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A ROUGH DAY
Of course, at that moment Root had no idea that the chicken poop would save her life, so she simply cringed and dragged her boot across the barn floor to rid herself of it. And when she caught its rancid stench in her nose she cringed all the more.
Those chickens were sick. RushGut, by the smell of it. And no wonder, the way they were stuck in here with musty old air, filthy water and feed.
She spied a shuttered door up in the hayloft and decided it would be the chicken’s escape. Not to mention her own. But not quite yet. First she had to find what she had come for. And being that she was not welcome here she had better find it fast.
Bang! Root swung around, eyes wide, heart slamming. It was just a rat scurrying over a fallen crate. She breathed and went back to her search. No time to lose.
She squinted into the shadows. It was here. Her skin had told her so. Even now, the hairs were still raised on her arms. Prowling over rusted, old equipment, she winced and cradled her bandaged hand. It was getting worse. Through the thick gauze she could feel a throbbing heat. Was it infected?
Didn’t matter. At least not this second. She had more important things to do. Where was it? She knew it was close. She could feel its pulse, smothered and faint. She skewed her eyes, taking in every plank and corner, looking for the Leak, the signal.
Bang! She knew it was not the crate this time. She made her turn slowly. There were two of them. Bounty Hunters. At least that’s what the Dominion called them. Every one else called them Finks. Which is what they were. Greedy, nasty Finks. They’d turn in their own mothers for a few measly coins. But Root was a far better catch than their mothers and by the smiles on their faces, she knew they were thinking the same thing.
The tall one was smiling so triumphantly that his two iron-plated front teeth gleamed. In his hand was the frayed end of a well-used noose rope. The other Fink released an orb-lamp into the air. It hovered between them, its round flaming light flickering in their hungry eyes.
“Well, I'll be,” the tall one said. “The most notorious Bone Grit in all of Shade Howl right here in our little hideout. I suppose yer lookin' fer our goods eh. It is what you Bone Grits do after all, find things that don't belong to ya. Well, I'm afraid yer all outta luck, girl.”
He snapped his fingers. The second Fink nodded menacingly and then he too snapped his fingers.
The tall one scowled at his mate. “What're you doing, Gus? I'm the snapper.”
He waited for Gus’s rather slow brain to blink understanding and then he snapped again. This time Gus nodded appreciatively.
The tall one rolled his eyes. “Yer s’posed t’get ‘er.”
“Right! Sorry. Okay, go again.”
“Fine. On my snap.” The tall Fink snapped again. Only it was rather feeble. “Wait. That was a bad one.”
Another snap seemed to do the trick. Both he and Gus sprang toward Root. She took a step back, allowing them to snare the net trap that heaved them into the air, dangling.
Gus was confused…again. “Uh Stan...Wasn’t this s’posed t’catch her instead of us?”
Stan grit his teeth. “Shut up, Gus.” He glared at Root. “Think yer smart, eh! Well, you ain’t never gonna find our goods. I made this whole hideout Bone Grit proof! Y'won't even find the door!”
Root barely even heard him. She had already taken his orb lamp and turned back to task. She was now staring at a wall crawling with spiders. Her eyes widened in revelation. She swiped at the spiders. They dropped heavily all over her feet, but she was too excited to notice.
She could feel the stirring of her blood now. She reached out and scraped at the wall…not a wall at all but a thick, guised web made to look so. It shredded in her fingers. And there behind it…a secret door! Found!
This was no ordinary door. Across its whole front was an intricate mechansim of gears and locks daring her to come closer.
“She found the door, Stan,” Gus noted nervously.
“Of course she did,” Stan barked. “She's a Bone Grit. You forget what that means?”
“Uh...I heard it means--”
“I know what it means, Gus! Anyway, she just got lucky. She won't find the handle! Not in a million years!”
Root straightened and closed her eyes. Inspiration would come. A feeling maybe. An urge or a flash of incite.
Stan saw his chance and slipped out a small knife from his pocket. In no time he had a line of the net sliced and was scraping the blade across another.
