17 November 2012

Silviu the Thief

UPDATE 20 November 2012, 1628 hours:


I've completed the first draft of Silviu the Thief. It clocks in at 70,000 words - pretty short by my usualy standards, but chances are the tale will "grow in the telling", as another author once said.  And for now, it's long enough for the NaNoWriMo contest.

Now on to the proofing!


As part of the continuing serialization of my new novel, The Hero's Knot, currently in drafting stage for National Novel Writing Month, here's part III.

Fair warning; upon reflection, it's going to have to be a trilogy. So The Hero's Knot is going to be the title of the whole mess.  My NaNoWriMo submission is going in under the working title, Silviu The Thief.

59,000 words down, -9,000 to go.  But you know me; brevity is not one of my flaws.

This one's headed for 100,000 words. The other two will be just as long by the time they're done.  Maybe longer.

Those are provisional titles, of course, but they'll do for now.
And for now, here's the next instalment of Silviu The Thief, as currently written.  Lots of proof-reading to come, but for the time being I've got a stranglehold on my dreaded Internal Editor.
It'll get better, trust me.

His first appointment necessitated a walk of a little more than a mile. After only a couple of blocks, Raven tired of his disguise; the freezing mist had become a drizzle, a chilling spray of near-ice that slicked the sidewalks and transformed his illusory boot-heels from an inconvenience to a danger. He’d used his charms to cure minor injuries and incidental ills before, but he’d never had occasion to try to mend something as serious as a broken ankle, and had little interest in finding himself compelled by importunity to do so. Passing the metro station at Delancey and Essex he stumbled on a curb, and that was the final straw; he put his right hand into his pocket, found the silvery imp, flicked it with a gnawed fingernail, and between one breath and the next, allowed his disguise to bleed away into the dusk. His right boot-heel clacked against the cement, but when the left struck, it did so with the squishy thud of a well-worn running shoe. Skirt, short jacket, ponytail and lip gloss faded away into the night. Raven stepped out of the illusion without breaking stride. Passers-by, their necks tucked tightly into coat-collars, their eyes downcast against the freezing rain or glued to illuminated digital screens, saw nothing.
Sure-footed now – he wore his runners through all the seasons, even in the snows of winter, preferring their comfort and reliable grip on the skin of the world to the conveniences of warmth or water resistance – Raven walked three blocks up Essex. At East Houston Street. He paused for a longing leftward glance at Katz’s Delicatessen (pockets bulging with cash sparked all manner of thoughts in his brain, not least of which were the hungry thunder pounding against his consciousness, and his fondness for latkes and vereniki, and similarly artery-clogging conglomerations of dough and cheese, onion and potato), then shook himself and crossed over to Avenue A. Dismal apartment blocks, an art gallery, shop fronts, sidewalk caf├ęs and the utilitarian brick of the East Fifth Street Con Ed plant rose before him and receded in his wake.
A shadow followed behind him, but he didn’t notice.
With the persistence of a dentist’s drill, the drizzle worked its way down his collar, and he briefly considered holding back a few dollars for a new hat at one of the Chinatown street vendors. Up until a few weeks ago he’d had a Yankees cap, an old and tattered thing thick with filth and reminiscence, but had been forced to part with it as a favour to one of the watchers at Saint Joseph’s near Washington Square Park, in payment for a clean escape from a couple of street cops who’d happened to witness him sliding out of a liquor store with a handful of crumpled bills. They’d been a little more astute than the norm for their type, and Raven had had to think on his feet. He didn’t like to offer sacrifices to work the magic; each time he did it, it felt as if he were carving away a chunk of his being. He was scattering little pieces of Raven all over the city, leaving himself naked and exposed to its raw, elemental might, laying bar his activities, the very core of his being, to anyone with the eyes to see. That he’d had no choice was no balm to his wounded pride; with careful planning, he could work all the wonders he needed with his charms alone, and not be forced to fall back on the might of tokens like his cap, rich with essence and memory. He didn’t like the thought of one of the watchers keeping it, wearing it even; or worse, trading it in turn to some darker being in a further exchange of favours. There was power in personal objects. Raven didn’t know how he knew that, but he did. He knew it in his bones.
