ending ragged. There had once been shops along the span, which accounted for the plain, unfinished look of its sides now that the wooden structures had fallen, rotted or burned away. Sly gestured, and Eirian walked carefully onto it.

“Why is it broken?”

“No one knows, now. We says we did it, and they,” with a gesture to the respectable other bank, “says they did it. But someone did it with a great lot of gunpowder, many years back. An’ no one’s managed to build another one since.”

Mouse had run to the farthest end of the bridge, and was drawing on the exposed rock with a bit of chalk.

“Look ’ere,” said Sly, and gestured to a great gap in the downriver side of the bridge, where several openings had been broken into one. The river coiled black and deep below. Sly flicked her cigarette butt over the side, and it fell long and slow to the water. “It’s called the ‘Ole. Maybe it’s as the river turns ‘ere it’s so deep — maybe it’s a trick of the sewers wot lets in just above. But it runs deep and pulls down, some say into tunnels from when the city was new, founded by foreign gemplemen who dug. Wherever it ends up, it don’t give anything back. An’ that’s why they say the Warrens keeps their dead.”

With a quick jerk, Sly tripped Eirian forward over the side and caught her by her apron sash. The fabric cinched away her breath, and she felt terror blaze into anger as she was suspended a hundred feet above the filthy, roiling water.

“I don’t want to hear another word out of you about Sly bein’ a girl.” She spoke low and quick, so Mouse would not be alarmed. “I ain’t starved meself since age eight to keep the change at bay just to be ruined by some farm girl with a smart mouth and a big head. Sly is a lad, you ‘ear? A slight one, ruined by years of starvin’ to keep small enough for a door panel or a window hentry, but a roisterin’ great lad all the same. Swear you’ll keep it dark.”


“My secret! Swear I’m a boy or I’ll pitch you, sure’n I will!”

Eirian screwed her mouth shut and stared at the mesmerizing sweep of the river below, the way a great braid of the water rose as if taking breath and then dove under its fellows, dragging all the Warrens’ refuse down to pack into some long-forgotten grotto, dead upon dead, forever.

Grey City XIX


Seems an interesting turn, I had expected you to be winding down slowly, not ratcheting back up.

For what little it’s worth, this seemed a little jarring to be coming in the thoughts of young Erian, “unknown part of this inimical city.”

You know, I stumbled over that when I did my out-loud reading (a good way to polish one’s prose) but I didn’t trust my gut. I think you’re right.

I’ll go mind-police it to a different word.

P.S. I am guesstimating it’ll go to 25 parts, but a grain of salt is advised.

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