In the Shadow of the Gods (5 page)

Kerrus stood frowning down at the fighting, smiling boys, and it took him a moment to fit the pieces together. Not fighting.
Playing
. Playing like normal children. Playing, and smiling, and
laughing
.

It sent an unexpected stab of warmth through Kerrus's heart. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen children at play in Aardanel. The children gathered around were smiling, too, quietly cheering one or the other. Children who had been in Aardanel awhile, children who he would have guessed had long since forgotten what play was, forgotten how to smile.

Quietly, he slipped away from the group, leaving them to their play. He went straight to his chapel and spent an hour kneeling before the everflame, thanking the Parents from the depths of his heart.
Let them find some joy,
he'd asked of the Parents. Never had they answered his prayers so quickly, or so thoroughly.

Scal still spent much of his time at Kerrus's elbow, though whenever
the boy ghosted silently away, Kerrus knew he had only to follow the sound of children's laughter and he would find Scal and Brennon, and as many other children as had flocked around them that particular day. They were fast friends, and though he couldn't for the life of him understand why, Kerrus
couldn't say he disapproved of it. Brennon was a good boy. What's more, he proved to be a very devout boy, spending much of his time in the chapel or Kerrus's hut. As a result, Scal became intensely pious himself, and Kerrus spent more time preaching than he had in the last decade.

Neither boy could read—or, if Scal could, he certainly wasn't telling—so Kerrus recited all the old stories, and answered all of Brennon's unending questions. Scal sat there, seeming to absorb it all, eyes rapt.

Kerrus was in the middle of his most chilling rendition of the Fall of the Twins when a question brought him sputtering to a halt: “Why?” It wasn't the question itself that took him so by surprise, for he'd answered it a hundred times before; it was the voice that asked the question, a soft, rough voice that had, without a doubt, come from Scal's mouth.

Kerrus saw that Brennon was gaping at the little Northman, realized he was gaping, too, and quickly snapped his hanging jaw shut. “Why?” Kerrus repeated, certain he'd imagined it.

Scal's mouth opened, and there was that raspy voice again, in passable Fiateran. “Why did Mother throw her children down?”

It took Kerrus a moment to get his bearings, and once he did, he stammered like a tongue-tied parro just out of apprenticeship. “Well, you see . . . they were, ah, they didn't like the way the Twins—the Parents! The Twins didn't like how the Parents were, ah, running things. How they treated people. The Twins were . . . jealous! Yes, they wanted to have the same power as the Parents. And they tried to steal it . . .” Kerrus's voice carried on in the familiar recitation, but behind the
words his mind was whirling. Two months of living elbow to forehead with the boy, and this the first he'd spoken! “Enough for tonight,” he finished lamely, and Brennon wandered from the hut looking as dazed as Kerrus felt.

Scal was poking at the hearthfire, and Kerrus's knees popped as he crouched down next to the boy. The silence settled over them, but different now that they both had a voice. Kerrus finally cleared his throat, needing to say something, but not sure what. “So.” Well, that was a start. “You've finally found your voice, eh?” Scal shrugged, still staring into the fire. “Or did I fall asleep in the middle of a story again?” Scal flashed him a smile—a more and more frequent sight since Brennon had been around. A bashful smile, an apologetic smile. “Eh? Was I just dreaming my silent little lad spoke to me?”

“No.” So quiet it was almost swallowed up by the crackling of the flames. “I talked.”

“I'm glad, Scal,” Kerrus said, and for some foolish reason his throat went tight, pressure building behind his eyes. Stupid old man, near ready to weep like a woman.

“I too.”

802 Years after the Fall

Even the best dog will bite if given loose rope.

—Northern Proverb

CHAPTER 3

A
ro was crying again. Rora put her arms round him, trying to hush him before any of the biggers heard. Showing any weakness in the Canals was like asking for a shiv to the stomach. She hugged him close, but it only made Aro cry harder. “I miss Kala,” he whimpered. It was dark, but Rora didn't need to see: she could hear the biggers rustling, grumbling. She clapped her hand over Aro's mouth, making him quiet. She could feel his scared breath wheezing over the back of her hand, but she didn't let him go until she heard Twist snoring. Twist was the mother for the Blackhands pack, and he hated most of the pups he watched over, but it seemed like he hated Rora and her brother extra just 'cause they were new to the pack and Aro cried too much. Rora didn't want to give Twist any more reason to hate them.

