When you're running away, the worst mistake you can make is looking back. I found this out the hard way, fleeing from the flames swiftly engulfing the only home I'd ever known.
I chanced a glance back, unable to comprehend how my world had disintegrated so swiftly. And in that moment my knees nearly buckled, and I found I couldn't see to where I was going as my eyes blurred with unshed tears. A large, rough hand came down on my shoulder like stone weight, "What's this then?" I panicked at the authority in the man's voice, I twisted hard, and threw myself away from the voice. I slammed into a brick wall, but somehow kept my feet, and was running before I'd even realized it. Running into the blackened, filthy back ways, the alleys that skirted through the city like a vast maze. I ran without knowing the direction, I ran without stopping. I tripped and bumped blindly into the refuse littering the alleyways and the ragged people that made their homes in the trash, but I stopped for nothing, quickly leaving the indignant cries behind me.
Finally my breath gave out, I was somewhere colder, and darker despite the sunlight pouring down from a full midday sun. I fell to the ground, clutching at the nearest wall with one hand and my chest with the other as my knees gave way. I focused my mind on the feel of cold stone beneath my hand while I fought to regain my breath. After wheezing like a landed fish, eyes just as wide, for some time, my breathing started evening out, the hammering beneath my breast slowed, and I took stock of my surroundings. Cold. I'd noticed that first. And dim, as though the sun dared not penetrate the gloom of these streets for the wicked things it would find. The walls of the buildings on either side of me rose up, windowless, stony and forbidding. I got to my feet, and started looking around. I certainly did not recognize the place, but I soon realized I knew exactly where I was. The river. It cut through the city like a cold, black snake, twisting and turning a few times before sliding into the sea. A beautiful river. If you happened to live near the palace. Which I didn't. This was the worst part of the city. After the lovely shining streets of the upper ways, and before the lively, but usually friendly docks, there was this dark stretch of the river where evil made its nest. A place where the black waters swallowed lives whole and kept its secrets close with corpse-cold fingers. I shivered. My threadbare, hand-me-down clothes did nothing to ward off the river's dark chill. Looking around as far into the gloom cast by the towering buildings as my eyes could penetrate, I scanned in all directions carefully, front, side, side, and back, but I saw no movement, no sign of life. Perhaps I was safe during the daylight hours here. I had heard terrible stories about this place, and always avoided it before now. I couldn't even begin to imagine why my feet took me here in my blind panic, how could this be safer than Nigel's, even engulfed in flames? Nigel's. They called it that because it had no official name, and Nigel owned it. But it was the only home I'd ever known. The images of my last moments at Nigel's came rushing back to me like a bad play behind my eyes. There was my mother, glorious and elegant, as always, in her entertaining clothes, heavy kohl on her eyes; lips and skin lightly brushed in various powders and pastes. It never ceased to amaze me that those funny-smelling pots could turn my otherwise beautiful mother into a veritable goddess. And I was not the only one who thought so. I saw so little of her after nightfall, she was always in high demand by the customers. When she went, she took with her a small, delicate, stringed instrument. It had three strings pulled tight over a gracefully curved wooden neck, and though she carried it everywhere, I'd never heard it played. And then it was on the floor, slender neck broken, strings curled and splayed everywhere. There had been trouble, another entertaining lady had told me, it was my mother they said. But when they brought me to her all I could see was the delicate instrument I'd never heard broken on the floor. It seemed such a waste. I'd knelt to pick it up, and as my fingers brushed the strings, I looked beyond my fingers to another's pale, white fingers splayed on the floor, as if reaching out to me. My gaze travelled up her arm, and landed on the face I knew I'd see. Mother. She looked peaceful, like she was sleeping, despite the bright red splattered across her white clothes and leaking from a dark hole in her chest. But so pale, too pale, even beneath her artifice, I could see there was no life beneath her sleeping mask. I couldn't tell you now why I didn't weep. I felt like I was dreaming, floating. I felt a comforting hand on my shoulder, and the soft breath of air on my cheek as someone spoke soothingly near my ear. But I didn't hear what she said, I heard nothing but a queer sort of humming that seemed to reach into my soul. I picked up the broken tangle of string and wood and held it gently, gazing at my mother's face, surely sleeping, surely just sleeping? How would she play me a song on these broken strings when she woke? Then a scream pierced through my foggy haze, I jumped to my feet, the sudden movement driving splinters from the wrecked instrument into my hands. I dropped it as if burnt. I was picking the splinters from my palm when I smelt it. The black roiling smoke. I looked around, suddenly realizing I was very much alone, and someone was screaming and sobbing not a room away. I heard Nigel shouting. Nigel always shouted, but