Witnesses 1.1

Nell had braced for the sound. Growing up in the workhouse, you would hear bones break often enough – sometimes the wet crack of an arm pulped in the machinery, sometimes the fatal snap of a neck, the now-useless child thrown into the street to die. Yet here, in this opulent bedroom, the sound seemed deafening and twisted her gut, as she struggled to remain still on trembling hands.

The smoking figure dropped his victim, Liandra’s dead eyes reflected in the foot of the full-length mirror, staring at Nell’s hiding place under the bed. Judging her.

Then the murderer moved to stand at the side of the bed, black hooves inches from Nell’s face.

“Come out, little one. There are debts to repay.”

———————————————————————————————————————–

Godsday, 2nd of Greentide, YD 172

I am a woman, now, Nell thought, staring up at the pale timbers of the workhouse ceiling above her bunk. Artificial light through the window dappled by raindrops on the glass. Her sixteenth birthday.

A face peered over the edge of the bunk; pale, oil-smeared forehead, a mop of curly hair. Copper. “Today’s the day,” he whispered, solemn. “Out into the big wide world.”

Nell didn’t look, merely nodded, thinking.

“They say in the Spires you’re not an adult until you’re nearly twenty,” she said, slowly. “How do they rule the world if they spend half their lives being children?”

Copper shrugged. “Magic.”

He’s not wrong, she mused. The morning bell chimed, followed by the silent shuffling of the other children – Overseer Bracken hated noise at this hour. Striplights in the ceiling flared into life and blinded the unprepared. Copper took her hand.

“We’ll miss you, Nell,” he said, and left for his station. Tending the furnace. Because of her height, Nell’s job had been pulling the heavy crank for the belts opposite.

Sighing, she collected her sparse belongings – a cloth sack, a blanket, a change of clothes, and a pitted old wrench. Ma Mathers was waiting by the door, a cheap canvas cloak in her hands. 

“Here, it came out of your pay.” She said, giving it to her with a jingling pouch that Nell accepted with hands a-tremble.

In the next room, she heard Copper cry out. He must have been late.

“You’d need it, sooner or later, but I got you a better deal,” she added, as if oblivious to the sound, and Nell almost wanted to cry. Ma Mathers wasn’t a soft or kind woman – that’s no way to run a business – but this was close enough. And she never raised a hand to the children herself.

No time for long goodbyes, no stomach to hear Copper weep. Nell wrapped the cloak around herself and stepped out of Mathers’ Mill for the last time, leaving behind her the hum and rumble of the looms for the rain and uncertainty of Allbright’s Hamlet. From the shelter of the awning above Mathers’ entrance, she looked down the main street, out into the plains beyond. Empty grassland for miles.

She set her jaw and turned towards the looming Allbright Spire at the heart of the town instead. A towering edifice of stone and steel, over six-hundred feet wide and a mile tall, where the Allbright Magi ruled. Brushing faded brown locks out of her face, she looked up to where the airship docks jutted from the body of the Spire. Her way out, if she could reach it. A chance to be better than a slave.

From the worn wood and narrow streets of her childhood, Nell entered the paved avenues of the wealthier merchants in stores of stone and plaster. Further, into the darkest shadow of the Spire, to join the line of hopefuls seeking entrance. She recognized a boy – a man, she corrected herself – in line ahead. Teller, who had also worked at Mathers’. She’d forgotten they almost shared a birthday. The constant rain couldn’t dull the smell of rye off him as she approached, and with a smirk she stood behind him, on his right, before reaching out to tap the opposite shoulder.

Teller turned, slipped, and Nell laughed as she jerked forwards to support him, to stop him hitting the wet cobbles. “Sorry, sorry Teller! I couldn’t resist.”

He threw her a sour look from grey, heavy-lidded eyes.

“Neither could I, I suppose, and that’s why I’m here. Looking for work up top?”