Aha! Root opened her eyes and walked straight for a ginger-feathered chicken. Its wings flapped indignantly as she shoo'd it away and looked in its nest. An egg.
Her skin bumped in approval.
She grabbed hold of the egg but the moment it was out of the nest, it vanished in her hand. What the...? She looked. The egg was back in the nest. She grabbed it impatiently, but it disappeared again. And there it was back in the nest.
The Finks sniggered smugly.
A new attempt. This time Root very, very, ever so slowly pulled the egg away...there it was in her hand...still there...still there...wait...Rats! It literally faded out of existence in her palm. The Finks snorted louder. She ignored them and scanned the nest carefully...what was the catch?
She noticed another nest beside this one...empty. Hmmm...Could it be...? Well, it was worth a try. She reached in the empty nest and scooped at absolutely nothing. But this time, when her hand came back, lo and behold there was the egg! Now firmly in Root's palm it shifted into a heavy pewter form. A handle.
Ha! She smiled and held it up for the Finks to see. They stopped laughing.
Root took the handle to the door and assessed her next challenge. Where did it fit? How did it attach?
Behind her Stan slashed faster at the net.
Root’s eyes lit up as the mechanism suddenly made sense. She reached up and dropped the handle into a hollow at the top of the door. She held her breath.
The handle held for a moment and then it was rolling down a carven path of the door, traveling its many intricacies, over, under, rolling along like the Billieball games Root had seen in town, unbolting each lock along the way until, reaching its destination, it stopped and clamped into place.
“If you don't shut it, Gus, I'm gonna shut it for ya.”
Stan's knife was making headway as it tore madly across the netting, enough to free a hand now.
Unaware, Root breathed relief and quickly turned the handle. But it did not move. She tried again. It would not budge. Suddenly a loud rumble erupted from behind the door along with a horror of muffled cries. Fear rose in Root’s eyes. She yanked at the handle.
A slow wicked laugh coughed up behind her, one she could no longer ignore. She turned to face Stan.
“You just triggered the nailer,” he taunted, “which will impale everything behind that door in thirty seconds if there’s no key in the slot.”
Gus looked at Stan. “But we'll lose our goods! Our Dodgers!”
“We'll lose more than that if the Dominion found out they escaped!”
Stan’s eyes flashed at Root. “See! Bone Grit proof!” And once more, his ugly iron-plated teeth gleamed triumphantly.
Root's eyes dilated. She lunged forward, ripping at Stan’s face. Stan did not expect this. He flailed for escape but Root would not let go.
Behind the door the cries grew louder. Desperate fists pounded for escape as the nailer rumbled on.
Suddenly Root's hand yanked away from Stan. In her grasp was his plated tooth. In his mouth was a gaping hole where it used to be. She raced to the door and fumbled to put his tooth plate in the handle's slot. It was the key!
The hysteria behind the door rose to a frenzied pitch. Just when she thought she had it, Root accidentally dropped the tooth plate. She dove to the ground and groped for it as spiders scattered.
Stan watched, his knife bringing him ever closer to freedom. “Five... four...three...two...”
Root found the tooth plate, leaped up and plunged it into the slot. She waited, the muffled cries torturing her. Suddenly the handle shifted and clicked. The door slid open.
Abject, frightened children flew past Root and the Finks to the outside. Some were around the same age as Root, barely cusping adulthood but most were younger. Too young.
Gus squirmed, accidentally kicking Stan, who lost the knife. It slid down the net. He cursed, reaching for it as his hard-earned money ran beneath him, toward freedom.
Root scanned the Dodgers, setting her eyes upon a boy with dark hair.
“Brecken!” she called.
The boy turned to her.
“Where’s Sisiline?” she asked. And that’s when she saw it. Brecken's hand: a blackened stump. Their eyes met. But his were too haunted to speak of it. He ran, taking his silence with him.
Root dashed into the emptied cell. The spiked walls of the nailer were so close she could hardly escape the bloody ‘what if’ of her timing. She desperately scanned the area. No Sisiline. But there, in the corner! She crouched low. It was what she thought it was. A sock. An old, woolen, dirty sock. The same one that had once donned Sisline’s hand as a puppet.
