A Company of Heroes: Book One, The Stonecutter Follow story

ron-miller Ron Miller

She is beautiful, lithe and swift: as deadly as the blade flashing in her deft grip. The blood of kings runs strong in her veins---but her weakling brother wears the crown. She is Bronwyn. And her name strikes fear in the hearts of the depraved courtiers feasting like jackals on the corpse of her father’s kingdom. Her brother may rule the land, but a ruthless maniac is the puppet master behind the throne. And he has put a price on the head of the fugitive princess, who alone knows the secret to his power. To save her kingdom, Bronwyn must enlist a rebel force of gypsies and giants, peasants and pirates, montebanks and changeling spies... Volume One of a four-book series. http://www.black-cat-studios.com


Fantasy For over 18 only. © Ron Miller

#adventure #steampunk #steam punk #fantasy
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Chapter 1: The Rescue

CHAPTER I

THE RESCUE


If it had not been for the strong arm of Thud Mollockle, the Princess Bronwyn would today be languishing in some unknown and mossy dungeon, had she been allowed to remain alive at all.

                                                                                          —Encyclopædia Bronwyniana



Thud Mollockle was a sarcophagus-maker for a stonecutting firm in the Transmoltus district of Blavek. He worked without assistance in a large, low-ceilinged ground-floor room. Directly above him were the studios of the more skilled stone carvers, who worked on Church and private commissions. They provided more than a third of the city's architectural decorations: caryatids, capitals, friezes, pediments, cherubim and seraphim, urns, bas-reliefs and portrait busts, among many other standard and commissioned items. Dust---fine, white and talc-like---filtered through the wide spaces between the boards that formed the stone carvers' floor and Thud's ceiling. When the afternoon or morning sun beamed in through either the southeast or southwest windows, this ever-present lithic miasma became illuminated in a milky glow that made it almost impossible to see one end of the shop from the other. Thud was probably doomed to a lingering death from silicosis since he had begun working at the shop at the age of six and was now thirty-two. Still, he just as certainly would have thought it unnatural to breathe an atmosphere composed of anything other than ten percent oxygen, fifty percent nitrogen and forty percent marble.  All day long, Thud could hear above his head the ceaseless, fussy tink, tink, tink of sharp steel chisels.


Thud's workroom was occupied by Thud and perhaps a dozen rectangular blocks of stone the color of oxidized potatoes. These averaged about four feet thick, about the same in width, and five or six feet in length. It was Thud's job to hollow them out. When finished, each solid mass of stone had been transformed into something resembling a deep, uncomfortable-looking bathtub. These were sent upstairs to the stone carving departments where it became the job of junior stone carvers to decorate the four sides of the sarcophagi with appropriately funereal decorations. Meanwhile, the great slabs of the lids were being prepared elsewhere---a small subdepartment of the firm being devoted to just this one product for which there is a known and steady demand.


Eventually some merchant or politician would have his mortal remains sealed within one of these stone cocoons, where it would safely molder away, decomposing decently out of sight and memory. What became of his vast stone basins is a question that very seldom troubled Thud, whose skull resembled his raw material to a striking degree; in density, at least, if not in form.


The stoneworking firm of Groontocker and Peen was never, during working hours, a particularly quiet place. An ancient frame building that filled an entire irregularly shaped city block, it was divided into five floors or, rather, for the most part, vast open lofts. More than one hundred and twenty artisans worked in them, and not one of them worked at anything that did not make noise. Mallets struck chisels, chisels struck stone, stone struck floor, rasps abraded marble and granite winches and pulleys screeched under their massive loads, drills bored holes into resisting stone with a sound that made teeth whimper in empathy. To all of this the old building vibrated sympathetically like the sounding box of a guitar; all day long it hummed and throbbed and groaned. Nevertheless, as the Transmoltus is a district of industry, Groontocker and Peen was a comparative island of serenity; try as it might, its contribution to the general din was almost negligible. The building of the stone working firm was crowded by its neighbors, vast and ancient piles of frame or brick or stone all stained alike by the oleaginous soot that made the atmosphere of the Transmoltus unique.