“On a ship,” she said, confident, but deflated by Teller’s answering snort.

“Good fucking luck, Nell.” He replied, bitterly. “I tried yesterday, with some nobby looking prick in Waymond’s. No time for us.”

Nell frowned. “Drunk?”

Teller looked away.

They stood in the pouring rain a few moments, clever gutters carrying it all away to the edges of the town, or down into the depths of the Spire basements. Lightning struck, somewhere on the plains, flashed across their awareness, followed by comforting thunder. All as it should be.

The queue moved along.

A pair of guards flanked the unadorned wooden door in the base of the Spire; the workman’s entrance. Nothing fancy itself, but the stalwarts holding it were dressed in heavy plate, armed with short-ranged stormcasters. There was a low murmur of chatter as they questioned potential entrants; most were turned away, shambling back into the rain in the direction of a pub. There was no shortage of those off this square.

“Papers, please.” They asked of the fellow at the head of queue, now only three steps removed from Nell. “O-of course.” He replied, in unusually accented Chatter. The guard glared, accepting a sheaf of notes ill-treated by the weather. His lips moved as he read. “Em-iss-sary. From Gaslow Commune…”

The other guard, slightly shorter than his companion, rolled his eyes. “You can’t come by ship?” He asked, exasperated, while the taller guard continued to squint at the papers.

“We don’t use such things,” the emissary replied, huffily. The guard merely sighed and eyed the queue. It occurred to Nell to look behind her.

A short cavalcade of other hopefuls, among them a pair of rats. Standing four feet tall, in raincoats with long hoods to protect their snouts. Must have their tails wrapped like a belt, Nell thought. She’d grown up with rats in the workhouse, but it was rare that rats would be orphaned. Tight-knit families, getting all the delicate work while their human neighbours did the heavy lifting.

She turned to face forward again, as the emissary was admitted, rather than rudely stare at anyone. Teller stood a little straighter as he went before the guards.

“Papers, pl-” one began, but then recognized Teller. “Bugger off, lad. We told you yesterday.”

“Aw, come on, there must be work up there if you let me in. Please?”

“You want to get hired, boy, then you wait down here with the rest of ‘em until one of the proper lords an’ ladies sends for you.”

“But-”

“Can you repair manatech, boy? No use for you in the Spire if you can’t work a simple terminal.”

“I can learn.”

“Aye, we could all learn.” The second guard spat. “You can start with learnin’ your place.”

For a moment, Teller seemed on the edge of violence. If they even noticed, the guards felt invincible in their steel. So he shrank, and shrugged, and Nell thought he suddenly seemed very young with the rain beating off his unkempt hair and ragged cloak. So small.

When he left the line and headed for the Rusting Rivet pub, Nell followed. No work for him meant no work for her. She’d have to find another way.

The Rivet was a welcome change from the rain – warm, close, decorated with outdated and broken pieces of machinery, worked into benches and tables. The bar looked like it used to be some kind of cannon. It was quiet, at this hour – most everyone else in the hamlet was working, but a few mercenaries and travelers were couched in corners, and a rat with greying fur stood on the raised planks behind the bar, looking up with bright eyes and a friendly flick of the tail as Nell entered. Teller was already slumping onto a stool.

“Welcome, welcome,” the rat said, in clipped tones rarely heard down here. “Drinks? Dinner?”

“Drink,” mumbled Teller. “Dinner,” said Nell, hanging her cloak on a hook among others protruding from an old machine mounted on the wall. On closer inspection, the hooks might have been triggers in a previous life.

“There’s a lot of… old guns in here,” she noted, sitting beside Teller and studiously ignoring his sulk.

“Oh, my yes. This counter is all that remains of a railcannon from the war.” He explains, whiskers twitching, patting the roughly-hammered surface. “You’re too young to remember and we’re past that kind of thing now.”

Nell nods, feigning understanding. The rat, leaning on the bar, seemed about to go on, but then shook himself upright.

