Bloodrush

***BLOODRUSH is the brand new book from best-selling author Ben Galley, coming on the 16th of December 2014! Find out more at www.bengalley.com*** This is a story of murder and family This is a story of blood and magick. This is a story of the edge of the world. When Prime Lord Hark is found in a pool of his own blood on the steps of his halls, Tonmerion Hark finds his world not only turned upside down, but inside out. His father's last will and testament forces him west across the Iron Ocean and the war-forged lands of the New Kingdom, America, to the very brink of civilisation. They call it Wyoming. In the dusty frontier town of Fell Falls, there is no silverware, no servants, no plush velvet nor towering spires. Only dust, danger and the railway. Tonmerion has only one friend to help him escape the torturous heat and solve his father's murder. A faerie named Rhin. A twelve-inch tall outcast of his own kind.

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6. Lilain

Chapter V

“Lilain”

 

“These creatures are strange. I’ve never come so close before. Not to these ones, with their castles and their slaves and their money. They exude it. Flaunt it. The ladies are draped in it. The lords drink it down by the glass, or roll it up and smoke it. I’t’s as if their status depends on how fast they can spend their money.

If I weren’t running for my life I would stick around a while longer, teach them a lesson in frugality.”

 

 

May 6th - 1867

 

Steel and iron. That was all that could be heard. Not the chuffing of the colossal engine, not the grating crunch of black shovels on coal. Not even the chuckling, or the whispering, or the heated debates of the other passengers. Just iron. Just steel.

They battled one another continuously; each creak and bang and thud each trying to outdo the next. The clear winner were the wheels, of course, and the sturdy tracks they continuously rolled against. Merion felt every rivet, every scratch, every little crunch and squeak. It was an incessant clattering that had been hammered into the very bones of his body.

Merion prayed for water and coal stops. He prayed for towns and stray cows. Hell, he even prayed for women tied to the tracks, as he had seen in penny dreadfuls. Anything to quieten the wheels for just a moment, and let him hear the wind, or the trees, or the piercing whistle of the engine, to know there was something else beyond the cacophony.

Days had knitted together and formed a week. Merion had spent the sunlight hours with his face pressed up against the window, watching every mile roll past. Taking every inch of his new home in. No matter how sure he was that he had seen every sight the Kingdom of America had to offer, there was always something new. Something different. He felt as though he had seen several kingdoms, not just the one.

In New York he had seen towering spires the like of which even London could not boast, overlooking a bay of mud and old warships. In Pittsburgh he had seen wild forests, darker than the woods of home. So dark he couldn’t fathom how far they must have stretched. In Chicago he had heard an ocean called a lake, and seen a city so sprawled and stubborn, he wondered if it would ever end. On the way to Cheyenne he had rumbled across prairies and grasslands, fenced only by the distant shadows of rolling mountains and the first fingers of desert. And still, he hadn't seen it all.

At first, Wyoming didn’t seem all that bad. Chugging through the dawn-lit hills outside Cheyenne, Merion had been pleasantly surprised by the amount of green. Sure, there were no forests or trees, nor a great deal of rivers, for that matter, but there were shrubs on the ground, and that’s all that mattered. He had heard no more talk of danger and keeping his skin on above the thundering of the wheels. He even went as far as to enjoy the hot morning sun coming through the dusty window, far hotter than anything he had ever experienced at home. His skin pricked under its rays.

It was then it all started to change. The moment he reached Cheyenne.

It was a small city, compared to Chicago and New York. In fact, it was actually more of a town. But Merion kept that to himself, in case he accidentally offended anyone. He alone stayed on the platform as the locomotive was pulled away to make room for the next. For a while, he wondered if he would have the carriage to himself, but as he stood there sweating in the hot sun, his fellow passengers began to arrive, one by one.

The first didn’t give Merion any real cause for concern. Neither did the second. Though by the third, Merion was starting to notice a pattern, and it was a pattern that began to make him rather nervous indeed.