Only lightless cobbled paths snaked between the crowded buildings. These were filled with a chaos of carts and vans; trolleys and trucks; people with baskets, boxes and bundles. The sound had nowhere to go: the squealing of axles, the rumble of iron tires on stone, and the shouting of peddlers, merchants and angry drivers who should have known better than to be in a hurry in the Transmoltus in the first place. From the surrounding buildings came unearthly noises; few of them identifiable except by the very knowledgeable or excessively imaginative, but all of them unpleasant. High, sustained shrieks that made one's head feel as though it were being threaded on an endless steel wire; bass moans that made the lower intestine shudder weirdly; and resonating bongs that sounded as though boilers were being dropped a full story onto hard ground---which, in this instance, is just what was happening. Directly opposite the one large open window in Thud's workshop that faced the main thoroughfare were the open windows of a vitally active, mechanized factory: the belts that ran the great heckling machines within screamed and buzzed and occasionally cracked like whips. Thud had no idea what heckling machines actually made, other than noise. In fact, Thud did not even know that there were such things as heckling machines. However, all of this unholy, brain numbing, bone rattling din was only a background murmur to anyone who had grown up amid it. Therefore Thud was no more consciously aware of the stormy sea of vibration that washed over him, like a tsunami over an innocent tropical islet, than any one of us might be of the ticking of a clock, the song of the cricket or bird, or the beating of our own hearts.


All of which went to show why it was not surprising that Thud heard the princess.


Or, rather, he heard the armed men who were close behind her. Shouting and a single pistol shot drew Thud away from his work and to the open window. Just as he thrust his head into the full sonic fury of the heckling machines, he saw a girl turn the corner and pause just below him. She looked like one of the rats that Thud occasionally cornered in his shop: completely out of wind, head twitching side to side, looking for an escape that doesn't exist. The girl was cornered just as effectively as one of the rats, too. On her right was the vast, unbroken wall of Groontocker and Peen; ahead she was faced by the equally unbroken wall of the factory that housed the mysterious heckling machines. Unbroken at least so far as the girl's immediate needs required, since the only windows were far above her head. To her left was the entrance to the alleyway from which she had just appeared. The streets in both directions were plugged by a nearly impassable log jam of human bodies and vehicles. Once caught in that writhing mass she would be ground to dust, like a stone in a lapidary's tumbler. Thud would have been hard put to explain his next action, as he would have been hard put to explain anything he did. Thud was a creature of action, if absolutely necessary, not one of introspection, which was never necessary. He certainly wasn't moved by the girl's appearance, since all he could see of her was the top of her head. Perhaps the ovoid mat of hair reminded him of a little animal. He always felt sorry whenever he trapped one of the rats that infested his shop: he hated the way it looked at him just before he hit it with his mallet. He was always tempted to let the rat go, though he didn't dare or it would bite his ankles and steal his already meager lunch. He felt much the same way about the creature he saw beneath his window---and here was a chance to make amends to hundreds of mashed rats.


"Hey! You" he shouted down at her.


She looked up with a twitch like a startled cat and saw dangling before her a knotted, brown, ropy, hairy, scarred thing: something like a tree root and something like a big sausage: Thud's arm.


"Come on, grab hold!"


The girl, without a moment's hesitation, did as she was asked and was whisked into the window as though she had been a handkerchief Thud had been waving at some departing friend, if he had had any friends, that is.


Thud now saw what lay below the thatch of hair he had been staring down upon only a moment before. It was indeed atop a girl, as he had suspected. Immediately below the hair, which was straight, shoulder length and colored a dark auburn, like oiled mahogany, was a face lean from fright and exhaustion. Large, wide-spaced, bottle green eyes, almost imperceptibly slanted, were dilated from fright and the sudden darkness. They were framed by rather thick, peaked eyebrows, much darker than her hair, each as elegant and eloquent as a calligraphic brush stroke. Her face, initially red from exertion, was now taking on an equally unnatural parchment-like tint. It was angular, with very prominent cheekbones slanting toward the corners of her wide mouth. The face looked to Thud like one of the cold alabaster busts from the third floor. Her nose was long, rather thin and more convex than straight. A raptor's nose. She looked older than she was, though there is no way then Thud could have known that. In fact, she was young: seventeen or perhaps eighteen. Although she was far above average in height, Thud would never have described her as tall; from his mountainous viewpoint, everyone was short. Her legs were coltish, comprising more than half of her not inconsiderable altitude. She was slim-hipped, small-breasted and rather snakily lithe-looking. She clutched a battered leather satchel to her chest, held in place there by a stout strap that crossed her chest diagonally. She was wearing a long-sleeved, ankle-length dress of a fine cloth that, though torn and bedraggled, still looked more elegant than anything Thud had ever seen.