“Oh, yes, dinner! My word, how wretched of me. What would you like? Soup, stew, truncheons and mash…”

Nell thought about the meagre coins in her pocket, and opted for soup. Teller bought a pint of ale. Nell frowned, leaned forward to look at his hands as the money crossed the counter, and as the rat disappeared into a back room she snapped out her arm to grab Teller’s wrist.

“That’s my purse,” she said, quietly. Teller stiffened.

“Right… of course,” he said. He stared ahead, fist clenching around the clinking little pouch.

“And you’re going to give it back.”

“Why? Why should I, Nell? You can make the money back without getting out of be-”

Nell lashed out, fist cracking off Teller’s cheek, knocking him out of his seat and onto the ground with a heavy thud, a shout cut-short.

“Alright! Fuck’s sake, take it.” He cried, clutching his face and sucking air over his teeth.

A well-armed woman in a nearby corner glanced up, but simply nodded in approval, and looked back to her map. Nell forced herself to relax, let the tension leave her muscles – late nights and dangerous bets to put that money aside for this day, when the work was ended and the Overseers made the older children brawl for their amusement. Still her body thrummed with the adrenaline of a hundred desperate fistfights, and she loomed over Teller.

“You spent some, Teller. You have to pay that off.”

“How?” he spat, climbing back onto the stool.

“You can pick pockets. Pick a pocket for me.” Nell replied, looking him in the eye with what she hoped was a stern expression. “Pick the door guard’s pocket.”

“What? Have you lost your bloody mind?”

“Do it. Steal a ‘caster. Let them see you do it.”

Teller took a deep draught of his pint, and rested his head on one hand, staring at Nell.

“Are you trying to kill me over a drink?”

“No. I want to get into the Spire. If I can get in, maybe I can get you in, too.”

“I’m going in chains, with this plan, Nell.”

Nell shrugged.

“You pick pockets. I pick locks.” She replied, starting to grin. Teller shook his head, drank again.

“Buy me a second pint and it’s a deal.”


Having promised Teller his second pint after the job was done, the two orphans returned to the line leading into the Spire. The rain had abated somewhat, and the dwindling crowd was in better spirits. “Guard’s changed,” Teller said.

“Good. They won’t recognize us,” said Nell.

“Why did they even need to change the guard?” Teller said, eyes narrowed.

Nell rolled her eyes.

As they shuffled to the door, Nell went ahead.

“Papers, please.” The guard said, in a monotone.

“Yes, of course!” Said Nell, as if the idea had never before occurred to her. She made a show of rummaging in her pack, looking up at the guard with an embarrassed, brittle smile as she did. From the corner of her eye she saw Teller sidle around, lean close to the guard.

“You should’ve had them ready, you can’t just hold up the queue,” the frowning guard’s companion grumbled, plucking at his ginger beard.

“No more queue to hold up, Mike,” Said the first, shrugging. No one else had joined after Nell.

“I’ll have them! They’re just… here!”

As Teller finally laid a hand on the butt of the guard’s stormcaster, Nell triumphantly pulled a rough woolen shift out of the bag.

“Oh, no, no not that.”

“Oh for- Just get back into line.” Gingerbeard began, but at that moment Teller snatched the weapon away, staggering back across the cobbles with a sudden cry and running. The guards bolted after him with only shouts to stop, slow down, and Nell took her chance to slip inside.

Within, the Spire base was a large, bare, square room with metal walls, striplights near the ceiling, a stone floor, and a central column. The ceiling was lower than she expected, and there was no sign of any staircase. How could anyone get up from here?

As she crossed the room to the pillar, a rumble made her start, and she cast her eye anxiously about for the source. Yet there seemed to be nothing until, with a cheery ding, the wall of the pillar slid aside to reveal an even smaller room.

Nell looked back toward the entrance door.

I have come this far. I won’t be stopped by a… a puzzle. You can’t have to be a Magus to get inside from here.

