The Grey City X

Tuesday August 03, 2004 @ 12:56 PM (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 light transformed the City. Its new face was not pretty, by any stretch, but its very prosy shabbiness was a relief to Carys, after the eldritch wilderness of the night. Rotten boards and broken window-panes had no beauty, but neither were they the terror of gaping eye-sockets and jagged half-seen teeth they had seemed in the dark.

They found themselves, now that morning was breaking grey across the the sky, looking down a fair-sized hill at the dwindling houses and shops, and the slime-trail of the river drifting down the valley, shackled into its bed by bridges of all sizes and sorts. The fog was less this morning, only reaching into a few wharf districts. By standing on her tiptoes, Carys could see the river flowing into the sea, and hungrily she gazed out to the soft horizon, pretending for a moment that she was home, surrounded by green smells, moist grass, and the casual bumps and nudges of the family sheep.

“Where are we going now?” Eirian said plaintively, and Carys pointed, as near as she could guess from the Inspector’s words. “There better be something to eat there,” Eirian said darkly, and Carys’s stomach rumbled its assent.

They slid and stumbled down the cobbled hill, and crossed the Ironbridge, now demystified by the morning half-light. Some beggars and tramps still perched underneath or gnawed on apples or bones they’d saved to break their long fast, but some beams were deserted, a rag or two hanging, either forgotten by an early riser or left behind by someone fallen in the night. The empty district on the other side seemed no more busy than last evening – perhaps the people there were asleep, or already out about some business – but the sound of haggling, of drays and barrows, cries and arguments, rose from the direction in which she judged the Southdowns lay, so Carys turned confidently east and walked along the stinking riverside.

Soon, Carys could tell they were approaching a more trafficked area. Though few women, as yet, were out with their shopping baskets, and few carts and no carriages rumbled up and down the avenue, the filth in the gutters and on the street – cabbage leaves and rotting straw, horse manure and even human filth – began to increase, giving every testimony of the press of people and beasts that frequented the area. Ahead there was a junction, and Carys’s nose wrinkled already in consternation at the idea of stepping off the footpath into the near-sewer of the road.

But she should not have worried – at the crossroads, a narrow strip of cobbled street stretched across, as clean as sweeping could make it, and the girls could see a figure little larger than themselves darting between the heavy drays and dodging the careless drivers’ whips, cowering over his broom.

Looking carefully for carts first, Carys drew Eirian into the narrow strip of clean street and crossed to the other side, where the boy with the broom was sweeping a new pile of horse manure out of his path.

“Good morning,” she said tentatively, and the boy looked up, startled.

“Mornin’,” he responded listlessly, eyeing her tatty clothes and returning his attention to the filth.

The girls studied him. He was pale, tow-headed, and thin, with various scraps of clothes tied or wrapped over a base of overlarge, coarse pants and tunic. “What’s that for? The letters and numbers?” Eirian said immediately, pointing to shapes stenciled on the tunic.

The boy looked up again, plainly having forgotten they were there. “Letters is me workus,” he shrugged, “numbers is me.”

“What’s a workus?” inquired Eirian before Carys could pull her away from the tired boy.

“Doesn’t know what a workus is!” guffawed the boy, finally finding the girls of some interest. “Yer really doesn’t know?” he added, almost wistfully.

“No, I’m afraid we don’t,” Carys said apologetically.

He looked from their dirty hair to Eirian’s filthy stocking. “Will soon enuff, I’ll wager. Iss where the Runners’ll put you if they catch you not movin-on.”

“Is it a prison?” asked Carys, alarmed.

“Oh, nuh…issa workus. Work, ’ouse,” he said carefully, “‘Ouse where they works you. Wimmen sew, an’ men turn the, whassit, treadin’ mill. An’ us, as is too small for the mills yet, we is allowed outside t’sweep the crossin’s.”

“Do they feed you?”

“If you can call it feedin’, yus, we’ve wittles. But we can’t even keep the pence the toffs throw t’us fer sweepin’ their way, iss all workus money as we’re workus brats.”

“Why don’t you hide the money then?” asked Eirian boldly.

The boy’s pale eyes widened. “Thass stealin’!”

“Don’t see why,” Eirian sniffed. “It’s your money, you worked for it. I don’t see why it’s stealing.”

“Don’t much siggify whever YOU see, does it, Miss ‘Pertinence? Only matters what the workus matron says to the Runners, and they won’t much care whever you sees when they ’angs you!”

“Hanged?” Carys choked.

“Hanged for a few pence?” Eirian echoed.

“An’ that’s jes’ if they fink you ‘portant enuff to ’ang. ’Aff the time they jes’ does you in, if yer a brat. Like mice we is to them. Wermin. Not wurf the ’emp.” And he pulled one of his neck-encircling rags skyward expressively.

At this tribute to the austere majesty of the law, even Eirian quailed. Hurriedly bidding farewell to the sweep, Carys backed away, pulled by her sister.

“Don’t cross the Runners!” he shouted after them, “Remember we’re wermin to ’em! Wermin!”

The Grey City XI


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