Official site for the high/dark fantasy books of authors Barb Hendee and J. C. Hendee, including the Noble Dead Saga (a.k.a. The Noble Dead series), the Mist-Torn Witches series, the Vampire Memories series, and TNDS: Tales from the world of the Noble Dead Saga.

New Beginnings… Part 4

new_beginnings

I am back again though a little later than initially planned, though not without something extra for the wait. For those who need to catch up in these ongoing excepts from a new work, see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. This time out, I offer you the next two scenes, one short and one long. Grab a coffee, tea, or your preferred beverage and let’s get to it…


Chapter 1, Scene 4

Tryskiäna Evarieth Conviōn-Dōviak hunkered in a dark cloak too long for her. The fine, charcoal-colored cloak's hem brushed the board's beneath her little boots on the porch of a closed shop three blocks upslope from the waterfront's southern end. Unseen in the predawn, she was less than half the height of the timber pillar behind which she hid. Or more precisely, about a third of its height. She stood waiting and watching a dark shack at the end of a row of weather-worn buildings one block down the way. In leaning out too far for another peek, the cloak's too-big hood slipped down over her eyes.

Tryskiäna huffed, push the hood up with a little hand, and peered again at the dark and silent shack. At thirteen years and nearly ten moons, she was barely tall enough to be thought eleven. She was small for even that count of years. She often lied and claimed to be fourteen to those who did not know her—as if anyone would believed this.

“How much longer?”

She stiffened at that whisper from the porch's deeper darkness behind and to left of her, and she answered in kind, “I do not know.”

“And where was that pale... black-clad... miscreant boy, the one who is supposed to escort you each morning?”

Tryskiäna took a slow breath for calm. “I do not know.”

“For all of the trouble it took to arrange his—”

“I know.”

“If your mother ever found out what I have let you... helped you... to—”

“I know.”

“Then again... why do you want to work at all, let alone in that—”

“Papa... please!

Tryskiäna groaned and turned in the sudden silence on the dark porch. A barely visible, cloak-shrouded figure stood nearer the closed shop's front door. Not that it was his shop, certainly not, and yes, he was much taller than her but not as tall as any nine of ten men.

“Papa” was a little man in stature if not status.

“Your mother does not approve of you referring to me so,” he whispered.

“I know,” Tryskiäna answered softly and turned to stare once more at the shack.

“Even if I cherish it,” he whispered.

Tryskiäna smiled slightly in the dark, for she adored him, but that smile did not last. There were many things about all of this of which Mother would not approve, if she found out. Even more than that, Tryskiäna had no wish to get Papa—Father—in trouble with Mother. She shuddered to even think of it.

At a sudden movement down the street, she sigh in relief but then froze. Neither of the two short figures approaching were the correct one. The first was a bit shorter than the other, though not nearly as short as herself. He was also burly, dark—very dark—skinned with close-cropped hair all pitch black in the pre-dawn. The second wore a hat turned floppy from misuse and had that ridiculous saber slung over his back in a scarred scabbard.

Tryskiäna groaned once in frustration, leaned a little more, and peered beyond Bolo and Took toward the lower end of the cobbled street. There was no sign of Vàtz at the waterfront's southern end, though dawn's light began to creep in. So where was he?

This was the first of a new moon, so there was much to do before heading to the bank after day's end. What profit had been made in the last moon was always of prime interest to that greedy, avaricious...

Tryskiäna took another calming breath—and another.

“Those two are too short,” Papa whispered sharply. “So where is your absent escort of this morning?”

She sighed again, this time with a slight moan. “I do not know, Papa.”

After a scoff, he added, “I do not like new moons.”

“I know.”

“Nor are you to walk home alone after dark.”

“I know.”

“He had best show up by dusk, or you are not to—”

“Papa, please!” Tryskiäna interrupted in a hiss, and before he argued, “Bolo and Took are good boys and always well-mannered with me. If need be, one can escort me to the bank tonight and then home. Now I must go and so must you... before Mother awakens.”

Before he argued again, she ripped off the cloak, toss it back toward him, and hopped off the porch. She ran down the cobble, hoping to get halfway to the shack before she was spotted by the boys. Fortunately, both were looking downslope and perhaps also wondering why Vàtz was late.

As Tryskiäna ran, she dug into her finely tailor scribe's vest for the front door's key. Bolo had a like key as did Vàtz, but a minor distraction in beating Bolo to that door was needed. If Papa were seen by anyone here, there would be questions, and she could not have that.