Aro hiccuped and nuzzled into her shoulder, finally quiet, maybe even sleeping already. It was good, if he could get some sleep. Rora couldn't, not with the water lapping, splashing up through the warped boards. She missed Kala, too, mostly
for her house's solid floor. If she'd had anything to give, she would've handed it over for a packed-dirt floor to sleep on, far away from the Canals.

When the sky started to get light, she shook Aro awake and they crept to the edge of the raft, trying not to rock it too much. Aro jumped first, falling on his hands and knees on the canal's muddy bank. Rora landed next to him and hauled him up, sneaking off before any of the pack woke up and saw them.

They stopped a ways away, where there weren't any rafts nearby, and crouched down in the mud. “I don't want to,” Aro complained, but Rora ignored him, shoving her hands into the mud and running handfuls of the goop through Aro's hair. Kala had cut it short, so the mud dried fast, leaving his hair sticking up in near-black spikes. It made him smell awful, but it was the only way to stay safe. She smudged more mud on his face, then pulled him to the canal, both of them peering into the murky water.

It was still like seeing two of herself. Even with her hair long, and Aro's short and different-colored, their faces were the same. The mud wasn't that great of a disguise. It just made him look like a dirtier version of Rora. But it was the best she could do. She dunked her head into the water, scrubbing the dirt from her own face and hair with fingertips that weren't much cleaner. Not that the water was any cleaner'n she was either, but this was as clean as she was going to get with Kala gone.

They walked along the edges of the canal, Aro holding to the back of Rora's shirt. With sunlight poking down, there were more Scum out and about now, and they all avoided each other like snarling cats. Rora stayed pressed up hard against the wall, staring at anyone who went by, her eyes daring them
to attack two pups, while inside she prayed they wouldn't. You had to be tough, in the Canals, or at least look tough. It was the only way.

“Where're we going today, Rora?” Aro asked, rubbing the back of one filthy hand at his running nose.

“Sparrow,” she corrected automatically; he always forgot to use the new name. “To the market. It's fiveday, so there should be plenty of people round. You wanna beg today?”

“You always get to do the stealing, it's not fair!”

“You're no good at it.”

“Only 'cause you don't let me try.”

“You're begging,” Rora said firmly.

The Canals had been built a long time ago to bring in water from Lake Baridi, but they hadn't been built right. Over the years, the water'd worn down the bottom of the canal, eating away the dirt where the canal makers hadn't put down stone, and even sneaking under stone in time, the water digging down deeper than it should've. The water was down too low for any of the topsiders to know what to do with it, so they'd just decided to ignore all the waterways winding through Mercetta. They'd left the canals to the Scum, who scraped out a living on and around the water. The Scum made paths alongside the new canal bottom with wood planks and pried-up brick and anything sturdier than mud; they'd made the place as livable as they could.

The canal walls were mostly mud now, with brick starting where the canal bottom had originally been, higher up than Rora was tall. She boosted Aro up, and the boy hauled himself onto the ridge of bricks that the water'd left untouched. She had to jump to do it, but she got her fingers hooked over the
edge and planted her feet against the soft mud wall, shimmying up to join her brother.

There were fewer Scum up on the high paths, since they were closer to topside, but every once in a while they had to sidestep around one of the other Scum, Rora growling curses and shoving Aro ahead of her. They finally got to the West Bridge and found the ladder—little more than holes where bricks had been pried out of the wall. Rora went up first, telling Aro to hang back in case there was any trouble.

It was a long way up. The people of Mercetta didn't like having to look at their trash, and the Scum were definitely trash. “Out of sight,” Kala used to say, “out of mind.” A lot of the bricks were crumbling, too, making Rora's bare feet slip, almost making her scared she was about to fall a few times. As she got closer to the top of the ladder, in the shadow of the West Bridge, she started to hear talking, whispers. There were people, at least a handful of 'em judging by the voices, waiting for her at the top.