No women. He noticed that first. The passengers lining up alongside him were all men. And, to Merion’s sarcastic delight, they were the sort of men that looked very fond of dark doorways and sharp implements. That much was evident from the things attached or hanging from their bullet-studded belts. Guns and knives and other such tools built for bodily harm.

Their hats were dark and low, and their clothes dusty and ragged. Some wore dungarees, others riding gear. All of them wore heavy, thudding boots. It made Merion cast a self-conscious eye to his own choice of footwear. Comfortable leather shoes with their laces tied in almost-perfect bows. They even had a velvet lining. Merion wiggled his feet to remind himself.

I am either going to be the height of fashion, or the court jester, Merion told himself. Only time would tell which.

Merion kept his eyes low and his mouth shut. Instead he bathed in the rough grumblings of the men around him. He could not hear much, but what he heard both confused and swiftly demolished that slight tang of hope he and Rhin had savoured before Cheyenne. In truth, it terrified him.

‘Sullyvan’s got all the men sleeping together at night…’

‘Well, what in Maker’s name is that gonna do, huh?’

‘Just makes us a bigger target, is all.’

‘Makes us a buffet.’

‘Digger’s right. Ain’t nothing to be done, ‘cept build us somethin’ solid. Quarters. Barracks. Anything.’

‘Pah! Only guards get quarters. They’re the ones watching over our hides all the live-long day.’

‘And we’re the ones bending our backs all day, putting iron in the ground.’

‘Heard Yule got bit last week?’

Bit?! Man got ripped in half!’

‘Down the middle.’

‘Wife only knew him for a mole he had on his right cheek.’

And so their hushed conversations went. Some of them must have noticed him, after a spell, but it didm not make them speak any quieter. ‘No good pretendin’ it ain’t happened,’ as one of the workers so eloquently put it.

Truth hurts, and the frontier was full of it. Welcome to the wild west, he thought. Last stop before hell.

 

*

 

The locomotive that came to fetch them was considerably less impressive than the one he had first seen in Boston, and the other three that had come after it.

If they had been princes, here was the pauper.

Merion scowled as it pulled into the station, belching oily steam. This locomotive was smaller, for one thing, and covered by at least an inch of dust. There were six carriages, but only two were for passengers. These carriages had large portholes instead of windows, no doubt pilfered from some downed air balloon. In fact, the whole train looked stolen, or borrowed, or otherwise improvised.

The man on the platform didn’t seem to mind. They stepped right up to the lip of the platform and waited for the doors to stop in front of them. Some even made quick bets as to where the doors were going to stop, and who would be closer. Gold and copper glinted in the sunlight.

Merion was the last to board. He shuffled on in the wake of the workers, guards, and other riffraff, his legs like molten lead.

‘Maybe we should get you a gun after all,’ whispered Rhin.

Merion did not dignify that with a response. The men would have heard him, in any case.

He found a seat near the door and put the rucksack on his lap. He could feel Rhin moving around so he could peer out at the contents of the carriage. The men sprawled about, as though they had already seen their day’s worth of hard work.

As soon as all the luggage and supplies had been transferred from the other train, the locomotive released its breaks, and the whole carriage shuddered.

The men chatted idly, this time of women, gambling, and stories of the war. Rumour had it some were still fighting in the misty swamps of the deep south. Renegades, Merion heard them called. One man said they were all doomed, once the steam warships of Washington got there, with Red King Lincoln standing on the bow of the Black Rosa.

‘With his trusty axe,’ another added, and the men thumped the seats until dust filled the carriage.

Soon the talk turned to the natives, and Merion couldn’t help but lend an ear. He closed his eyes, pretending to be asleep, and let his body rock with the rickety train.

‘Shohari are gettin’ braver.’

‘Coming further south every summer.’

‘I heard they already overrun some of the northern towns. Landsing was razed to the ground not this winter gone. Heard they took some of the women too. Men’ve gone looking now the snows have thawed. Damn shame, ain’t that right.’