Tryskiäna risked one glance back as she ran, though it was still too dark to see if her father had slipped away.

 

 

Chapter 1, Scene 5

Vàtz weaved through the waterfront's growing chaos to its southern end, where he headed inland and upslope along a side street. So far, this had been a lousy start to a new moon, and hopefully his luck turned up again. A thin stench made him forget about that.

Most times he didn't notice that stink once he was in it. He forgot it amid another busy day, and it usually died down well before noon. He twitched his nose, and that was all, for that awful smell meant he was almost there.

Mornings were the worst as the city woke up. Halfway up the second city block the stench grew. And it was worse the more shops he passed by.

Shopkeepers shook out rugs, hauled trash and emptied crates into alleys, and tossed wash water onto the cobble. Some porters—but not his—brought in new goods before customers arrived. And at the end of the second up-slope city block, there it was.

The FFPS home office didn't look like much, and two blocks into the city wasn't the best place for a business that worked the docks. Little more than a large, weatherworn storage shed or maybe a tiny stable, it'd once served patrons of the inn next door, which wasn't an inn anymore. The shed's old boarding had bleached gray like most wooden structures too close to the sea. And its two windows didn't have any glass behind their outer shutters.

That slant-roofed shack leaning against the next building had cost Vàtz half of a gold sovereign to buy outright, and to cover the first year's taxes and some back fees left unpaid by the previous owner. But it was all his as of three seasons ago, and it had taken almost the whole first season to get it ready. As to how someone like him got his hands on a gold sovereign, well, that was another story.

The Fire & Flood Porter Service had been Vàtz's dream for so long, aside from getting stinking rich. He'd made it come true before he'd turned fifteen, and as to the stink…

He wrinkled his nose, scowled at that building supporting one side of the FFPS, and eyed the swirly embellished sign over the narrow structure's front door.

Moufud's Wolfin' Bits had taken the place of the old inn. The stinky little eatery didn't need a stable, and that's why the side shack had been available. All right, so Moufud's food tasted pretty good, considering the place served common eats out of the Suman Empire across the Brink and to the distant south. It did good business from mid-day to dusk, but that smell from cooking every morning even drove off most city rats.

Well, that last part was all right.

Vàtz closed on the FFPS's side, for he'd sealed off the front stable doors on his first day of ownership. He'd made a couple of other special purchases as well. About to dig out his key, he noticed the door's large padlock was already opened and dangling from its chain.

Both chain and lock were made of quality steel rather than iron and had cost quite a bit. It didn't matter that anyone wanting to break in could easily bust through the aged wallboards. That lock was a matter of principle. That it was already open meant he was really late this morning.

Vàtz let out another disgusted groan.

“What'd you sit in?”

Vàtz flinched and ducked at those low, breathy words behind him. He didn't even snap at the question about his pants seat all wet with smears of grey and white pigeon poop. He knew that voice, but it still iced up his spine whenever it caught him unaware.

“Don't do that!” he snapped, twisting around to face a narrow, black-clothed chest, and then he looked up for a face. “I told you, stop creeping up on people like a… a creep!

Vàtz remember who he was yelling at and swallowed hard. Tall and skinny and wiry, Ded was as pale-skinned and dark-eyed as his nickname implied. Nobody knew his real name and nobody asked.

Not even Vàtz.

“Yeah…” Ded answered, quiet and chill as wind on dry sand. “You told me.”

Four words wasn't the most he'd ever said at once but more than usual. With hair like ink-stained corn silk on a scarecrow, he looked that scary. As the second of five new full-timers at the FFPS, he was always dressed in the same charcoal-gray vestment scarred all over like a hauberk that covered a faded gray-muslin shirt. Soft but high leather boots though scuffed and worn were—or had been—near-black as well.

“Goin' in?” Ded asked.

Vàtz took a slow breath to settle his nerves. For that matter, why was Ded late as well? About to turn to business, Vàtz hesitated, glanced at Ded's waist, and turned even quicker to grab the shack's door handle. Of course, he hadn't seen what was always at the small of Ded's back.

That big, blemished butcher knife was sheathed in crudely twine-lashed, sleek-furred skins. Maybe from rats. Just thinking about it creeped Vàtz as much as seeing it.

No one knew how Ded ended up in the bay one night last fall. Nor for certain how Boddack was one thumb short the following dawn. And no one ever dared asked, including Vàtz.

Another day and night later, he'd found the ex-nightwatch “boy” of Boddack's warehouse leaning outside the FFPS at dawn. But that day, in spotting that dark-clad, pasty-faced, boney scarecrow, Vàtz knew luck on sight.