On the other hand, what had suddenly appeared before the girl she did not recognize immediately as something human, and she was probably more than half-right in that. Something more like a bull, perhaps; it was very bull-like, though it had something bear-like about it, too. As well as ox-like, or even like a walrus a bit, but a lot more like a gorilla. With a sudden inspiration, she thought of an enormous loaf of bread with clothes on. She imagined such a loaf over seven feet high, with four additional loaves for arms and legs; she thought that, in color, texture, shape and general overall impression, the simile was fairly accurate. A muffin was balanced somewhere near the top: a currant muffin, since a pair of black dots were staring at her. The baked goods man image was so perfect she almost couldn't believe it when the muffin spoke to her.


"Somebody chasing you?" it asked, and the girl could only nod. "Somebody real bad? You scared?"


She nodded again and jumped away from the window with a gasp, as the voices of her pursuers reached her. They were rough, supercilious voices and they were commanding the street people to tell them where the girl had gone. But in the few seconds that had passed, the people in the alleyway had been completely replaced: they weren't the same ones who had been there when a girl had been lifted through the window by an arm like a tree root (or loaf of braided bread).


"They're coming!" she cried, and there followed the sounds of crashing doors, stamping feet and muffled shouts of command and protest, vindicating the accuracy of her observation.


"All right, then," Thud said, pointing to a spot on the floor. "Curl up there, like a ball."


"What?" said the girl curtly, not understanding and, even in the throes of a precarious situation, finding herself bristling at being given such a peremptory order. She was not used to being commanded.


"Hurry! Sit down there and curl up like a ball."


Puzzled, she sat on the snowy floor and hugged her knees. She did as she is told in spite of her lack of practice and inclination for following directions, though she could not have understood why. Since the big man was not shouting "Here she is!" or trying to seize her, which latter he could have done with one enormous hand, he couldn't be up to anything much worse, she decided. She watched with amazement as the huge creature picked up one of the massive sarcophagi, seemingly without effort, and lumbered over to where she sat. "Be real quiet, now!" he ordered, and before she can so much as offer a surprised syllable, upturned the stone coffin over her.


The girl was plunged into profound darkness before she even realized what the big man's intention was. She felt trapped, as one of Thud's doomed rats might feel if a bowl were to be dropped over it. Panic reared up in her, its waxen, sweaty face urging her to become hysterical. Only a second ago, she had been out in the bright, noisy street, running for her life. Now she was caught in a trap as dark and silent as a nightmare. The transition was bewildering and disorienting.


Had she been offered the two as options, she would have considered them fairly well matched choices. What if the monster leaves me here? She could never lift the block of stone on her own and there must only be a few minutes' worth of air within its cavity. What if he forgets about me? He hadn't looked very bright at all. What if they arrest him, and take him away before he can tell them where I am? What if they shoot him, and he dies with my hiding place bubbling on his bloody lips? How many months or years would it be before someone decides to move the big block of marble, discovering to their horror and mystification my decomposed or even mummified body? She visualized herself transformed into a kind of monkey-like caricature sculpted in jerky.


Perhaps, she thought, it would be a fate better than the one that awaits me otherwise.


Her head was pressed against the bottom of the sarcophagus, now her roof, which was barely wide enough for her broad shoulders. Her prison was roomy enough longitudinally, however, so that she could stretch out her long legs, and she leaned against the back wall. The stone was cool and moist and she gratefully pressed her face against it. It smelled cool and earthy, like fresh mushrooms. She rolled her head and when her ear came into contact with the stone, she could hear voices. Simultaneously, she felt the floorboards vibrating with heavy footsteps.