“—waiting a hell of a long time . . .”

“Shh!”

“Gotta be close.”

“Mace'll shit if we don' bring 'im more copper.”

“We'll get more, I'm tellin' ya.”

“Shhhh!”

There were biggers in the packs, too old to be pups but they hadn't been given any jobs yet, so they had nothing to do but bully pups. They were big, sure, but usually pretty slow and stupid—otherwise they would've got a job to do already. All you had to do was be a little faster and a little smarter, and biggers weren't any kind of problem. Rora tipped her head back
and leaned as far away from the wall as she dared, fingers and toes curled tight around the bricks. “Your ambush needs practice,” she called up.

There was rustling and hushing; one of them murmured, “Feck's an ambush?” and then a head poked out over the top of the wall. A bigger, sure enough, and he was scraggly-looking but with a thick enough face that he probably ate pretty well. Dirty, but no dirtier'n anyone living in the Canals; he might even have seen a real bath in the last year. Still Scum, though, and you could never trust a bigger.

“Hullo, girl,” he called down, trying to sound friendly. “Need some help getting up?”

“That's so nice of you,” she said, smiling sweetly. “But I think I'm okay.”

The bigger grinned down at her. He was probably trying to look nice, but it only made him look like an animal about to attack. “No, no, let me help.” He stretched an arm down toward her, fingers wriggling. She was just out of reach. “Gimme your hand, I'll pull you up.”

Rora let go of the bricks with one hand and reached up toward him. When their hands were just about a finger apart, she curled her hand into a fist and slammed it into his palm, crushing it against the wall. Not enough force behind it to do any real damage, but enough to make him yelp and pull his hand back up real quick. He disappeared from view and she heard swearing from above, the others trying to figure out what'd happened. She took their moment of distraction to scramble up the last stretch of the ladder and jump onto solid ground. There were seven of 'em, all biggers, all gathered round the one who'd been talking to her. He saw her around
the shoulder of one of his friends, and there was murder in his eyes.

Rora took off running. All she had to do was lead 'em off long enough for Aro to get up topside, then she'd lose the biggers and meet him at their normal spot. She'd done it more times than she could count, and it would've worked again if she hadn't got her foot tangled in something. She went sprawling, scraping her hands, forehead banging against stone, and they caught up to her before she could scramble away.

One of them stomped on her arm, pinning her in place, and another kicked her in the stomach. Groaning in pain, she curled herself into a ball as the blows rained down, one arm still stretched out with the bigger grinding his foot down. She could feel the bones in her arm shifting, twisting,
please, gods, don't break, don't break
. . . A foot, a
boot
—what Scum could afford boots?—slammed into the side of her head, rattling her teeth, making spots of light dance behind her squeezed-shut eyes. She tasted blood, cried out as a sharp
snap
echoed through her skull, hot fire shooting down her arm as the bigger twisted his foot, splinters of bone dancing under her skin.

“Stop it!”

The beating faltered, stopped. One of the biggers laughed. “Run back t' your momma's tit, brat.”

“Leave her alone!”

Rora groaned. There was no mistaking that voice, even high-pitched and full of fear. “Don't,” she tried to tell him, but the word came out as a cough, blood splattering from her lips, ribs aching with every movement.

There was more laughter, and the boot tramped down on her arm again. She screamed, and then it was like the world
was screaming around her, more voices and terror and pain, and a sound like the world ripping in half. Something heavy fell across her, crushing her against the ground. She whimpered, felt tears sneaking through her eyelids. There was something else running down her cheek, too, running warm and fast and filling her mouth with the taste of iron.