Six more blocks, and he was there: Tompkins Square Park, the heart of the East Village. Normally one of his favourite places in the city, he knew it with the intimate familiarity of a lover. He’d been there in summer time, luxuriating in the scent of oak buds and ash, walking barefoot, the better to feel the sparse and struggling grass between his toes. He liked sitting atop tree roots, leaning back against the towering trunks, feeling the life and wonder of living wood quivering beneath him, drawing strength from the vitality of the timber, and returning it in equal measure. He’d had a moment of awakening here, once upon a time; years ago, when he’d still been young in the world, before the darkness had come to cloud the light of day, and life had become a burden. He’d been at the park and had been caught unawares by a sudden rain-squall. He’d taken shelter beneath a leafy maple, only to discover that the tree had been struck a foot or so above the ground by some thoughtless lout behind the tiller bars of an earth-mover of some sort. The bark had been entirely torn away, half of the heartwood beneath it had been splintered into kindling by the force of fire-driven steel. He’d put a hand upon the groaning trunk, and felt the tree’s dying; and with the empathy of the pre-pubescent (an empathy tempered by hardship that kept tears at bay even when he’d happened across a human corpse), he’d wept.
Fumbling through his pockets, he’d grasped the runestone in his left hand, fingers working feverishly against the silver as he thumbed his way through the ten charms that he kept upon a leather thong. He had already learned the trick of knowing whether a charm would serve him in any given instance; either the old, worn silver token would feel alive and electric in his grasp, or it would lay still and quiescent like an old bone. He’d tried the nisse, the paired ravens, the hammer, the shield, the bull, even the crossed, crooked spears, the newest of his charms, the one that had come to him by mysterious paths on his tenth birthday. None availed him. It wasn’t until his questing fingers lit upon the horse – the peculiar eight-legged destrier, rearing and magnificent, that he’d had for more than half his life thus far – that he felt the pulsing tingle of possibility. With the runestone in his left hand and the horse-token in his right, he’d leaned forward, touching his forehead to the wounded tree...and worked a wonder.
Hot, golden light burst from him, exploding from his body like the radiance of a star, spilling from his eyes, his mouth like the very benediction of heaven. An effervescence of the spirit, the light washed over the wounded maple, cloaking it in health, in life, squeezing vitality into its very pores. Before Raven’s astonished eyes, the breach in the bark closed over, filled from all corners by new growth. He embraced the tree, glorying in the new access of strength that he had summoned, breathing in air charged with the shattering weight of possibility, laughing and weeping at the same time. Though it did not move, though not a single branch did more than quiver, it felt as though the tree had embraced him in turn, granting him life and strength in equal measure; and as it did so, Raven felt his senses expanding, his nerves running through the living wood of the tree until he could sense the distant Sun beyond the clouds. Through his fingertips he could taste the air, tainted with the dust and brimstone of upwind power plants; through his toes, the water, drawn from deep in the earth, the foulnesses of the rivers leached from the life-giving fluid by filters of porous stone. He and the tree were one, sugary sap and blood running together, shared in perfect, temporary harmony.
He’d learned another lesson, too; after so vast an expenditure of power he’d fallen prey to exhaustion, collapsing to sleep at the foot of the tree he’d healed. He awoke the next morning, rising wiht the Sun – with the tree itself, he’d realized later on – to find himself warm, dry and safe. The tree had sheltered him against the rain and the night’s chill, in gratitude perhaps for the gift of life and strength that he had imparted. Before leaving he’d thanked the new-healed maple with a touch, and had been a little disappointed not to feel the same explosion of glory and might. He never felt it again, but that didn’t change his memory of the majesty of what he’d done. For years afterward, every time he’d passed the park he’d looked in on the tree. Just to see how it was doing.
Now, as he stalked across East Seventh Street and entered the park from the south, hunched forward against the ever-increasing rain, he didn’t bother looking for the tree. It wasn’t there anymore; a few years ago, it had vanished overnight, hacked to the earth along with dozens of other maples to make way for a studio that advertised modern dance and something called ‘pilates’. Apart from the biblical reference to a former governor of Judea who (insofar as he’d been able to gather) had been conspicuously lacking in both decision-making skills and moral courage, Raven had no idea what ‘pilates’ were. But he was certain that they were a poor substitute for a living tree.