this was different, he sounded scared. Suddenly the curtains separating the rooms flew wide and a pile of embroidered white cloth flew through and hit the wall with a sickening thump. No. It was a person, not cloth, it was Rihanna. She was so gentle and always kind, I couldn't understand the sudden violence. There was blood dripping on the floor from her bowed face. She wasn't moving. I took a step towards her, wondering what was wrong, wondering if I could help, or if I should run and get the doctor. But the curtains flew wide once again, before I'd gotten any further. Out stepped Nigel and a much larger, much stronger, and much angrier man, and with them came more of the black smoke. It burned in my nose and eyes. I stepped back a few paces, trying to put some distance between myself and the bitter smoke. This was the wrong thing to do. The large, angry man whirled on me, black, piggy eyes glinting like stones set deep into the wild mess of ungroomed black and grey hair that covered his head and his face. He looked like some sort of hideous demon bear, walking on his hind legs. He said some terrible words I didn't quite catch before he slammed me into the wall with the back of one, large, meaty hand. He stank too, I belatedly. Of salt and fish guts gone bad. I hit the wall and slumped, stunned, to the ground, and he turned his attention back to the wildly gesticulating Nigel. I couldn't hear properly out of the ear on the side of my head he'd struck me on, but fear began to creep through my body, and filled me with a strange, horrible, fizzing feeling. I twitched, I couldn't stay there. I crawled, painfully, slowly from the room, too afraid of the large, bellowing man to risk standing or moving fast and attracting his attention again. Once out of the room I gathered my feet beneath me and glanced around. Flames were beginning to creep along the silk curtains in the next room to the left, crackling and fizzling hungrily. Moving quickly. Fire. The black smoke got thicker, and began to truly pour out of the left side room as I watched. Fire! I whirled and threw myself at the door leading out, pure terror lending me wings.
I wiped my nose, my hand came away bloody. My nose was bleeding. Little wonder, what with getting thrown into a wall by that beast of a man. I began to tremble slightly. The sun was beginning its descent to the west, and I was running out of time to think. Thrusting the events of the day into the back of my mind, I focused on the more immediate problems. What did I have? Where should I go? What should I do? I outlined these questions in my mind, setting them up carefully, like a shield against the images from Nigel's that kept trying to crowd into my mind. I looked down at myself. The front of my shirt was stained with little droplets of my own blood. I had nothing save the clothes on my back. And little good they were, I reminded myself bitterly, with another shiver. Where should I go? I pondered that one for a time, it was more a question of where could I go. Not here, no I had to leave here and soon. These streets belonged to wicked things. But where? Not the upper ways, no, if they find you wandering around up there dressed in rags like these, they give you a good drubbing and send you back. I couldn't go back, not now, mother was gone. And Rihanna? I didn't even know, but I was too afraid to find out, the memory of her blood staining the rich red carpets a darker hue stood stark in my memory. And besides, even if I did go back, even if Nigel got out too, and the building got rebuilt I didn't think I really wanted to be an entertainer. My chest was too small for one, no one wanted a girl with nothing up top. Well, no one worth entertaining anyway. My mother had laughed and told me I would blossom beautifully one day, only that I must have patience. But patience be damned, I was thirteen and without the proper accessories to entertain. All the other girls my age had already started working their way properly, I was the only one left behind. It wasn't like I wanted to be one anyway. Nigel would have put me on the roster a year ago, chest or no, if my mother hadn't talked him out of it. But I hadn't wanted to entertain then, and I certainly didn't want to entertain now, either. In my defiance I kept my dirty straw-coloured hair closely shorn and was always dressed like a boy, in patched trousers and large, ragged shirts. And that's all it took to look just like a boy, or at least most of the shopkeepers I ran errands to called me boy, or lad or some such. Surely even Nigel would never deign to put such an unremarkable girl on the roster. I suppose my eyes were the only feature I had that I could really be proud of, a deep liquid green, like the sea shoals in the sunlight. But it still irked me some, to be so unattractive that I was so easily mistaken for a boy. I had to wonder if they'd still call me lad if I'd gone waltzing in all covered in bows. Probably. And that's about when it came to me. I would not only look like a boy, I would be a boy. Boys get so much more done in the world anyway, they get to apprentice, learn crafts, go on the ships sailing out of harbour, and make their way in the world. I could do practically anything if I was a boy. And clearly it wouldn't be hard to pull off. I was glad for once, for the first time ever, to be so plain. The sun dipped lower in the sky, and I made up my mind. I couldn't stay here, I wouldn't go back, and I certainly couldn't go to the upper ways. So I swiped at my nose once more, it had almost stopped bleeding, and set off, resolutely, for the docks.