More thumping of seats.

‘I heard they own the nor-western mountains to rights. Ain’t nobody that’ll venture into them woods.’

‘Nor the canyons neither.’

‘Lord Serped will ‘ave summin’ to say if they come near Fell Falls. With his lordsguards and gatlings.’

Merion’s ears pricked up at the sound of the word “lord”. What was a lord doing all the way out here?

‘What’re you talking about ‘bout, Hummage? You know they been seen already. On the ridges.’

‘Shit. Scouts is all.’

‘Ain’t just scouts from what I hear. Got war-parties roaming as far south as Shamrok Hills.’

‘Can’t the patrols from Kaspar pick ‘em off?’

‘They are, sure as hell. But they’re too many.’

A deep voice echoed in the far corner of the carriage, one Merion hadn’t heard yet. ‘I heard they brought their shamans too,’ it said, and there was a silence. ‘You ever seen a shaman in real life? Any of you?’ More silence. ‘I have, though Charook shamans, not Shohari. The Shohari are somethin’ else. They got proper magic running through their veins, mark my words. I heard men say they can peel the flesh right off your bones at a hundred paces. Turn the steel of your rifle hot as hell, ‘til it burns your hands or explodes. Take your soul, too, if they lay hands on you. A little chanting, a little blood, and you’re theirs.

Merion’s own voice surprised him, so much so he could not help but squeak halfway through his last sentence, so that it came out as more of a question than a fact. ‘My father said that magic is only what science can’t yet explain. That it’s all a trick.’ He heard Rhin muttering something derogatory in the pack, and immediately wished he had kept his mouth shut. Perhaps it was his nerves, or the need to be noticed that had made him squawk. He did not even agree with his father. He had a faerie for a best friend, after all.

The laughter started slowly at first. A few chuckles here and there to get the ball rolling. One man started wheezing, and slowly but surely the carriage erupted into uproar. Merion looked to the floor and wished he would melt. Wished he had Rhin’s powers.

As the laughter finally died away, one of the nearest men slapped his hand on his thigh. ‘Shit, son, your father’s got some balls. All a trick, hah!’

Merion was not sure what the ownership of a pair of testicles had to do with the matter, but he nodded anyway.

‘Just wait until he meets his first railwraith!’ somebody else cackled.

‘Or sandstrike!’

And the laughter began afresh.

In the pack, Rhin winced as the men yelled out each individual peril of the wilds. He swore he could feel Merion trembling with fear through the cloth walls of his little sanctuary. The faerie racked his brains for something useful to say, but he couldn’t think of a single word. He only had words for himself.

‘Poor lad,’ he mumbled.

 

*

 

One by one, the green shrubs that had brightened Merion’s morning died away, until there was barely anything but rock, sand, and brown scrub. Merion sighed. Even the terrain wanted him to feel unwelcome.

As the train reverberated around him and made his teeth jiggle, Merion’s mind once again turned to its dark corners. He wondered what he had done to his father to deserve this. He wondered whether he should start cursing his name. Whether it would make a difference.

Merion had left London in a muggy cloud of confusion and disbelief, almost as if he were still dreaming. But with every mile west he’d crawled, that disbelief had melted away and left something very solid in its place. His father had been murdered. And he had been banished to give live with is aunt the undertaker. His whole life hung in suspended animation, ripe for greedy claws to pick at. That disbelief had become a very chilling reality.

The young Hark may have been trembling, but he had no tears to shed. Along with the fear there came a burning, indignant anger. And as we all know, anger must have an escape, otherwise it boils up into something a little more dangerous. So it was that Merion’s anger gave him an idea, a purpose to shield him from this awful new reality of his. Merion swirled it around inside his head, and let it keep him warm.