Sisiline’s luminous smile flickered in Root’s memory, and her laugh as she and Root dangled their feet along rooftop eaves. Root clutched the sock close to her now and ran from the cell.
At the door’s threshold she froze. The net trap had been slashed through. It was empty.
From the dark the Finks, one on each side of her, dove. In a flash she ducked, rolled and disappeared in the shadows. The Finks shared a glowering look and inched forward, scanning for movement. It came alright. Eggs. In the face.
They yelped and dove at the nests. Chickens rebelled in a squawking, flapping explosion, feathers everywhere. In the distraction Root made for her escape. But the Finks were nothing if not persistant and her escape turned into an obstacle course of barnyard debris...rafters, hay stacks, barrows and…What next? Root had ended up in the hayloft and now craned around for ammunition. A barrel full of corn? Sure.
Stan and Gus were pegged off by cobs as they came to the top of the ladder. Root waited until they were all the way up before she gave the barrel a heave. As it mowed the Finks down, she freed a chain that was attached to a heavy sack, so heavy that when it landed it busted the barrel and pinned the Finks to the chest in corn cobs.
Root would have taken off then, leaving them there groaning and dazed, but her Finding blood suddenly leapt up with warning. Something was hidden there in that pile of corn. Something important. A spidering of realization took her spine. She reached for a cob and carefully shucked it. As the silk peeled back she saw that inside was not corn but a stunning red jewel. Her eyes lit up.
Aw cmon, that-th mine!” Stan groaned with a fancy new lisp. “I th-tole it fair ‘n th-quare!”
He and Gus attempted escape but they were thwarted by Root’s boot.
“Tell ‘im what Bone Grit means,” she said to Gus.
“Uh...well, I heard it means brave to the bone.”
Root eased toward the door and opened the shutters. From here a chute stretched down into the corn field.
“Well, you heard right,” she said, “and let that be aaaaaaaaaaaaaa--”
So much for that. She had tripped over a renegade chicken and was now sliding head first down the chute. She thudded to the ground, leapt up and brushed herself off. Her bandaged hand throbbed but nothing was broken.
Her face split into a rather pleased grin.
That is until the dogs. Big, hackled, fang-bearing dogs.
Root bolted. She ran, a blitz of arms and feet, dust in her wake, and even that was too slow. The only thing that saved her was the quick twists and turns of the corn maze. That and the chicken poop, which she was about to learn.
But first, the maze. The maze full of howling, rabid canines. How was she gonna get out of this one? Every way she turned there was a vicious set of jaws. In front of her, behind her. They didn’t even spare the scarecrow she’d thrown in their path.
She gave a last push toward a clump of treetops, flying out of the maze with the agitated ravens. She could hear the howls and barks behind her and made for an old wagon, hoping to dive in and hide.
When she arrived she was hit by a wall of stench and the swift realization that she would not be able to hide in said wagon. Said wagon was full of rancid dead chickens.
Wait. An idea flashed. The saved-by-chicken-poop idea. And a good thing too for the hounds were almost sinking their teeth into her backside. With all her strength she lifted an end of the wagon and tipped out its contents.
The dogs stopped barking. A moment later they were snatching up the chickens with gluttonous abandon, tails a-waggin’.
Root counted aloud. By the time she reached number seven, the bones were no longer snapping. By ten the dogs were whimpering. RushGut was a swift infection, indeed.
She felt bad. The dogs laid flat out now, tongues hanging, panting.
“Sorry guys. It’ll only last for a few hours though and then you’ll be back to--”
She stopped, pricked her ears. Finks in the distance.
“Okay then. Bye”
And she was gone.
Root skidded into Shade Howl. Its rutted road was dappled in puddles that looked like bruised glass. Once called Shade Hollow, this was a fine inland town with character. Travellers always stayed longer than intended, enjoying the relief of its leafy valley and the growing fancies of its shop windows. Now, more than a decade later, after the long weary of war, grime rivalled paint, the valley lay thinned and night made the streets howl.
Root scurried down an alley where Dominion posters littered the sewer gulch and clung damply to the brick wall, all of them with the same bold lettering:
Support the Marrow Bind!