It didn't matter that it was scary—terrifying—luck. That's what he'd wanted, though he hadn't known he'd wanted it before he'd faced Ded's cold stare that morning. And now…

Whichever of Vàtz's porter teams that Ded joined for the day had a lot less trouble. Even the biggest porters on other crews hesitated under that Ded stare. If only Vàtz'd had his hired “protection” this morning, then Thumbless might've shut up real quick.

Vàtz shoved open the door to the FFPS and barely stepped into the doorway when he stalled at a banging, shuffling ruckus inside.

Bolo and Took were crouched while inspecting and preparing equipment for the day. Both had been with Vàtz since the early years, when they were all just pier boys fetching and hauling for ship passengers or scavenging coin any other way. They weren't the source of that racket, and Vàtz glanced left and up at the top of a four-drawer cabinet against the front wall.

Pinched-faced, with a ruddy kerchief over her bound-up black hair, “Kat” stood on a narrow table pushed against the front wall below one shuttered window. She was digging in a small open chest higher up on that rickety cabinet used to store ledgers, records, and stuff. And she kept pulling odd little items out of that chest and flinging them aside with only a glance at some.

Kat had been the first Vàtz's five new hires for the FFPS. All of her clothes were made of faded, scared, and stained brown leather, except for the lighter brown shirt underneath. She was in some kind of a testy fit, though that wasn't new. She'd taken that chest for her own needs shortly after being hired, and now she rummaged through it like she was desperate to find something.

About a moon before Vàtz had hired Ded, he'd come into the FFPS extra early before dawn. He'd hoped to scavenge up more stragglers—kids as day-workers—before any of the regulars arrived. Unlocking the front door and stepping inside, he'd barely lit the first lantern when….

Vàtz exchanged wide-eyed startled stares with a narrow-faced girl—except her eyes were upside down. She hung by her legs hooked over one rafter, and they both froze up. When she whipped out knife, his first instinct was to scramble back out to shout for the city guard's night watch.

A blink later, he'd thought better of that.

Having a thief around might concern some, but not Vàtz. That she'd gotten in through the roof shakes without being heard was something. Anyone who climbed quick and quiet as a… well, a cat, might be useful on one of his teams. And for other things best not mentioned.

Again, Vàtz had known his luck when he saw it.

He'd offered her a job, and that mean pinch of her upside-down face flattened blank. He'd hired Kat—Katrina—before she'd even dropped to her feet in a flip. Here and now, he dodged an old rag she tossed blindly out of the chest, and he was about to ask what in the seven hells she was doing now.

“You are late,” a small voice snapped. “And what happened to your pants?”

Vàtz clenched and turned toward the far back corner. “Morning to you, too… Tryx.”

The scratch of a quill on paper halted instantly.

Across the shack's front room sat a small girl behind one of two desks amid other scavenger furniture stuffed into the place. The word “small” hardly covered it for Tryx, the third of Vàtz's new hires after establishing the FFPS.

Her shoulders, let alone elbows, barely rose above the desktop. He'd had to find her a too-expensive, spin-top stool to get her high enough to scribble in the ledgers. All he could see of her clothes was a well-tailored, white cotton shirt beneath a russet scribe's vest—or so he'd been told—with rows of tall and narrow “pockets.”

The vest's fabric sheaths were to hold her quills and paper-wrapped writing charcoals. There wasn't ever a spot of charcoal or lint let alone ink on that double-pressed felt vest. It looked as fine as the day it might've been made, meaning too fine for someone working in the port district.

Tryx eyed him through over-sized, round speckles resting on her little nose. It wasn't a friendly look. Exactly what was her problem with him this time?

If she wasn't so good with the numbers, managing profits, costs…

If she hadn't tracked everything down to the last copper groat…

If she didn't have connections at the biggest bank that he couldn't have gotten into on his own…

And again, Vàtz sighed.

He'd have never found someone like her to work here, which made him all the more suspicious. Like most who hadn't been with him before the FFPS, she'd simply shown up one morning looking for work. Strangely that had been the very next morning after Ded first appeared. Not that she ever looked like she needed work.

Tryx puffed upward with her tight little mouth. When that didn't clear a stray curl of golden locks from her spectacles, she poked it aside with the butt-end of her quill.

“What have I told you,” she warned him, “concerning that insulting appellation?”

Vàtz's mind blanked; half of whatever came out of her did that to him.