As they steered a course north and west, the scenery swapped between the unbearably flat and the worryingly steep and craggy. Merion had to say one thing for the cobbled-together locomotive: it was as strong as the sea. During the ten hours between Cheyenne and Fell Falls, it never broke pace once. Not even on the hills. It was an unstoppable force that dragged him ever-onwards.

The sun was just setting when they crested a hill only a handful of miles from Fell Falls. For a moment, Merion couldn’t bring himself to look, and then he remembered some more of his father’s cold words: We must always stare our opponents square in the face. Whether it is in the street, the ring, or amongst the Benches.

‘So be it,’ Merion spat, and turned, daring Fell Falls to inch closer.

And so it did.

Close up, the town looked like a monster, sprawling and leaking charcoal smoke from its pores. Its veins were dusty streets scarred with the pockmarks of hooves and wheel-ruts. Its tentacles were the wandering buildings and ambling paths. Its skin was wooden slats, jagged and misshapen like every true monster's skin. And like every true monster it was being harangued and molested.

The freshly-beaten railroad from the east pierced the monster's side like a silver spear and ran it clean through. Roads snaked in from the north and south, looking for all the world like ropes lassoing the creature’s wooden limbs. As the light faded and the shadows grew long, Merion could almost imagine the town thrashing and flailing as the sunset made the sky ripple.

With every twist of the track they came closer and closer. The locomotive aimed its nose right for the heart of the town and chugged towards it. The men in his carriage had grown silent. Merion just pressed his face harder and harder against the glass.

The black skeleton of a church lay on Fell Falls’ eastern outskirts, as though it had somehow escaped the tentacled clutches of the sprawling monster, and yet had paid the price with fire and flame. In the scorched soil of its graveyard a congregation of sun-bleached crosses stood and creaked in the desert breeze. Some were dressed with dusty hats with holes, others pickaxes and tools, other with garlands of wild flowers, some fresh, some old and crumbly, and others with no gifts at all. Merion tried to count them as they rumbled past.

On the other side of the locomotive, to what Merion assumed was the north, a great barn stood alone in the desert. Flags flapped from several poles on its roof, but Merion couldn’t make out the words. To his squinting eyes, it almost looked like a coat of arms of some sort.

No matter where Merion looked, how far he craned his neck, or how much he squinted, he could spot a single drop of water. Unless it lay over the surrounding low hills, it seemed that Fell Falls actually had no falls at all. A lame joke at the town’s expense.

As the locomotive pulled into the station (if a jumble of wooden decking, a glorified shed, and a small outhouse can be considered a station) the sun was just about ready to set. The vast sky had turned a deep, furnace-orange, and it made Fell Falls glow.

There was barely a brick building in sight. The whole of the town seemed to be constructed of a grim grey wood. Thankfully, the citizens had gone to some effort with their paintbrushes, and there were plenty of colours on the insides of the monster. There were plenty of citizens too. The dusty streets were abuzz with men and women. Workers, guards, farmers, shop-girls, horse-boys, the lot. Merion watched them as they wandered to and fro, some drinking, others laughing. Some even sang. He wondered how there could be so much merriment in a place as dangerous as this. Why weren’t these people in their homes, behind locked doors? He wondered.

What Merion did not know, and would soon find out, is that it took a special type of person to exist out here, on the edge of the world; the sort of person that knows, as we all do, that copious amounts of alcohol and laughter are brilliant methods of keeping the heavy weight of mortality and occasional disembowelling off your back.

Once the train came to a lurching halt, the men filed off one by one, rubbing their hands at the thought of whiskey and women. So eager were they, in fact, that Merion was soon sat alone. He had a grim look on his face.

Rhin’s head poked out from beneath the flap of the rucksack. ‘Are you ready?’ he asked slowly, as if it were a dangerous question to be asking.

‘I am. But trust me, Rhin. We won’t be here long,’ growled the boy.

Rhin narrowed his eyes. ‘What are you on about?’

Merion shook his head. ‘I’ll tell you later.’

‘Right you are, but don’t do anything stupid in the meantime like running into the desert. I don’t feel too good about deserts.’