The voices were muffled, but they were those of the Guards, for sure. She recognized the imperious, condescending tones. They were demanding that the big man produce the girl.


The big man asked, What girl?


(Good fellow! she thought, immediately following this generosity with a less kind and considerably grimmer thought: What if he really has forgotten I'm here? Maybe this isn't an act!)


There's a girl hiding somewhere in this building, the Guard replies.


There is?


Yes!


What girl?


That's none of your business!


It isn't?


No, it's not!


Okay.


She heard the big man starting to chisel on a stone.


Stop that!


All right.


Look, have you seen anyone?


Who?


The girl! The girl! Have you seen her?


What girl?


What girl? shouted the Guard. The girl hiding in this building!


Where? rejoined the big man, anxious to help. The Guard called him an idiot and ordered his men to search the room. There was a great deal of noise, which ceased presently. The floor vibrated again from the weight of the armed men, followed by a long silence. Long enough that the girl begain to have renewed fears about suffocation and entombment---and imagination though it might be, it was becoming extremely difficult to breathe.


The sarcophagus gave a groan and a line of light suddenly appeared where stone had met floor. It was dazzling to the girl's eyes and she squeezed them shut against the pain of rapidly constricting irises. When she opened them a second later, the great block of stone was gone from around her and in the arms of Thud, who was setting it down a few feet away, with a thud of its own. It was only at that moment that the girl fully realized what the big man had done: overturned, the hollowed-out block looked exactly like the solid, unworked cubes that ponderously littered the room. It would have strained anyone's imagination to have suspected that a girl was inside one of them and the Guards notoriously lack that useful mental faculty. It did not occur to her (and least of all to Thud) that the ploy had been a pretty astute one for someone of Thud's obvious mental limitations.


The big man turned to her with his forefinger upraised to his lips in the sign for silence. He crouched down near her, folding up on invisible joints like a collapsing blimp (or a failed soufflé, to maintain the earlier culinary simile). Seen from a distance of only three feet or so, Thud's face was a marvel to the girl. She had never seen anything even vaguely similar to it; what amazed her was the gradual realization that she liked it. The head was as smooth, round and featureless as a mushroom; the mouth a slit so wide that the entire top of the head threatened to hinge over backwards whenever he grinned---an action that served to expose a pink cavern full of gnarled yellow stalactites and stalagmites, behind which lurked a restless, scarlet tongue, like a fretful blindworm. His eyes, as socketless as a mole's, were bright black beads nearly a hand's span apart. Roughly between them was a kind of lump that might have been a nose or might have been a wart. Thud by all rights ought to have been monumentally ugly, though he wasn't. It is difficult to explain why, and, in all the time to come that she was to know him, the girl certainly never even considered trying; but perhaps it was because the face radiated an uncomplicated kindness the way a burning coal fills a hearth with warmth. That was one possibility at any rate.


"Please," whispered Thud, "be very quiet. Those men are looking for you, aren't they?"


"Yes."


"What'd you do that made them so mad?"


"I didn't do anything!" she lied.


"That's good."


"I can't stay here!"


"Oh, sure, they might be back, all right," agreed Thud.


"But I can't leave, either."


"They'd spot you in a minute," agreed Thud.


"I have to get out of the city! I must!"


"I bet," agreed Thud.


There was a silence between them, since there wasn't much that could be said after that; the conversation was going nowhere. The girl's sadness lacerated Thud's heart; he had no idea what he could do to relieve it. His great hands wrestled with one another, like a pair of small dogs roughhousing. The rough skin sounded like millstones grinding. The girl looked up at him with eyes that were like the peal of bronze bells. An idea squirmed its way to the forefront of Thud's consciousness, where his mind's eye blinked at it in unexpected and unfamiliar realization of his genius.


"I can get you out of the city."


"You can? How? When?"


"I can't tell you. I'll have to show you."


"Thank Musrum!"