“Apple… what?” he began then caught the rest of it. “Oh… just… everyone here's got a nickname! It's quicker for getting things done, and that's that.”

Tryx's sea-blue eyes, looking too huge through the spectacles, blinked once and narrowed even more. She lowered her head, but those eyes followed last in returning to her ledger.

“Good morning, Ded,” she said quietly, more politely, but somehow more pointedly.

That was annoying—and odd—and Vàtz glanced back.

Ded still stood in the doorway, but now he was looking down and didn't lift his eyes. He blinked too many times, almost looked up at Tryx but not quite—three times.

“Mornin'… miss,” Ded whispered.

This time that voice didn't send shivers up Vàtz's spine, for it was just too… weird. Miss? Of course, Vàtz had heard Ded call Tryx that before, but this it just seemed too… pathetic, guilty, and about what?

Scratching on paper broke for an instant.

When Vàtz turned back, Tryx was again at work on the moon's end ledger. He shook his head, fed up with whatever it all meant, and looked about the FFPS. Then he noticed the door to the rear storage room was still closed.

“Anybody seen Pint?” he called out.

Took leaned out from crouching beyond Bolo, where they were preparing ropes and straps for the day's work like every morning.

“Nope,” he answered, shaking his mop-head of red hair around a freckled face. “He'll show up, always does.”

Took ducked back to work, and there was that stupid cutlass slung over his back in a scarred scabbard. The brass fixtures were tarnished and a bit greenish, and the scabbard's bottom end dragged on the floor whenever he crouched. Not that he knew how to use that weapon, thankfully. It was a holdover from their days before the FFPS. The “pier boys” had had to lean on whatever intimidation in vying with other porters for patrons.

Took—or rather Ewariatō—had been raised by a Móndyalítko family that settled long ago in Bela. Strange for their kind, like the Duchess, but no relation of hers. And their kind had dark brown to black hair, not red. Some said they sometimes “found” lost or abandoned kids. If so, it always seemed to be a Móndyalítko couple without kids of their own. Hence the nickname Took.

“In or not?”

Vàtz flinched at Ded's breathy voice and stepped all the way inside. In a quick glance over his shoulder, Ded followed, turned halfway, and stood post inside the door against the front wall. That wasn't something he was told to do, he just did it—unnerving! Vàtz spun around, suddenly more than annoyed.

“Somebody get the shutters open… and stop wasting lamp oil!”

Clang! Clatter! Clink!

“Kat, you dikau pänya!

Vàtz almost cursed as well. He didn't understand the last part and didn't need to. When the other regular from the old days starting cursing in his father's weird tongue, something had gotten out of hand.

Bolo, with skin as dark as the best chocolate, stood wide-eyed in his tough canvas tunic with one big hand gripping the top of his head. He glowered up at Kat, and it always the worst when you saw the whites of his eyes in that dark face.

Kat ignored him and kept chucking stuff out of her chest.

Bolo, along with his sailor father and his mother, was from the hot, grassy country far south of the Suman Empire. With tightly kinked black hair sheared really short, he was what some called “burly,” even at fifteen. Most times he easy-going, at least until Vàtz had hired Kat.

On the floor behind Bolo, still a hand on his head, lay an old iron ring loaded with mixed keys

Kat was still rummaging and tossing stuff out of her chest. Odd as well as annoying, since she kept the chest locked and threatened anybody who even looked like they might touch it.

Bolo, who'd taken his own nickname from a tool or weapon of his father's people, was the most business-like of the original pier boys. Vàtz couldn't even pronounce his lead foreman's real name, but he didn't like it when something—someone—upset Bolo.

“Kat… Katrina!” Vàtz half-shouted. “Get down—now!”

But she didn't.

Kat twisted to glare at everyone, one-by-one except Tryx, and dropped a hand to the handle of the knife sheathed sideways on her belt.

“Who took it?” she hissed.

There's no one more suspicious of thievery than a thief, and Vàtz countered, “Took what?”

Took rose up, but like Bolo, he also turned on Kat.

Kat didn't answer Vàtz and instead, “One of you knows, and you know who, and I'll find out!”

Bolo dropped that hand on his head, took a step toward her, and Vàtz quick-stepped between them.

“That's enough,” he barked up at Kat. “Get down, now! We've got prep to do before stragglers show up.” And he turned to Bolo in lowering his voice. “How many do you think we need today?”

“Don't know,” Bolo grumbled and finally lowered his glare to Vàtz. “What's left to come that hasn't for last moon?”