Honour and Workability!
Rebuild our great land!
Of course alongside these were the other more revealing Dominion posters:
Dodgers will be dealt with severely!
Root shook her head. In spite of such warning there were more Dodgers than ever. And no wonder. The war had cooled, but Marrow Binds were still plucking people for duty. And it was not the honourable duty claimed in these posters. Brecken’s black stump of a hand could attest to that. And Sisiline’s abandoned sock…the rest of her still missing. Her and how many others vanished by way of the Marrow Bind. Root had lost count.
At the alley’s dead end she took to rigging along the wall. Her hand spasmed in pain but she bit it back and climbed to the rooftop. From here she could see the whole of Shade Howl, its drifting smokestacks and golden lamplit windows. Marring this quietude there stood in the distance a derelict workhouse, it’s crooked chimney erupting like a black boil.
Root slid across the shingles toward it.
Octavia and Carblotta Karbunkulus, better known as The Aunts and called much worse behind their backs, owned the Jobbery. It was where work was doled out. Crooked work but it fed an empty stomach.
The Jobbery stood squashed-looking and rebellious at the end of Cork’s Prowl. A lane of cobblestone halted curtly at its dark iron gates, leaving a crooked path of quack grass snaking to its door.
From a distance, one would probably not even notice the Jobbery’s halfness. But the closer one approached, the more obvious it became. It was as if there’d been a quake, a crooked faultline right down the middle. One half was a slabbering of brick with a snot-tinted trim: Carblotta’s preference. The other was wood planked in a hue Octavia lovingly called Vomitistic.
The Jobbery was something of a legend and adults frequently began its tale with “Beware the Jobbery, children! The Aunts’ll slave ya dry then lob ya in half and eatchya!”
Truth be told, they weren’t that far off.
This evening the Aunts were celebrating. They had sold all their goods at the marketplace, every last turnip and broccoli. And best of all, being that they had stolen every last turnip and broccoli from neighbouring gardens, it cost them nothing. One hundred percent profit.
Octavia was the eldest of the two, squat and pudged with nostrils the size of barrel lids. Her teeth pushed out like wild fungi when she laughed, which wasn’t very often.
Carblotta, on the other hand, was a starved and scrawny thing whose long, dangling limbs brought to mind limp celery. Her nose constantly wheezed in a knotted lump of cartilage.
The Aunts were cackling and clinking mugs, plates of sausage in their laps, tossing scraps to Kluk the bad-tempered house rooster. A song rang from their throats as raw and ragged as the brew they were polishing off.
Some go to pieces, some they go blind
Me I go crazy fer the ol’ moonshine
Call it white lightning or the pearl’s turpentine
Call it for breakfast, the ol’ moonshine
When the last warble ended, the sisters began to count their money. Again.
“Three hunnered and eighty six junos!’ Octavia kissed the pouch and tucked it back into the humid folds of her huge cleavage.
They were about to launch into another quavering verse of Ol’ Moonshine when their Parley chimed, choking the tune in their throats. Their eyes swiveled to the corner where the old contraption pulsed with a purple glow, insisting that it be answered and answered immediately.
Neither moved. Instead they waited impatiently, holding to the same wish: that the Parley’s chime would mute, the glow would dim and the caller would give up entirely.
When this did indeed happen and ample silence was restored, the Aunts returned to their swaggering melody. But they got as far as the first note when the Parley, much to their chagrin, chimed again. This time Carblotta picked it up, opened the door to the lower Shop Room and chucked the annoying appliance down the stairs.
There was a blinking pause before Octavia released a slow, gutteral gurgle of approval. The gurgle grew and fattened, taking Carblotta’s high-pitched whinny into it until soon enough the Karbunkulus sisters were, once again engrossed in their loud, belching celebrations.
The mist made the shingles deadly, but Root was seasoned on these roofs. She, Sisiline and Brecken had laid claim to them ages ago to keep out of the noose rope’s reach.
She spied her target, leapt from the eaves, down a series of side gear and rushed to the Jobbery’s iron arch. Here she scanned for chasers before slipping past the gate and slamming it shut.