"It's a way I used when I was a kid"---and the girl found it impossible to create a mental image of the giant as a child; the picture leaning more toward something more like a pupae than anything human---"but you've got to get out of here first." Thud rose to his feet and went over to the big window with the kind of ponderous grace a cow affects, and occasionally achieves. He leaned out over the sill and gave a good, long, hard look in both directions and then returned to the girl, still with the unhurried deliberateness of the truly bovine.


"There're Guards in the street. They're likely all over. If I can get you out of here, I can get you home. Then it'll be easy."


From his workbench, Thud selected a large chisel, nearly as long as the girl's arm, with a blade as sharp as a razor. It winked at her conspiratorially in the window light. Thud jammed its cutting edge into a chink between two of the wide floorboards and bore down upon the opposite end. The board lifted with a protesting screech. Moving down its length, he repeated the action two or three times until an entire ten-foot long slab of thick lumber had been pried from its moorings. Rusty spikes hung down from the moldy underside like miniature stalactites. A hundred annoyed spiders dropped from it and scurried for cover.


Thud got down on his hands and knees and dropped his head into the rectangular hole. He looked up and said, "Come on, this way!" as spider webs floated from his face and a small insect, panicked, disappeared over the curve of his head like an arthropodal Magellan.


The girl looked into the hole with extreme distaste. She imagined a thousand unwinking little eyes gazing back at her. "In there?" she asked, unnecessarily.


"Please," the giant begged. She reminded herself that there were, probably, worse alternatives. She had seen some of them. In fact, it was just because she knew there were worse things than a damp hole, slimy with grey fungus and alive with invertebrate things that she climbed down into the darkness after only that single moment's hesitation. She left shreds of her rumpled dress festooning the splintery edges of the narrow slot, which was perhaps just an inch less wide than it should have been.


Whether or not she thought of it, the girl should have been grateful for her slender, boyish silhouette. The earth was only about three feet below the floor. It was covered with a kind of grey-green gruel of mud, decomposing wood and the dust of limestone and marble. Her feet sunk into it until her ankles were buried. It sucked at her feet when she tried to lift them. She looked up at the gargoyle face that hovered over her head, round and pale and grinning like a moon.


"Turn around and crawl," it said. "You'll see a little bit of light. Head for that. When you get to it, stay there. Wait for me."


"But..."


"Hurry!" he urged, and she had to duck as he replaced the plank over her head. A dozen sharp blows rained dust and crawling things down upon her as Thud reset the nails. It was absolutely dark, with the exception of the thin lines of light between the floorboards. They receded from her in either direction like an elementary exercise in perspective. They striped the contours her body so that she looked like a topographic map of a teenage girl. She turned around and saw the patch of grimy looking daylight that Thud had mentioned. It looked about a mile away. She made certain her leather bag was strapped tightly across her chest and begain crawling on all fours toward the glimmer.


The glutinous slime covered her legs halfway up her thighs and, worse, up to her elbows. Each time her hands sank into the sediment she could feel it writhe around her fingers. Her dress, already ragged and now also damp, clung to her like papier mâché. Half sliding, half crawling, accompanied by sounds very much like a cow sucking on its cud, she made her way toward her goal, such as it was. The squarish satchel on her chest acted like an anchor, dragging in the slime, dredging up malodorous bubbles that burst flatulently beneath her nose. She discovered that the light was an opening between the floor level of the building and the cobbled alleyway. The opening had been created to act as an outlet for the drainage of moisture from beneath the building. It was working as intended and a stream of tepid, mucus-streaked fluid leaked from the opening; it then flowed over the cobbles into the central channel that drained the alley. She tried to straddle the flow, but it ran over one ankle and a hand, and within inches of her nose, which, not for the first time in her life, she wished had not been so long. She tried not to think of any of the several possible sources of the liquid.


Keeping her head within the shadow of the hole, she peered as far into the street as she dared. One black-uniformed Guard stood at the entrance to the main thoroughfare to her right (the street Thud's large window overlooked), and another Guard had just turned the corner to her left, walking in her direction. She withdrew further into the darkness. The Guard, attracted perhaps by a hint of movement, a shadow within a shadow, or noticing a possible hiding place previously overlooked, came toward her. She had no place to go where he wouldn't be able to see her if he bent down and looked into the opening.