His appointment was behind the studio. There was an awning above the back door, nestled between a dumpster and an old Ford truck that had been parked behind the building shortly after it opened and didn’t appear to have moved since. These features made for decent shelter against the elements, and thus it was here, beneath a single overhead light bulb that was either burned out or had been partially unscrewed, that Two-Beats was generally to be found. Raven had no idea what the fellow’s real name was; everyone called him by his street handle, uttering the moniker with contempt or quivering respect, depending upon whether they looked up at him in fear, or not. Raven didn’t fear the man, but he respected him, just as he respected other dangerous features of the city, like speeding trucks or condemned buildings. Out of caution and customary politeness, he approached the back of the building in the open, walking slowly but steadily, keeping his hands in his pockets.
As he drew closer, he saw his contact’s head come up. The man’s right hand crept towards the back of his waistband, but stopped as recognition set in. Raven nodded at the compliment and stopped a couple of paces away. That left him under the rain instead of the awning, but it was prudent. Two-Beats was considerably larger, and had both a longer reach and an unpredictable temper. If it came to fisticuffs, Raven planned to beat a retreat. Fighting was for fools; for fools with a death wish, in fact.
His contact spoke first. “Blackie.” The word came out in an exaggerated drawl. Two-Beats was himself black-skinned, and embraced every aspect of the stereotyped culture portrayed on television. Raven knew that he had been born in Western Connecticut, in a milquetoast town that bore as much resemblance to Harlem as it did to Pakistan.
It didn’t bother him; as far as Raven was concerned, everyone had the right to smith-craft their own legend. It was what he himself did every day, more or less. “Beats,” he replied with a deferential nod. There was a glassy sheen in the taller man’s eyes, and Raven thought it might be cocaine. Two-Beats, he knew, had expensive tastes. Best to be polite, he thought. It usually was.
“You buying?”
“Paying.” Without moving too quickly, he pulled his left hand from his pocket, opening it to reveal a tight roll of bills. His right hand was still concealed, his fingers caressing the star-shaped silver slug that he thought of as the horn-charm.
Beats’ moist eyes widened. “Okay, then,” he exclaimed, reaching for the money.
Raven pulled it back a hand-span. “It’s for Sherlyn. A thousand. For what she owes you.”
The other man snorted. “Bitch owes me more’n that. A lot more.”
“I’ll get more,” Raven promised. “Tomorrow.”
Two-Beats blinked once, twice, working the offer and its implications through the thick, alkaloid-sodden sludge of his mind. “Three G’s,” he said, “on top o’that.”
Four thousand, Raven thought. A lot, but it might have been more. He waggled the roll. “Three more, and she’s clear?” He watched the tilt of his contact’s head, the set of his jaw, the narrowing of his eyes. The horn-charm granted loquacity, but it also helped the speaker read the truth of what he heard.
Beats nodded. “Yeah.”
Lying. Raven’s cheek twitched, but he gave no other sign. He put the roll of bills in the pimp’s outstretched hand. “Same time tomorrow, then?”
“Why you care, anyway?”
Raven blinked. “Sorry?”
“’Bout Sherlyn. She just Jersey ass, man.” Beats grinned, displaying decaying teeth. “You in love or something?”
Raven cocked an eyebrow, then shrugged. “She helped me out.”
“Ah just bet she did!”
Raven decided to let that pass. “Just trying to help out,” he said soothingly, grinding the horn-charm between thumb and forefinger and willing the magic to work. “Same time tomorrow?” he repeated.
Two-Beats frowned for a moment. Then his face cleared, taking on an almost beatific cast. He caused the money to disappear. “Yeah.”
“And she’ll be fine?” Raven said clearly, fixing the other man with his eyes, unclenching his will a little and letting their unsettling colour show through.
The fellow heaved a theatrical sigh. “’Course, man. My word’s good, right?”
“Right.” Raven’s cheek twitched again; he couldn’t help it. “See you tomorrow.”
Beats nodded. “Ah’ll be here.”
Raven dipped his head in farewell. He left the park, heading eastwards, crossing Avenue B towards Alphabet City, heading for the riverfront. There was a mission at Saint Emeric’s where he could usually find a lukewarm meal and a cold bed, and he planned to stuff the rest of his ill-gotten gains into the donation slot near the arched front doors.
Between the rain, the mounting wind, the slickly treacherous sidewalk, and his preoccupation with his bargain with Two-Beats, Raven failed to notice the old woman until he was practically atop her. At the last instant his brain registered the presence of a clot of shadow huddled in the corner between a mailbox and the crumbling brick of an artisanal bakery, and he stumbled to a halt the barest fraction of an instant before treading on her.