At the Jobbery’s front door a sour smell wafted up in greeting. She did not miss living here. Though she was grateful the Aunts had plucked her from a baby’s death and given her a cradle of chicken feathers, she kept a safe distance now for they wanted nothing more than to groom her into their number one Finder. Just like Kneebone Grayshank.
Grayshank had been the world’s greatest Bone Grit. It was said his Heat had come like lava through his veins, a Finding Pyre so torched that he could Find the very throne of ThéAll the Creator if he wanted to. As a young boy Grayshank Found rats and strange moulds before the same would plague the land. Later he Found water when the rains stopped. He was loved by the people, courted and blessed by monarchs.
But legend had it that greed hardened his heart and he set his Finds upon darker Losts. Soot Market Losts. And more than that, he Found secrets. The kind of secrets that led to more Losts, like missing bodies. Then, it was said he Found something that changed the course of history. No one knows what it was but it was bad enough to have prompted the monarch to exile him and outlaw all Bone Grits ever after.
Now, a hundred years later, Root, born with Finding in her blood, was still paying for it. She had prayed for a Pyre that could take her from Shade Howl to the white halls of Century. Something grand like the Musics. But there was no such generosity for Root. Her Heat produced a Finding Pyre and she had to painfully stifle it the moment it tried to slide up her veins, lest she wind up dangling from the gallows.
But then the Marrow Binds called and her friends started disappearing. And, well someone had to Find them. Which is how she wound up here, staring at the Jobbery’s rusted door. True, she didn’t need the Aunts to Find fink hideouts, but something else happened that drove her back to them, eager to take on their crooked work, at least for a little while. She had discovered a way to elude the Marrow Binds, a loophole of sorts. But this loophole required money. Lots of money. And, being an illegal Bone Grit, the only access to money was through the underground pit they called the Jobbery.
Even so, Root had no desire to tempt Grayshank’s fate. She kept her jobs cautious, only taking on the petty treasures, the common Losts, like glimmery and luck teeth.
But despite her prudence, her skill could not be ignored. Losts were recovered with ease and soon Shade Howl whispered her name along its streets and patrons of the Jobbery began to pay extra for her exclusivity. This meant she was one of the few traders who could enter the Jobbery unannounced, a privilege she was now exercising as she skidded in to find the Aunts mid-belch over their latest haul.
She cringed. She had grown up with such scenes, but she had never belonged to them. Hers was always a ghostly presence, fair skin nearly transluscent next to their weathered pelts. And though the wind often collected in her long pumpkin hair it was nothing like the wiry scalps of the Aunts. As a child she had longed to Find her copper strands in her father’s whiskers or her freckles on her mother’s cheeks. But the war had found her parents first. And then the Aunts had tripped upon her in a treed crevice. Finders keepers.
“What’re you doing here?” Carblotta snapped at the sight of Root now. “Pay day’s not ‘til the morrow.”
“I’ve got Finks on my tail and this is too important.” Root held up the beautiful red jewel.
The Aunts pounced. Carblotta reached it first. “The Siren! And what a beauty she is, ain’t she!”
Octavia snatched the jewel from her sister and held it up to the light. “Indeed. The Wolf will be pleased.”
The Wolf was a well-heeled frequenter of the Jobbery. Root had never seen him, but then neither had the Aunts, which was not unusual. Dealing with underground Bone Grits was not exactly savoury amongst the civil crowd, not to mention legal. Thus the need for secrecy and Proxies sent in one’s stead. The Aunts cared not, as long as a purse came with the Proxy.
And a hefty purse at that, for the Siren was clearly worth a pretty sum. Could no doubt buy Root a plot far away from the likes of Shade Howl with coin to spare. But she knew better than to linger in such fantasies. If she were to keep it, there’d be another Bone Grit hired to Find her.
When the Aunts were done salivating Octavia looked at Root. “Guess we be owin’ our li’l Bone Grit some junos, eh!”