The Guard approached within a few feet, drew his saber, and begain to squat on his haunches, turning his head so he could see into the hole, trying to minimize his proximity to the fetid drool issuing from it. The girl felt her stomach wrench with the expectation of immediate capture when something warm and furry scuttled over her legs with icy little feet. A rat the size of a pampered house cat brushed under her nose, its cold, naked tail giving her lips a snide fillip as it headed for the street. It ran out between the Guard's legs. He leaped erect with a cry of disgust and struck at the rat with his blade, drawing a spatter of sparks from the pavement---but the animal disappeared into the jungle of crates, ashcans and garbage with a supercilious chuckle.


The Guard flung a curse at the vanished animal and continued on his way. The girl thanked Musrum for rats. Again a  shadow fell over the opening and again she shrank from it. This time a familiar voice husked, "Girl? Are you there?"


She cautiously poked her head into the open air. Thud stood there, towering over her like a captive balloon. He held a large stained canvas bag in such a way that it shielded the girl's hiding place from the two Guards at the end of the alley. He was busily picking up bits of broken wood and tossing them into the bag.


"They already checked the bag. They think I'm just getting firewood."


The girl crawled out of the hole and into the protective screen created by the bag. Thud casually bent to wrench a slat from the side of a fruit crate. As he placed his foot against the box to brace it, he let the near edge of the bag drop free. It fell to the cobbles, making a yard-wide circular opening. From the point of view of the Guards, the bag remained unchanged. The girl needed no prompting to catch onto the idea and scuttled into the bag instantly. Thud tossed the broken wood on top of her and moved on down the street. The entire act had taken but a moment and there had not been even a second's suspicious hesitation in Thud's movements. He stopped twice more, piling more scrap into his sack for realism's sake, waved to the Guards, who good humoredly waved back at the enormous half wit, and disappeared around the corner.


The next ten minutes were not the most unpleasant the girl had ever experienced---little, she suspected, could be nastier than the crawl through the darkness under the stone cutters'. They were, however, more painful. Thud was being overzealously conscientious in his attempt at appearing casual and tossed in the firewood with an abandon that left the girl with more than one bruise and abrasion.


Now as he strode along with the bag hanging against his back, the girl wondered if it would ever be possible to sort herself out from the scrap. The contents of the bag were being stirred into a kind of aggregate girlumber. She was almost upside down, knees pressed to her nose; the bag, none too roomy, squeezed her like a small but ambitious boa constrictor digesting a large bunny. Soon the character of the bouncing changed and she guessed that they were ascending a flight of stairs. Several flights, from the time that passed. The bag slammed against a wall, first on the right and then on the left, and the girl hazarded a protesting kick into the small of Thud's back, but to little avail. The jouncing eventually stopped, there was a rasping squeal, another jostle, a blow against the back of her head and the bag was set onto a floor with a thump that jarred her teeth. She looked out of its opening in time to see the big man closing the door through which they had just passed. When he turns, he sees her tumble from the sack, all akimbo.


"Are you all right?" he asks. Her first thought is to say "No," an answer for which her bruises, scratches and imbedded splinters argue persuasively. But she saw that the ugly man was in earnest; he hadn't asked casually: he was truly concerned. To reply in the negative would have been cruel; petty as well, since she was alive and that certainly was all right. What are bruises compared to what she knows could have happened to her had the Guards captured her and taken her back home?


"Yes, I'm fine!" she answered, gladly, pleased when she saw the worry wiped from his face by one of his astonishing grins.