‘Stop worrying,’ Merion replied, and with that he got to his feet, and forced himself out onto the platform.

Merion was carrying Rhin and the pack in his arms now, rather than his shoulders. After checking that his luggage was being unloaded, he wandered down a short set of steps and down onto the dusty earth of the town.

Both the boy and the faerie peered around. The light was fading fast and not all the street-lamps had been lit. Aside from the station workers, the platform was empty. All the passengers had disappeared, already barging their way into the first tavern they could find.

‘Your aunt should be meeting us, am I right?’ Rhin asked.

‘Yes. Aunt Lilain.’

Aunt Lilain. Sounds so plain next to “Karrigan”.’

Merion had to admit the faerie was right. ‘Well, she’s a Hark nonetheless.’

Rhin sighed. ‘Hark or not, it looks like she didn’t get the wiregram about picking you up.’

Merion stared back at the sign hanging above the platform. Fell Falls, it said, in bright blue lettering. Merion found a nearby barrel and perched on top of it. ‘Nice place,’ he muttered.

Rhin shuffled out of the pack so he could see Merion’s face. The boy was expressionless now. Deadpan. ‘Could be worse, from what the men were saying.’

All Merion had to do was look left, to the west, where a few rugged hills stood stark against the red of the dying sun. ‘This is the frontier, Rhin. All of those things that the men talked about, they’re just out there. Barely a stone’s throw away.’

Rhin unsheathed his knife and waved it around, slicing at the air. ‘Well, they can come try their luck. They’re not the only ones that are magic,’ he hissed to the darkness. Nothing replied. Nothing moved, and secretly, they were both very glad.

‘See?’ Rhin sheathed his knife.

A moment passed, and Merion huffed sharply. ‘Where on earth is that aunt of mine?’

Rhin looked about. He pointed towards the milling crowds of the town. ’I don’t suppose it could be that crazy woman sprinting towards us, could it?’

‘I think I’ve had my fill of crazy,’ Merion sighed as he turned.

There was indeed a woman coming towards them, and she was indeed sprinting. If you have ever had a stranger run as fast as they can towards you, with little or no explanation, then you will know how nervous Merion suddenly felt. Rhin even went as far as to unsheathe his knife again, poised inside the rucksack.

‘Thank the Maker!’ cried the woman, as she skidded to a halt barely a foot from Merion. He coughed as her dust-cloud enveloped his face.

The woman patted him on the shoulder and smiled broadly. His aunt was all wire and tanned skin woman; quite obviously as strong as a mule, and not nearly as old as Merion had expected. In fact, there was barely a wrinkle on her face, just a smattering of well-used laughter and frown lines. Her hair, the trademark Hark blonde, was scraped and tied back into a long ponytail that ended somewhere above her hips. She had a brown mole beneath her left eye, almost like a lost teardrop.

It was her clothing that gave Merion the most cause for concern. Instead of the graceful frocks and dresses he was used to seeing women in, his aunt had dressed somewhat like a man. She wore dark jeans held up by a thick buckled bet, and a tartan shirt rolled up to the elbows. Very informal indeed.

‘Sorry about that. I thought I’d missed you! Don’t want you wandering off on your first day here. Somebody could have shot you!’ she looked about furtively, as if checking for snipers.

The look on Merion’s face told her that he did not get the joke, if could even be called one. She patted him on the shoulder again and smiled even wider. Merion was just grateful she still had all her teeth.

‘I’m joking, nephew. One good thing about Fell Falls is that we’re too busy shooting other things to be shooting ourselves. In a way, it’s the friendliest place on earth,’ Lilain said.

Merion looked around and decided that his aunt was a liar. In the street ahead, tucked into an alleyway, he could see a man urinating on his own boots. ‘Doesn’t look too friendly to me,’ he muttered.