Vàtz usually knew which ships hadn't come in according to his acquired list. Today he'd been thrown off by too many little troubles and more than one faltering of his luck. It was the previous moon's end and the last chance for profit on the books before paying out wages and percentages promised.

“Tryx,” he called. “Do you have the—”

A snap of crisp paper cut him off, and he peeked around Bolo across the room.

Tryx glared at him over top of her too-big spectacles, now slid down her little nose again. She held up the very sheet of old paper he was after. And when he stepped over to grab it, he couldn't pull it free of fingers.

“I still want to know,” she warned lowly, “where you acquire this information every new moon.”

That wasn't going to happen, and Vàtz jerk the paper free. What his bookkeeper didn't know kept her safely aboveboard; what she didn't know she wouldn't have to lie about. That was, if she'd lie for him, should the authorities ever catch on to what he'd been doing.

The scheduled arrival of ships wasn't certain. A lot came and went as they could; a few made standard runs. Then there were official ones for nobles, dignitaries, and the like, but there was no knowing when one of those would show up. They didn't have to message ahead by courier or report to the port master before departure about when they'd be back.

Vàtz scanned the list. Only three ships hadn't been crossed off, meaning ones his crews hadn't spotted in the last moon's work. One was big enough—huge—and might have a decent count of passengers as well as cargo. That it was overdue was odd since it always ran a tight schedule.

The Buyak—or Bull—was a Belaskian hulk that made the run straight across the Brink to the far coast and the free city of Langanied. That was a busy trade stop for sea merchants, caravaners from the western continent's far side, and even marauders and pirates now and then. It was a source for all sorts of interesting stuff.

Langanied was also the last stop before Bela for “sages” from the other side of the world. And that included anything sent later by their “guild” from far, far away.

Vàtz liked making friendly with those foreigners. Sages, learned as they were, were stupidly free with information and what they knew that he didn't. That'd been useful more than once. One was even sort of cute—and naive, which was better—for an older girl.

“All right,” he began, “Bolo, take the best stragglers for your team and hang near the big docks 'til at least noon. Get the Bull if it comes in, especially any cargo for the sages, even to leaving passengers to other teams.”

“Oh no,” and Bolo stepped in on him. “None of that sage nonsense! We make more from foreign passengers than those paupers.”

“Keeping in with the sages is useful,” Vàtz countered but relented a little. “Take a double team, if you want, and… we'll work out losses later, if you don't use them.”

Before Bolo argued again, Vàtz turned to Took. “You're on the run for anything else on the big docks. Get extra stragglers from Bolo, if you need them and he doesn't. I'll send Ded with you as well, in case of trouble, or if you have to split into two teams.”

“What about the twins?” Took asked.

Vàtz stalled, held his breath, and let it go through his nose. “They're late—again—so we can't plan on them. That's why you and Bolo have to take up the slack.”

Took nodded once, and then there was Kat, but before Vàtz said a word…

“Yeah, I know,” she grumbled. “The low docks, as usual… with pauper passengers.”

She finally dropped off the narrow table and started picking up odds and ends she'd tossed about.

Vàtz wasn't done with her and pulled her upright by her jerkin.

“Not always paupers, and you watch for the Haroun,” he instructed. “End of every season, it comes out of the Suman Empire by way of Langanied, though it's late this time. Captain Fas'sud likes to quarter in the city, so he might have baggage. Sometimes he's got small but precious cargo coming or going. He's a regular of ours, so take care of him.”

Kat rolled her eyes but nodded.

“And don't go filching from him!” he added.

Vàtz went for the front door before Kat played at being insulted. Only a few street and city kids—the stragglers—milled outside in waiting for day-work. That was all as yet, and he still didn't spot his last two of five newcomers for the FFPS.

“Where in seven hells are the twins?” When no one answered, he turned back inside. “Bolo, get going. I don't want any chance of missing the Bull, if it comes in.”

Bolo nodded and grabbed a nearby footstool. Ded stepped in to help, climbed up on the stool, and began pulling down bearer poles resting across the rafters. He handed off those two at a time to Bolo, Took, and Kat. It was always a bit crowded in doing this, but at least today nobody got bonked or whacked with a pole.

Vàtz returned to the door, though this time he didn't count stragglers or look for the twins. Somebody else was still missing. Whenever that one showed up, it was somehow never through the front door.

Where was Pìnt again?


FINAL NOTE: And that is all until next time. If you think this worthy so far, share the link with whomever you think might enjoy a little diversion. See you again soon, I hope. —J.C.