The room in which she found herself was obviously the big man's home. It was no larger than a big closet, perhaps ten feet by twelve, which left little enough room to spare when the big man was at home, which was the case. There was not a right angle in it; the ceiling and walls sloped together into compound angles that made the girl guess, correctly as it happened, that the room was tucked into the attic of a building. Thick wooden beams criss-crossed through it, emerging from the walls, disappearing into the ceiling. The walls had been once plastered but that had mostly fallen off, leaving leprous, lath-boned holes. Thud had attempted to improve on the dreary appearance that gave his home by pasting over the holes with woodcuts and chromolithographs torn from the illustrated papers. He was pleased, but this effort really only succeeded in making the room look shabbier, possibly because the woodcuts were never quite the right size or shape to entirely cover the plasterless craters. No matter. The floor's planks were bare but very clean. In one corner was Thud's bed: a pair of large canvas bags, like the one he had carried the girl in, sewn mouth to mouth and filled with straw. A plain little table and a chair to match (which latter seemed altogether incapable of dealing with Thud's immense behind) completed the major furnishings. What little else there was is quickly listed: a curtain over the single window, washed and scrubbed to colorlessness and near transparency, a small wood-burning stove made from a discarded iron keg (in which Thud was now starting a fire); a wooden crate nailed to a wall that acted as both cupboard and pantry; a little oil stove on the table, next to a cracked, handleless cup filled with dirt from which sprung a twiglike plant with a single leaf, and, centered on one of the trapezoidal walls, a lone tintype photograph, surrounded by pictures of flowers, some of them gaudy chromos torn from magazines and seed catalogs, others laboriously hand-colored. The silvery picture was a portrait of a pretty, thin-faced girl who looks not very much older than Thud's foundling---except for the sad eyes; those looked very old.


This made the girl think of her own appearance, and she looked down at herself in despair. Her dress was plastered to her body by mud and filth; it was as heavy and clammy as if it had been made of clay. It was ragged, one sleeve gone altogether, and huge rents were torn down either side. The petticoats beneath made a solid, sodden mass. She had only one shoe. She touched her hair and wanted to cry: it felt like cold boiled spinach.


Thud was busy at the little table. He had pumped up the pressure in the oil stove and it was now topped with a hissing blue flame. He was filling a battered tin pot with water from an unglazed ceramic jug. He had opened some cans and small packets.


"You want to eat? I can make some hot tea, if you'd like."


"Yes! And I want some of that water. I've got to wash my face."


"Sure, here. You want to clean up? You want more hot water?"


"That'd be wonderful! I'll be able to think clearly once I've gotten some of this filth off me," she said, scrubbing at her face with the offered cup of plain water and the piece of coarse cloth that came with it.


"What's your name?"


"Me? Oh. My name's Thud. Mollockle. Thud Mollockle."


"It's a pleasure to have met you, Mr. Mollockle. My name is...Bronwyn."


"I am pleased to know you, too, Miss Bronwyn."


The room was quickly warming up, for which she was grateful; she wrapped herself in the threadbare blanket Thud handed her.


"I'm afraid that I've gotten you into a lot of trouble, Mr. Mollockle. Small enough thanks for saving my life, I suppose."


"Me?" He seemed to have continuous difficulty believing that anyone would address him personally. "No, no trouble. You needed help. And I hate the Guards."


Bronwyn looked at him sharply, surprised and interested in the sudden bitterness with which the otherwise placid man had spoken those last five words. He seemed to sense the alteration in the girl's attention. It embarrassed him.


"I'll get you that water for your bath---you must feel terrible. There's hot tea right there. And some food. Please, help yourself; I'll be right back." And before Bronwyn could say another word, he was gone. The door had opened and shut so quickly it had barely been able to utter a surprised "Eek!"


She stepped over to the table and suddenly realized how weak she was. Her legs felt wobbly and she nearly collapsed like a stringectomied marionette; a wave of vertigo swept over her, leaving her eyes momentarily unfocused. Her wet clothing felt unbearably repulsive---and she was suddenly freezing in spite of the warmth of the room. She unfastened the dress with shaking fingers, losing half a dozen buttons in the process. The garment, its fine fabric not ever intended for such uncouth abuse, peeled away from her body like the skin of a scalded tomato. She kicked the mass into a corner, rewrapped herself in her blanket and fell gratefully into the chair. She picked up the thick mug of steaming tea; it was like cupping a kitten in her hands. She held it up to her face and let the fragrant vapor caress her cheeks, nose and eyes. The heat made her nose start to run.