Carblotta nodded and pushed the Siren in her pocket before heading for the stash. In the repreive Octavia shoo’d an indignant Kluk away, slapped a sausage into her mouth and took a drink of brew long gone flat before noticing Root’s bandaged hand.
“Just keep it wrapped like I toldjya. It’ll get better.”
Carblotta returned with brew and coins and a mouthful of distraction.
“Here y’go, my little wart.” She plunked a stingy few junos into Root’s free palm. “You get the rest when we get the rest.”
“I need nine thousand,” Root blurted.
Octavia spit out a bit of sausage skin that had Kluk in hot pursuit. “That’s a lotta junos, girl.”
“The Siren’s worth twenty times that,” Root argued.
“Well, we’ll see what the Wolf pays. I’m sure he’ll be generous. Been looking fer this a long time.”
From downstairs in the Shop Room came a long, lingering chime.
“Why’s your Parley downstairs?” Root asked.
The Aunts exchanged a look that had a secret in it. Root’s skin bumped. She alerted her mind, like an ear pricked toward a distant sound. What were the Aunts up to?
“It’s down there fer none a yer big fat business,” Carblotta snapped.
Octavia recognized the signs of Root’s Finding mode - the eyes, the taut breath - and panicked. “Ah, what the heck! How’s about a bonus fer our best trader, eh?”
Carblotta got her gist. A few more junos were dropped into Root’s palm. Root went with it even though she knew these coins were just cheap diversions. There was something else going on.
The Parley chimed again. Root casually moved toward the door but the Aunts bulldozed ahead and barred her from going any further. She had never been allowed in the Shop Room. The Aunts never explained why. And she never really cared…until now.
“You know the rules,” Octavia said with warning in her eyes.
Root backed down with a shrug. “Whatever. I’m starved! Is Grog’s still open?”
“Yep,” Carblotta pushed her to the door. “Better get a goin’ afore the cookery’s closed.”
The Aunts bolted the lock and snuffed out the lights before returning to the stairs and the insistent Parley. Root watched their shadowy figures through the window and scoffed. Locks and dark won’t stop a Bone Grit. Especially the best Bone Grit in Shade Howl. They had hidden something from her. And she was going to Find it.
A BLAZE OF BLUE
The skills of a Finder aren’t limited to the blood’s prodding, but also the tuning of muscle and tendons and breath, so that the very air does not notice when it has been parted.
Root slipped back inside the Jobbery like a shadow and glided toward the Shop Room door. A thick rug had been bunched up in front of it. Root figured it was:
A) To serve as some sort of stopper.
B) A strictly decorative decision. Or…
C) To pad the nasty tail feathers of Kluk, who was planted firmly upon aforementioned rug. With a seriously cocky look in his eye.
He was a jerk, that rooster. He had a spray of feathers over perma-bossy eyes and the rest of him came in like a badly patched quilt. Root hated him and felt guilty about it because she loved animals and the rapport she often felt with them. But Kluk was one of those beasts one could quite easily hate, being that Kluk quite easily hated everything else.
What bugged Root the most was that the Aunts called him Klook with an annoying long vowel. Doesn’t that just change everything, knowing that now? Kluk the rooster was Klook the rooster. And Klook the rooster milked it. There was something about that long vowel that made him think he was much much more important than a mere rooster. He was a Rooster. And a jerk one at that.
The good thing was that Kluk…well, Kluk couldn’t cluck. He more wheezed than clucked, sort of like a squeaky toy with the squeak half dead. So when Root pulled the rug out from under him, Kluk’s alarm was a dud. Now, however, she had to stop him from yanking the rug back with his large, knobbly claws, which he was doing with great zeal.
“Kluk! Stop it!” she whisper-yelled. “Go lie down!” But the more she tugged, the more his sharp claws dug in. In desperation, her eyes whisked around the room. She spotted it and knew Octavia would go red with rage (well, redder), but she dove at it anyhow. She waved it in front of Kluk who snapped it up in his big, crooked beak almost taking Root’s hand with it. Over the chomping of Aunt Octavia’s precious-ugly-rubber-peony-that-she-even-watered, Root pushed the rug away and opened the door.