She could hear sobbing, close by. Her? No, not Rora, but her voice doubled, projected back at her. “I'm so sorry, so sorry, so sorry . . .” The weight lifted off her, and she drew in a shaking breath, not caring that all her ribs bent and twisted and stabbed. She forced her eyes open, though they tried to stick together, red bubbles dancing at the edges of her vision. Aro's face loomed before her, face streaked with mud and blood, two clean trails carved down his cheeks as he sobbed. She tried to reach out, to comfort him, tell him everything would be okay, but nothing worked. All she could do was make a sharp wheezing noise, and that only made him cry all the harder. “Rora, Rora, I'm so sorry.” He reached for her, and the world tilted and dropped away in a burning crash.

It was night, and she was in Kala's house again. Too quiet; why
wasn't Kala in the kitchen, singing as she made food? A whimper, a sob, and she followed it to Aro, sitting in a puddle of blood, crying, “She knew, she knew, she knew.” And Kala lay on the floor, twisted and broken, but it wasn't quite Kala; she had the face of the mother Rora'd never known, and she frowned. “Take better care of your brother.”

“I don't know how!” Rora tried to tell her, but Kala turned her back and the floor vanished and Rora fell through the sky, Aro falling with her, crying, crying.

“How could you let this happen?” Kala yelled after her.

“I'm sorry!” she said, and Aro echoed her, “So sorry, so sorry.”

The earth was rushing up at them, a gaping black pit. “Rora, help me!” Aro yelled, but she couldn't reach him, he was too far away, and the world swallowed her up, filling her ears and mouth and nose, twisting her bones, crushing her into pieces, and she could hear Aro crying but she couldn't find him. “Help me, Rora, help me.
Find me
.”

“Please wake up.” A hand rubbed gently at her shoulder. “I promise
I'll be good. Just please wake up.” Rora groaned as she opened her eyes, and she heard a choked sound of surprise. “Rora, thank the gods!” Fingers squeezed around her own hand, and her eyes slowly fixed on Aro, bent over her, eyes glowing bright.

“What—” Her voice came out an ugly rasp as it clawed its way up from her bruised chest to her cracked lips.

“You're safe, Rora,” he said, and there was pride in his voice. “I'm keeping you safe. But don't move,” he added quickly as she tried to sit up and fell back gasping. “You've been sleeping a real long time, and you're still hurt. I . . . I did what I could.”

It left a sour taste in Rora's mouth, when she remembered. The beating, and . . . the thing that'd happened after. No wonder she hurt everywhere. It'd been stupid, beyond stupid . . . “Are you okay?” she croaked.

“I'm okay.” Aro lifted a battered tin cup to her lips, and warm ale trickled down her throat. It was the sweetest drink she'd ever had. “I—I'm sorry about the biggers,” he said, tears
starting to prick in his eyes, and her ribs twinged in remembrance. “I just saw them hurting you, and I didn't know what else to do . . .”

For a moment she saw blood, spattered everywhere, dripping onto her face. She blinked the memory away. “It's okay, Aro. You . . . you kept me safe. We do what we have to.”

The fog was clearing from her head, little by little, and she started to take stock. They were in an alley, that much was clear, sandwiched between two different piles of trash. It smelled awful, but not near as bad as anywhere in the Canals smelled, and that got her worried. They weren't in the Canals, and the Canals were about the only place Scum could hope to be safe. “Aro, where are we?”

He beamed as he looked down at her, proud of himself. “Topside. Off the West Market, far away from the . . . the bridge. Far enough from the market, too, no one really comes by here. Did I do good, Rora?”

“Yeah, little bird,” she said, trying to smile even though her stomach was clenching up with fear. “You did real good.” His smile made her heart hurt.

“I been stealing some, too. I told you I could do it! I just need to practice some, and no one's caught me yet. I got some food, and some bandages . . .” His brow furrowed, and he frowned down at her arm. She frowned at it, too, where it lay throbbing on the ground, wrapped up in bandages dirtier than Aro. Even bulky-looking as it was, she could tell it wasn't shaped right. She choked back bile and looked away, staring up at the sky, willing her stomach to settle down. “I didn't know what to do with it. I'm sorry, Rora.” And then he was crying, and she held her good arm out to him. He curled up tight against her
side, wrapping his arms carefully around her, crying into her bruised shoulder, shaking against her aching ribs.

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