When Thud returned, she was eating one of his fat, stale soda crackers and a slice of potted meat. He was carrying a pair of enormous buckets, each holding at least ten or fifteen gallons of steaming water, as easily a milkmaid. He set them heavily on the floor and said, "I'll be right back." A moment later, there came sounds like the bonging of a giant cowbell from beyond the door, which burst open revealing the vast dorsal view of Thud. He backed into the room, pulling in after him a battered tin tub. Dropping it with a resonant clang in the middle of the room, he circled it to close the door. There was now not a square inch of floor left unaccounted for. Still without a word, he poured the contents of the buckets into the tub. The water was still so hot it fizzed as it splashed onto the metal.


"You had better take your bath while the water's hot," Thud said. "It'll get cold real quick."


Bronwyn was taken aback for a moment, as she realized that Thud meant for her to take her bath right there and then. A chiding protest came to her lips but died there aborning as she looked into the ridiculous round face and saw nothing but kindness and a concern that was earnest and gentle. She had the unkind but perfectly natural thought that taking a bath in front of Thud would be not unlike taking a bath in front of a pet dog. Natural but, admittedly, probably quite accurate. She was suddenly overbrimming with fatigue and every bruise and muscle in her body suddenly gave a single agonizing throb in unison. She stood up from the chair and took but one step toward the tub before she started to topple.


Thud was beside her in an instant, supporting her by one hand with the firm gentleness that always seemed so impossible for him. With the other, he pulled away the blanket, an action done so casually that Bronwyn allowed the familiarity without a word of protest. He then slipped his free hand behind her knees and lifted her from the floor. She looked like a rag doll in the giant's arms. He lowered her into the tub. The water felt scalding at first and she cried out weakly. Thud ignored her; soon she felt as though she is dissolving like a block of dry ice into the steam that billowed around her. She could feel herself turning bright red as blood that had withdrawn deep within her rushed eagerly back into her skin.


A hand, rough as leather, touched her shoulder and carefully pushed her forward, until her nose nearly touched the water. Using handfuls of crude soap scooped from a wooden bowl, Thud begain scrubbing her body. In her previous life, Bronwyn would rather have died than have anything put on her skin like this corrosive, abrasive substance. Now it felt like smooth, rich cream. But then anything would have felt better than the unspeakable filth and slime that covered her. Thud's soap was pungent and clean smelling. A day's worth of dirt washed from her, a day's worth of pain and many weeks of fear and anger. She felt herself drifting; the firm massaging was hypnotic. She felt safe and, for the first time in months, as though she might have some hope in carrying out her mission.


"Hold your nose," Thud said, simultaneously pushing her face under the surface of the water. The heat pressed against the lids of her sore eyes. She lifted her head and a corona of streamlets poured in a circle around her downturned face. Thud worked a handful of the raw soap into her hair. His thick fingers kneaded her scalp as though it were a ball of dough. It was exactly like washing the puppy he had once had in his now dream-like childhood.


Bronwyn had long since passed into a kind of achronic reverie. She had no recollection of Thud lifting her from the bath, holding her by passing an arm behind her back while he rubbed her dry with a coarse, brown cloth until she was as pink as a shrimp, nor any consciousness of being wrapped in ragged, patched blankets until she looked like a fat, hand-rolled cigar, then laid so gently onto his straw pallet that it scarcely rustled. She had long since fallen asleep.


Night had meanwhile fallen over the city of Blavek, and Thud had had to finish his work on Bronwyn by the light of a single tallow candle. When he was done, he carried the candle, not minding the molten pearls of wax that ran over his fingers, over to the tintype portrait, surrounded by its field of gaudy paper flowers. He looked for a long moment at the silvery face that seemed so alive in the flickering candlelight. Leaning forward slightly, he kissed it, just once, just so.


Blowing out the candle, he crossed the lightless room. Only the grey square of the window relieved the darkness. He sat in the small wooden chair under the window, beside the table, and stared into the room for a long time before he, too, fell asleep.



Nov. 14, 2017, 3:55 p.m. 0 Comments Report Embed 0
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