‘You’ll see,’ Lilain winked. It reminded him of the old woman on the barge, and he wondered if his aunt was just as crazy as she had been. ‘Now, where are my manners?’ she asked herself, and all of a sudden she transformed into a different person. She stood straighter, taller, and her hands came to rest gently in front of her. She clasped her fingers and curtseyed, looking for all the world as though she had just entered the dining hall of Humming Tower. ‘My nephew,’ she said. ‘It is a pleasure to see you again.’

Merion was desperately thankful for the touch of refinement. Perhaps his aunt had been joking all along. ‘Tonmerion Harlequin Hark of Harker Sheer, at your service,’ Merion replied, bowing low. Always lower for family, no matter how distant.

His aunt curtseyed again, and introduced herself. ‘Lady Lilain Hark of Fell Falls, formerly Lilain Rennevie, socialite, citizen, crack-shot, and town undertak… oh, hah! I can’t do it! Can’t stand all that pomp and ceremony, dearie me. Left all that behind long ago. Still got it though, eh?’ she snorted, her veneer crumbling to ash in front of Merion’s eyes. As she chuckled away, he began to boil.

‘Anyway, Tonmerion, that reminds me. Before we get you settled in and talk about anything else, I need your help. I’ve got a body that came in just this afternoon. The workers have already gone to the saloons, so it’s just me. And dear me if he isn’t a big fella. You look like a strong young lad, fancy giving your aunt a hand?’ Lilain asked, cheerful as could be, as though she had just asked him to help pick strawberries.

Merion’s voice was flat, but nowhere near calm. ‘You want me to help you move a dead body.’ It wasn’t even a question, the way he said it. ‘A dead body.’

‘Yes, just over to the Runnels, back to the north.’ Lilain jabbed a thumb in the air and smiled again. ‘Fancy it?’

Before he could answer she had already turned and begun to walk away. ‘It’s this way,’ she chimed, in that eroded Brit accent of hers.

It was then that Merion chose to explode. No warning. No apology.

‘Now, just wait one. Bloody. SECOND!’ He had not really meant to yell, but he had, and now it was too late to take it back. He dumped his rucksack in the dust and squared up to his aunt. He brandished a finger as if he meant to poke her with it, but he could not quite summon the tenacity. Instead he just vented, as he had wanted to since getting on that blasted locomotive in Boston.

‘In case Mr Witchazel has proven thoroughly incompetent, and you are not aware of what I have been through, the last three weeks of my life have been utter torture. My father, your brother, has been murdered. My home has been taken away from me. My life has been torn apart at the seams. I spent two weeks in a tiny cabin on a ship more rust than metal. I have thrown up more times than I can bare to count, and several of those times through my nose, which until now I hadn’t even thought possible. I have seen icebergs decorated with dead soldiers. I was battered senseless by the crowds of Boston and nearly bored to death by a lawyer’s assistant. And to top it all off, I have just spent the last week on a variety of trains travelling across this godforsaken country of yours, only to be made aware that my final destination, my last hope for refuge, is a meagre scratch in the middle of a desert, surrounded by creatures that want to tear me in half, and natives that want to peel the skin off my bones at a hundred yards. So in summary, Aunt Lilain, please do excuse me if I don’t currently have the stomach for carrying dead bodies around in the dark! I would have thought my own aunt, my father’s sister, would be a little more sympathetic to my plight! I half expected this nightmare to end in Fell Falls, not begin anew!’

Merion suddenly realised he had not taken a breath in quite a while. He decided to remedy that before he passed out. His head swam. Aunt Lilain had crossed her arms about halfway through his tirade, and now she just stood there, staring. A nothing expression on her tanned face. Merion decided to throw caution to the wind and just carry on. ‘Now, if you will point me in the right direction, I would like to be find whatever bed you’ve prepared for me, and go to sleep in it. I will be leaving in the morning.’

Lilain answered so quickly she nearly snipped off the end of his sentence. ‘Is that so?’ she retorted.

‘Yes it is.’