The unwelcoming staircase met her with a waft of cold air and on its heels the distinct Leak of something hidden. There was nothing for it. She took a deep breath and descended the shallow steps of stone into musty darkness.
Her boots landed on flat earthy ground. The odour was pungent now and she was sure there was a drop in temperature to that of tombs. The Shop Room was, much to her expectation, a grimy den of tin and wax and rags and brew. Her steps were taken with great fear of what lay beneath them.
She yanked back a dust-filled curtain, allowing a shaft of moonlight to fall inside and spread along the dirt floor. In its pale beam she crept slowly until she came upon a second, even shoddier room. Here she saw the Aunts hovering around their Parley, its violet hue lighting them up like two purple haunts. Who were they talking to?
Root leaned to get a better look. Her eyes widened. In the Parley’s holographic beam was a Badge. She could tell by the Dominion officer uniform. He was in Shade Howl. She recognized the Broken Bottle Grog Hall behind him. Though the tavern’s windows were alive with light and silhouette, the Badge had settled into a dark quiet alley where he now looked upon the Aunts with clear disdain.
“No one is excluded from Marrow Bind duty,” he snapped. “It is mandatory service for the good of all.”
Carblotta was having none of it. “Ya? Well, what good’re we gettin’ from it?”
“The means of the Guardian are no concern of yours,” the Badge barked back.
“It is when it cuts into our livelihood.”
“The call of a Marrow Bind is not negotiable. Any who receive it must enlist. It is law.”
“I’m afraid…” Octavia stepped in front of her sister with a cold smile. “…we ain’t seen the Bind in any of our traders. But if we do, we’ll be sure t’send ‘em your way, good master.”
The Badge paused and chose his words carefully. “The penalty for housing dodgers is steep, madam.”
“We’re aware of that, yer kindliness.”
“This night is the deadline for reply. By tomorrow, at nine hours, the last collection begins.”
“Like I said, if we sees the Call, we’ll do our lawful obligations.”
The Badge grit his teeth. “Should your memory change, I shall remain in Shade Howl ‘til dawn.”
“O’ course.” Aunt Octavia reached for disconnection.
The Badge put his arm out to stop her. “Remember, mistress, the hand can’t lie. If a moon doesn’t give it away, its cold remains will.”
This prompted a nasty little remark from Carblotta and resulting outrage from the Badge, but Root heard none of that. She was shaking. The Badge’s words had caught in her throat…the hand can’t lie…a moon will give it away.
Warily she moved her bandaged hand into the light of the moon and began tearing at the foul, gauzy strips. It hurt. Every pull seemed to kill nerves. The last layer peeled away and Root thrust her hand into the light.
The moon came to it like a mother. Its beams licked the tender skin and sunk in toward the blood. Root gasped. The bones! They were glowing! She spread her fingers wide. The moon held firm, sending her hand into a blaze of blue.
The Marrow Bind! She’d been Called!
“You best be coverin’ that up? Hmmm…” came a scabby voice in the shadows.
Octavia waved her hand to rouse the surrounding candle stubs to life. Now in a good wash of light, she looked alarmingly menacing as she held the remains of her precious-ugly-rubber-peony-that-she-actually-watered. Kluk was at her feet, a look of gleeful anticipation in his eyes.
“You knew it was a Marrow Bind!” Root shouted. “That’s why you wrapped my hand! You tried to cover it up!”
Octavia smeared concern across her face. “We was tryin’ t’protect ya. Dominion duty’s worse than any o’ the baddest Finds y’done here.”
“Worse than losing my hand?” Root challenged. “Is that what you told Brecken too?”
Carblotta stepped out from behind her sister. “He dodged on ‘is own ‘cause he knew it were true!”
“The Dominion’ll just slave ya dry,” Octavia nodded. “And toss yeh out t’die like yer own mama done!”
“Yeah,” Carblotta squawked. “We was just sparin' ya the same cruelty she done. She weren't no better than the Guardian, what with 'er fancy clothes...”
“What?” Root snatched the image to her chest.
“That’s enough now, sister,” Octavia growled through gritted teeth.