The adrenaline that had been fuelling me since my flight from Nigel's had almost completely worn off by the time I saw the sea. The shock that had kept my grief at bay was fading too. I was trembling all over, but doing my best to hide it. And my tears, I kept in careful check. The enormity of my situation was finally beginning to dawn on me. What was I doing? My mother was dead, leaving me all alone, and I thought I could do what now? Mosey on down to the docks and get a job, like any other boy my age? Or rather younger, I realized. I was pretty small for my age, even for a girl. I wrapped my arms around my middle and held myself to quell their shaking. I stopped to rest in the leeway of a dockside warehouse, watching as men and boys scurried to unload a ship before the sun set. Boys just a little bigger than me were hefting loads at least half as large as I was as if they weighed nothing at all. I had thought I was reasonably strong before, but I couldn't do that, no way, no how. I could barely manage the groceries and cloth I regularly picked up from the shops and street merchants every week for Nigel's. So what now, idiot girl? I asked myself scathingly, using one of Nigel's favourite 'pet names' for me. I slid down the side of the warehouse, leaning my head against the cool brick. I crouched in the growing shadows, unseen, watching the dockworkers, finish with the day's work at long last, and head off noisily into the growing twilight. No doubt they'd soon be warm and happy, getting happier by the moment in one of the taverns a few buildings in from the docks. I started at a movement in the corner of my eye. I turned to look, ready to flee, heart already hammering. Just a cat. I sighed in relief, my heart slowing again. It was a big thing, almost solid grey, save for a white patch over one eye on its funny, squashed face. I continued to watch it out of the corner of my eye for some time, it seemed to have been startled into stillness when I jumped. I looked back to the docks. There were still a few stragglers meandering away into the warmer, friendlier parts of town, but soon the docks stood completely empty. I sighed and slid back against the wall, looking back over to where the big gray cat still stood, watching me. We sat in silent tableau for I don't know how long before I made the first move. I held out an empty hand towards it, "Here kitty, kitty, here kitty," I coaxed softly. Perhaps I could borrow the big creature's warmth if it would come. The cat flicked its slightly crooked tail, and turned, with dignity, completely away from me. It would have sniffed haughtily if it could, I'm sure. The absurdity of such a ragged creature being possessed of such dignity brought a small smile to my face. I turned away as well. "Fine Horatio, have it your way, your ever mighty and royal highness," I decided Horatio sounded about right for it. It looked, even in the gloom, to be every inch a tomcat. "I shall ignore you too, and we shall get along famously, I'm sure." I sat, legs crossed, nose held upward and didn't look at the cat at all for what seemed an age, but was probably more like half a minute. My mother and the other entertaining ladies had taught me the importance of 'proper' diction and grammar at a young age, so I could sound just like a pretentious, pig-nosed noble if need be. What need that should be I hadn't a clue, but apparently gutter-slang isn't a very appealing feature in an entertainer. I was distantly aware that I was thinking very frivolous thoughts. Something felt broken deep inside, but I pushed the darkness in my mind aside and cloaked the horrible feeling as best I could in my silly, irrelevant thoughts. I couldn't ignore the empty ache in my chest though, like someone had ripped my lungs out and left me unable to breath. It had been with me since I'd seen my mother's pale hand, still reaching for me in death. I bit my lip to distract myself from the hollow ache. Something gently tickled my hand. Opening one eye, I snuck a peek at the grey fuzzy monster slinking closer. Silly Horatio. I guess I was interesting enough to investigate after all. I kept still and watched him nose about me out of the corner of my eye. Then, without so much as a how do you do, he stepped right into my lap, and turned about, kneading his claws against my leg. I dug my fingernails into my palm to keep from squeaking, his claws went right through my thin trousers. But it was kind of nice when he settled down to sleep, snug in my lap. And I, the warmer for it, decided company, even clawed company, was very nice indeed.
-hrr grammars >_< I switched tenses a few times when i was trying to hammer this out, and never managed to find them all.. are those the grammatical errors you speak of? -That might be a product of the point of view, it's a new one for me :3 -err well... that was hard XD It develops more as it goes, but right now she's kind of in shock or denial, numbed as it were. It wears off in the next chapter, but I still feel I never really grasped the feeling so well
Thanks for the crit ^^ I was never super happy with this chapter hence it was named "Rough Beginnings" which I forgot to header it with, but in any case, I'll probably come back and rewrite or work it when i get to the end and start over XD I'll keep your crit in mind when I do so, much obliged.
Uhm. I can't remember the grammar errors. o_o; Next time I read this I'll look for them, k?
Well, the thing is, you make her sound shallow/vain as hell by describing her appearance right after her loved ones died. I mean... yeah. She would be in shock/denial, I've been there. What you do is you just sort of shuffle about like a zombie, like your whole mind is empty except for a soft string tugging you along. She wouldn't be thinking about how she looks like a boy, her thoughts of getting a job would be much more sloppy, like if someone drunk was talking, and she wouldn't really be talking yet. If anything, she'd really just say "Cat.". XD