She was old; he saw that at once. Old, and wrapped in shawl and blanket like a film stereotype. The peculiar appropriateness of her attire caught Raven off guard; and when she looked up at him, her eyes caught the rain-dampened streetlamps, reflecting glints of feral yellow and scarlet. There was something atavistic, medieval even, about her appearance, and he found himself recalling the severed head he had seen only an hour ago, wide-eyed, staring, clotted with foulness, and swirling haplessly down into the maelstrom of the rain-tide. Despite himself, he took a step back.
A hand – a claw – age-gnawed, gnarled and spotty, crept tremblingly from beneath the shawl. “Milostenie?” she murmured. “Ofranda?” Though her voice was as decrepit and tremulous as her frame, he heard her words clearly, as if they had been coins dropped from a great height into still water.
Raven cocked his head. “I don’t...I’m sorry, I don’t speak your language.” He’d been about to say that he didn’t understand her, but shied at the last moment away from falsehood. He had no idea what tongue she used, but he knew what she’d said. A plea for alms.
The ancient, bird-like eyes didn’t move; they remained fixed upon him, like nails driven through the planks of his soul. The hand quivered again. “Halp,” she quavered.
There was curiosity in those eyes; assessment, evaluation, even interest. Raven could sense it all. But there was no compulsion. Had he known more about the temper of the world, he might have walked on; but it was not in his nature to deny someone in need. That, after all, was what had drawn him to Sherlyn’s plight, and into the dangerous world of Two-Beats and his ilk.
He didn’t stop to consider his next action; he simply plunged his hand into his pocket, drew out the remainder of the money he had purloined, and pressed it into the old woman’s hand.
The ancient eyes widened, although their colour and focus didn’t change. “Too mach,” she protested, shaking the wad at him. “Too mach!”
Raven took her hand, suppressing a shiver of disgust at the damp, crepe-like texture of her skin. “There’s no such thing,” he said gently, folding her brittle, twiggy fingers over the roll of bills, “as too much help.”
That brought a grin to cracked, ancient lips. The old woman tucked the money away with a conjurer’s finesse, and began to laugh – not a clean, hearty guffaw, but a chilling chortle, a cackle of glee that sent a runnel of spittle trickling down her chin. “No...no such thing!” she crowed.
Raven cast her a nervous sidelong glance and stepped back. The withered hand shot out and seize him by the wrist. Her strength and dexterity shocked him, and he tugged reflexively.
She held on, patting his hand. This time he did shiver. “You good boy,” she said eerily. “Very good boy, yes.” Her sleeve fell back, and he saw something on the inside of her left forearm; a scrawl of some sort. A tattoo, possibly.
“Lucky boy, nu?” she went on, almost crooning now. Behind her words the wind had fallen silent, and the tinkling tumble of sleet had ceased; glints of ice lay along the edges of roofs, silvering the power lines and glazing the streets. “Son of Sun and Moon, grandson of sea.” She tugged him closer, and he stumbled towards her; and with her free hand she grasped his forearm, kneading the muscles. “Strong son. Strong arm, strong heart. Very good.”
Alarmed, Raven reared back, yanking his hand out of her grasp. He felt her nails score his wrist, but forbore to glance at the scratches. “I – I have to go,” he stammered. His hands were empty, his charms buried deep in his pockets, all but forgotten, and his eloquence had deserted him.
Fii bine, fiul lunii,” she murmured. She patted her bosom. “Thanking. You see me soon, nu?”
Raven stumbled backwards. “Sure,” he grunted. Turning his back on her, he pointed himself at the river and threw himself into motion. He could feel her eyes on his back, touching him, probing him like cold, lifeless fingers.
The eyes followed him until he passed behind the apartment building at East Tenth and Szold. The instant he turned the corner, he paused, then glanced back around the edge of the structure.
She was gone. The streetlamps shone cold and passionless on the lip of stone where he’d spoken to her.
Raven took a deep, calming breath. By the time he’d let it out he was chuckling at himself, laughing at the megrims that had him staggering through the night like the liquor-stinking derelicts that gathered with their gauze and lighters beneath the Queensboro Bridge. By the time he was done laughing, he couldn’t recall what he’d been laughing about. A few moments later, lost in thought, he strode past Saint Emeric’s, wondering idly what had happened to the money he’d planned to drop into the church’s donation slot.
When Raven slept that night in an unheated room on a stained and musty-smelling mattress, wrapped in a threadbare blanket against the coming winter’s chill, he dreamed of the Sun and the Moon and the Sea...and of a dark god, tall, majestic and terrible, with lips and loins stained with blood, and a great stag’s head crowned with horns that towered over the earth like the dead branches of the world-tree against the starry sky. The vision shook him, and he woke screaming, but when he did he could remember none of it. All that he could remember was clammy, parchment skin, strange-sounding words...and an old woman’s cold, yellow eyes.