But Carblotta was on a roll. “And that streak of blue in ‘er nighthag hair. Looked more like a japer than a…Ouch!” Octavia had pressed all her weight onto her sister’s pinky toe.
“That’s enough now, sister,” Octavia glared.
“What’re you two hiding?” Root demanded.
There was something in her tone, a courage that had never been there before. As if muscle and bone had made room for it. Even Kluk felt it and clamped his wheezing beak shut.
Carblotta, on the other hand snorted it away. “I think you went ‘n hit that block a yers too many times and--”
“Don't play me,” Root said. “I'm a Bone Grit. I know when something’s hiding.”
She could practically see it now, crawling all over their skin like a shiver. The whole room crackled with it.
The Aunts stalled.
Fine. She’d figure it out herself. She opened her senses and scanned the Shop Room. Her eyes were pulled toward an old watering jug. It swelled in her glare as if under a lens. She looked at the Aunts. Guilt swarmed them. They were about to pounce, she could tell. In a flash she had a candle held under a heaping stack of parchments.
“Don’t come any closer unless you wanna lose all your contracts!”
The Aunts froze. Kluk lowered his tail feathers and stepped back.
Keeping the candle steady under the contracts Root inched toward the watering jug and pulled it closer. With her eyes on the Aunts she reached inside.
The first thing to come out was an amber gemstone clutched in crystal fingers. It was beautiful. Round and radiant as a Corn Moon. Its very touch struck Root with an instant powerful connection.
“This is mine, isn’t it? It came with me when you found me! Didn't it?”
Without need for an answer she reached in again. This time her fingers slid around a piece of parchment. Root’s blood leapt. Found. It was very old and yellowed, with deep lines along the folds, but the writing was still legible.
Please help me. Take the child to the Robin’s Wing Nest.
A bolt of energy shot through Root’s veins. Rage filled her. Her mind flooded with the ominous image Carblotta had conjured. A woman with a long blue streak through her black hair, hiding her baby with a pleading note. Her mother hadn’t abandoned Root at all. She had tried to save her! She had loved her.
“You…” she looked at the Aunts, barely able to get the word out. “…liars.”
In a last ditch attempt the Aunts did something they had never done before. They forced actual smiles across their faces. It was something of a horror, the incongruity.
“Well, my deary dear,” came Octavia. “You’ve found us out. We kept ya fer ourselves, that’s true. But who else woulda taken in a Bone Grit, fed ‘er and paid ‘er? Yer alive on accounta us. So how ’bout you be returnin’ that there stuff and--"
Root clutched her belongings. “No! This is mi--”
“Ours. Just like you’re ours,” Octavia purred.
“Finders keepers,” added Carblotta.
And they lunged.
Root tossed the candle into the pile of contracts. Kluk squeaked and flapped his wings. As the Aunts desperately doused the emerging flames Root was already halfway up the stairs.
She flew out of the Jobbery and reached the end of the yard in record time. But a slick mud-drift caught her off guard. Her feet lifted off. She landed hard with the wind knocked out of her. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. The Aunts reached the door and spotted her. They moved faster than Root had ever seen.
She dragged herself to her feet and made to run but found herself caught in the steel grip of Kluk’s beak. The Aunts moved even faster.
“That’s it! Hold’er Klukie!”
The battle that followed was something of a horror, indeed. There was the mud, of course. Add to that a garbling, clawing, flapping rooster; a rotund woman’s many back hands and choke holds, another woman’s gawky flails, a host of screams and grunts and many curse words.
Eventually Root’s wits returned and with them a furious revolt. She used everything available: teeth, nails, fists, feet, head. The Aunts tightened their strangle but Root jimmied her leg free and jabbed her heel into Kluk’s ribs. The startled rooster actually crowed and blindly bit one or both of the Aunts. There was a muddy blur of obscenities through which Root had savagely twisted and squirmed and finally gotten to her feet.
By the time the Aunts noticed, Root had already taken a burrow under-fence and dipped with the distant hill. They shrieked as they watched their meal ticket get away.
Kluk sat beak-wide, panting in the mud, coughing up bits of rubber peony.
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