Warily, she stepped over the threshold into the smaller room. Like a polished metal box, it was cleaner than the walls of the surrounding chamber, and Nell saw a bank of round bumps on the left wall. Buttons, but fancier than buttons needed to be – black and shiny, with numbers on them. Nell couldn’t read numbers bigger than ten, but thankfully that was the highest one. Unsure of what to expect, she pressed that one, at the top.

The doors hissed shut. Heart beating in her ears, Nell pressed herself to the wall. Perhaps it was a trap, she thought, as that rumbling began again, louder, surrounding her. Her stomach fell and she clutched her head, afraid at any moment this sorcerous chamber was going to kill her.

And then there was another ding, and the doors hissed open to reveal an empty corridor going from left to right, and a wall covered in signs.

The desire to avoid another trip in the box overrode her caution, and Nell, with palms sweating and eyes wide, scurried across the corridor to the signage wall. It was all gibberish, to her.

A moment later, as she tried to take her bearings, the doors closed and the rumble started again, moving away from here. Fearing more people would come from the ascending room, she edged her way right and slipped in through the first open door she could find, a somewhat heavy metal hatch, just ajar.

Inside, a big cabinet filled up the wall to her right, with a mirror from floor to ceiling set into one of the doors and a shelf built into it beside that, covered in bottles and jars and pieces of jewelry. The carpet was thick, red and black lines crisscrossing over white. There was a high, round window, and more cabinets and shelves with more jewels and unguents. The bedspread…

A bedroom. A room just for sleeping in. For one person!

Nell crossed the room, aware of her steps sinking, muffled, into the carpet, to see it. To touch – the deeply red, velvet quilt; the fluffy white pillows; the fur throw. Luxury undreamed of.

Nell threw herself back onto the bed and sighed, deeply. She was tempted to sleep, or strip and roll in the sumptuous fabric – this whole misadventure seemed likely to end in some terrible fate that she might as well make the most of it.

But when the door clunked and began to open, she rolled off onto the floor, then under the bed, hanging blankets just about obscuring her in the darkness beside a pair of impractically heeled boots.

“…and so tall,” the woman giggled, stepping into the room. Her room, Nell assumed – same ridiculous heels on her slippers as on the boots beside Nell. The woman was followed by a pair of hooves, basalt-black, wide as beersteins.

“Irrelevant,” an unmistakably masculine voice rumbled. “I am here for the deeds, not an heir.”

“It doesn’t have to end in an heir….”

“Give me the papers, Liandra.”

“A drink first, at least?”

“…A drink. One.”

Nell rolled her eyes at the ensuing giggle, in spite of the sweat on her brow.

She could see the man’s back in the mirror as he turned away – nearly seven feet tall, she was sure, with flowing blonde hair and curling horns on his head. A sigil sewed into his fine leather vest, reminiscent of flame and wing.

He sat on the bed, causing it to creak ominously above Nell’s head as the woman’s – Liandra’s – feet moved close to the big cabinet. A clink of glass, sloshing of liquids, the gurgle of pouring drink. Nell could see only those ridiculous shoes and the bare, pale feet, ankles, high gold hem of a red dress.

A soft thud as one of the chunky, golden rings fell from a shelf. Still holding a glass, Liandra leaned down to retrieve it. Nell had the impression of plunging neckline, more red fabric, auburn hair worn in long ringlets, but her breath caught in her chest as the woman’s eyes were surely of a level to see her.

Her attention was on the glass, as she flicked a panel of the ring open to deposit something chalky-white into the amber liquid.

I’m going to witness a murder. A poisoning.

Nell was convinced they could hear her heartbeat. As if it was trying to escape her rib. At least, biting down on her lip, they couldn’t hear her breathe. If she was still breathing.

“A toast, Malorn. To professional diplomacy.”

“To a good partnership, Liandra.”

Clink. Silence.