The two stared at each other for a moment, until Merion realised that his aunt was the sort of person that needed to be asked twice. ‘If you could show me which way to go, please. It would be very much appreciated.’

Lilain’s only reply was to brush past him and reach for his abandoned rucksack, leant against the side of the barrel. Merion chased after her, but she had a head start. The sack was on her shoulder by the time he could interfere.

‘That’s my rucksack…’ he said as he reached out to grab it.

‘Oh, no problem. You’ve had a hard couple of weeks. I’ve got it,’ she replied, striding towards the centre of town. Merion had no choice but to hurry along in the wake of her long, loping strides. Rhin winked from under the lip of the rucksack. Merion could see his purple eyes glowing softly.

‘Are you taking me to the body, or your house?’ Merion enquired, hoping it was the latter.

‘The house,’ his aunt replied. He sighed. ‘Via the body.’

‘Did you not hear what…’

This time, Lilain did cut him off. ‘Oh, I heard just fine, thank you. It’s a left here.’ Lilain swung into a short alleyway, and then out along a hip-high fence that guarded patches of vegetables. A goat bleated somewhere in the shadows.

‘Do you live out on the edges of town?’

‘Last house in the Runnels. It’s where they always put people like me.’

‘People like you?’

‘Undertakers. They like our business, but don’t want to see it on their doorstep. Especially not in a town like this.’

Merion wasn’t quite sure he got her meaning, but he mumbled an “I see” all the same. She was leading him up a very gentle rise now. The houses, or shacks in some cases, were thinning out. The road became less defined and more rugged. Soon enough, they came to a long cart, its handles propped up on the arm of a fence so it lay almost flat. On it lay an macabre object covered by a sack. Merion gulped.

‘Come on out, Eugin; boy’s not interested in games,’ Lilain called to the darkness.

Merion’s heart stopped for a brief moment as the sack moved. A pair of arms groped for air. Lilain grabbed the corner of the sacking and yanked it free, revealing quite a portly man with a pair of spectacles hanging on his grime-smeared nose. He looked to the boy, then to Lilain.

‘What? Why?’

‘Tired.’

‘Oh. Well, Boston is almost two-thousand miles away, as the crow flies. Boy has come a long way.’

‘At least somebody realises that,’ Merion said. He had not really meant to say that out loud. Why did that keep happening?

‘Don’t encourage him Eugin. Go home. I want to see you working on that cooler bright and early. No slacking. You hear?’

‘Yes, ma’am.’ Eugin sloped off, waving a hand at Merion as he scuttled away.

Lilain snapped her fingers and shouted over shoulders. ’Oh and Eugin?’

‘Yes, ma’am?’

‘Is the body on the table?’

‘Both halves, ma’am,’ came the reply.

Merion’s stomach churned. He looked around him, peering into the darkness, as if he were trying to root out this offensive table. In truth, he was half-considering running, but the desert all looked the same. Dark. Empty. Dangerous. Lilain called to him, and he froze.

‘You coming or not?’

Merion bit the inside of his lip again, nursing the perpetual scab that had formed there thanks to his new habit. ‘Do I have to sleep near the body?’

‘Well that depends on where you're sleepin’, doesn’t it?’

Lilain’s house was slightly larger than the other houses, and a little more ornate. Definitely not a shack, as Merion had feared. It looked like there might have been some money under its pillows and floorboards once, but no longer. Young and yet old. Even in the dark, Merion could see the flaking paint. The little crack in the window to the left of the door. The missing roof-tiles. Lilain thrust her key into a lock, and waved. She still had the bag over her shoulders. ’Come on, do you want to see your options?’

Merion shrugged then. It was a tiny movement, but it spoke volumes. It was a shrug for the world and everything in it. For fate and destiny too. For all the blasted things that had brought him here. For his father’s murderer. It told them that tonight, they had won, but tomorrow would be different. One night couldn’t hurt, he told himself, as he stepped over the threshold into his new, if not temporary, life.

 

 

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