Nell stared at the feet – the heels and hooves – and felt the pain mounting in her lip and her lungs.

The hard thud of Malorn’s hoof on the thick carpet drew a gasp from her.

As he stood with a snarl, as Liandra’s feet left the ground amid the sound of choking, strangled pleas.

“The blood of gods flows in my veins, Liandra Allbright. Mere poison is an insult.” Malorn growled. Nell could see it clearly, reflected in the mirror opposite – Liandra held by the throat in one huge fist as smoke began to trickle from Malorn’s nostrils, his eyes like blazing gold in his hard-featured face. Her hands seemed tiny, beating against the taut muscles of his arm, all before that glorious, luxurious bed.

Nell had braced for the sound. Growing up in the workhouse, you would hear bones break often enough – sometimes the wet crack of an arm pulped in the machinery, sometimes the fatal snap of a neck, the now-useless child thrown into the street to die. Yet here, in this opulent bedroom, the sound seemed deafening and twisted her gut, trembled her knees.

The smoking figure dropped his victim, Liandra’s dead eyes reflected in the foot of the full-length mirror, staring at Nell’s hiding place under the bed. Judging her.

Now the murderer moved to stand at the side of the bed, black hooves inches from Nell’s face.

“Come out, little one. There are debts to repay.”

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About Grey

Just this guy, you know?
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7 Responses to Witnesses 1.1

  1. Pingback: Witnesses 1.2 | Under Darkening Skies

  2. A Chen says:

    I think I liked how the factory lights came on in an earlier draft more.
    Last line’s delightfully shivery.

    Like

    • Grey says:

      I may go back and hunt for that. I liked my earlier draft, but that was one of the parts that drew the most criticism for being vague and confusing. You know how I am with implication.

      Like

  3. mathtans says:

    You’ve set up a lot of the world here without making it feel like exposition to me – well done. We’ve got intelligent animals, magic, an old war, a less than stellar life expectancy, a tiered society… neat. Nell seems pretty good as a protagonist too. Practical, able to hold her own, while inexperienced and liable to get in trouble because of it. (You also avoided the dreaded “checking herself out in the mirror” cliche, relating her height to her work.)

    I admit I was a bit worried to start, because I’m one of those people who groan whenever a TV episode shows some “crazy scene” and then flashes back x number of hours. I always wonder why the show has to effectively spoil itself to get my attention… but here, connecting it directly back to the workhouse was the right move. Also, starting with simply “I am a woman” doesn’t feel as strong, and we caught back up by the end, so I’m okay with it. Interested to find out where it goes.

    A few curiosities:
    – Teller says “Nell” a lot. In three consecutive lines of dialogue at one point; most people don’t constantly reiterate who they’re talking to.
    -Copper RAN to his station pretty much as soon as the morning bell went… yet he was LATE? Was he expected to already be heading there in the dark? Don’t get me wrong, the crying out added to the ambiance, but ‘late’ as a factor seems off.
    -You’re breaking sentences at dialogue (or perhaps merely throwing in extra capital letters) sometimes… don’t do that. (“No more queue to hold up, Mike,” Said the first) – I can’t think of any time “said” should use a capital letter. It becomes confusing to me at points like this: (“How?” He spat, climbing back onto the stool.) To me, that reads like Teller spit onto the bar or stool for some reason, rather than spitting out the words. Then again, maybe he did spit onto the bar, but the inconsistent capitalization has me confused.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Grey says:

      Thank you! Some of hat’s a string of typos I’ll have to fix due to rewriting the dialogue a few times. Technically speaking, when dialogue ends on a comma, the following letters shouldn’t be capitalized, but if it ends on a full stop, question mark, or exclamation, the next word is capitalized.

      Like

    • Grey says:

      Scratch that – went a double-checked, because even though I was sure for some reason, a bit of doubt crept in. I’ll fix those capitalization errors soon.

      Like

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