Fate’s Cruel Hand

Fate’s Cruel Hand



He struck himself in the face, then again -tasting blood as his teeth punctured his

lips. He spat in disgust -hating himself for what he wasn’t. “Come out!” He screamed,

punching himself again, willing his anger to build. He wanted the rage but all that

welled up from within him was pity. Tears ran down his face to mix with the blood at

the corner of his mouth and he spat the salty mixture into cavernous maw of darkness

before him. His Rage was absent. Nonexistent. It would not manifest today as it had

not manifested for the last thirty years and more. His tongue would remain pink forever,

it seemed. He reached up and tore fitfully at his hair, cursing himself. He was running

out of reasons to drag himself out from this abyss. How much longer could he go

on like this?

Lauk was disturbed from his self loathing by a resonating howl that made him lift

his head from his hands. The breath of the world. He thought as he examined his surroundings

-more out of curiosity than fear. If one was afraid, he did not come to the

Crawl, this gaping tear like an open wound in the earth. Haunted, most thought. The

bush-warlocks and bog-witches would barely speak of the place and avoided it at all

costs. What ramblings he did catch said that it was a place not meant for mortals. They

said that the Sisters believed there was an ancient spirit of the mud and dust that

dwelt here. A spirit that long ago gave birth to humans and then went mad.

How’s that. He thought. We are born of mud and shat forth from this, the world’s


So here he was, at the Crawl once more. If the Sisters were to be believed, he was

standing at the brink of the beginning and what could be the end -for him, at least.

Just step forward and he would plunge into depths unknown -swallowed by the


Do it, you useless bag of mud. End it.


Another howl erupted from the Crawl and Lauk instinctively backed a step as hot

air gusted from the inky blackness below. When Lauk was a younger man he had been

stranded in the mud-flats during a violent thunderstorm. No shelter aside from the

blackened stumps of long dead trees dotting the terrain as he was pelted by rain and

buffeted by fierce winds. He’d been suddenly and violently thrown to the ground

when a bolt of lightning struck one of those stumps he’d been mere paces away from.

The purple afterimage seared into his eyes and the sharp, crisp smell in the air was all

he remembered after he regained consciousness. That’s what the Crawl smelled like.

The air after a lightning strike.

Lauk spat another mouthful of blood down into the abyss before he turned

abruptly and snatched his spear from the gnarled black-bark tree he’d set it against. A

chorus of mocking squawks descended down upon him from the crows that lined the

twisted branches.

The Crawl was surrounded by a soupy mixture of black, bog-water and silty mud

that perpetually ran off into the giant hole in a noiseless, slow-moving deluge. Blood

warm fog wafted out of the massive cavern in a never ending stream that clouded

one’s vision of the crow-filled, skeletal trees and thorn covered swamp-scrub. That fog

played tricks with the thick moss hanging from the tree’s desiccated, fingerlike branches

and Lauk was reminded why no one came to this place. Haunted? It certainly appeared

so, but not likely. There was simply no reason to come here. Boglach was a

barren wasteland. A strange smelling swamp that stretched for league upon league in

all directions and the Crawl was naught but it’s lifeless heart. The perfect backdrop for

one to lament in their own misfortune -especially if one wished to do so in utter isolation.

Maybe that’s why he liked it here. It perfectly reflected what was inside of him. A

gaping hole that nothing could fill.


Lauk sloshed on through the ankle deep mud, his otter-skin moccasins keeping

his feet dry. He caught sudden movement in his periphery and his hand flashed out

into a black-briar bush. He pulled out a golden-tailed skink, examining the lizard in his

now bloody fist. It’s golden, luminescent tail would glow at night as it used it to lure

prey -wood beetles and mosquitos mostly. Now it thrashed back and forth as it tried in

vain to escape. Lauk faintly smiled and stuffed it into the leather sack at his waist

where he had three more of the skinks.

The only place you could find a golden-tail was at the Crawl. They were as thick as

mosquitoes here, for whatever reason -as were a host of other creatures. The Crawl

seemed to attract them. Lauk never thought long as to why that might be. He wasn’t a

warlock or shaman devoted to eldritch mysteries beyond the veil. Oh, how he wished

he was, but he did not possess the Breath of the Divine as did the Sisters, nor was he

able to slit the veins of the earth and drink its blood like the bush-warlocks and bogwitches.

No, the best he could do was swing an axe.

Swing an axe like a fucking child. Nothing like a Blackened, gods damn my useless


One of the golden-tails, in a desperate flurry, nearly managed to escape before

Lauk pulled tight the bag’s leather thong. Blame the Great Beaver, little skink. Lauk

thought. He did not change either of our fates this day.


The sun was a muted blotch through the fog on the western horizon as Lauk

neared Uru-Isa, his home. The city rose like a mountain out of the swamplands, a

mountain of shaped stone where no stone could be found. Walls that disappeared

into the sky’s fog, soaring towers and monuments to lost heroes or gods. He’d given

up trying to make any sense of this place. His curiosity had died just as this once great

civilization had. All that remained were a people with amnesia.


Lauk always chose this approach when entering the city. Through the towering,

soot-smeared remains of Ember Gate. The only thing left of the actual gate were the

iron hinges still mounted into the stone. Iron hinges that somehow had never rusted.

Through the gate and on passed lightless guard towers occupied by the dried

bones of his ancestors.

He walked by a scrying totem; an arcane construct of the Sisters. A misshapen collection

of elder-wood built in the semblance of an eye, held together from what could

only be human hair. From other braided ropes of hair hung an assortment of trinkets.

Bones mostly, black feathers and roots. Acorns that were said to carry curses. A dozen

or so ears, human and hound alike. And in the eye’s center hung an uncut gem of diamond

the size of Lauk’s knuckle. He had passed a half dozen of the things on his walk

in from the Crawl, some he never saw, but rather felt -like a wisp-spider on the back of

his neck. They were the Sisters’ all seeing eyes. At least that’s what Jahdis told him.

Cook fires were lit outside almost every one of the dozen or so stone houses he

could see up ahead. They were all tended by crookback elders with prickly eyes. He

found their lingering stares easier to bear than the challenging, predatory glares of

the Blackened. Lauk’s main reason for returning through the Ember gate was that it

led through this, Elder’s Row. A relatively docile lot.

He made momentary eye contact with an old, gnarled root of a man who carried a

long, wooden spoon the way Lauk would carry his fighting axe if he meant to use it.

The man unfurled his black tongue to his chin and exposed yellow, filed teeth in a feral

growl and Lauk decided docile may not be the right description. Less likely to put

iron in my gut, perhaps? He’d take his chances with the wooden spoons of Elder’s Row

over the iron axes in Black Bastion any day.


As Lauk made his way through the houses he noted the lack of people about. Elder’s

Row was always less crowded than most, but the streets were nigh on empty. Curious,

but he wouldn’t question a bit of good fortune from the Great Beaver.

His nose was assaulted by all manner of smells. Some made him salivate while

others made him want to pack his nostrils with mud. He saw river snakes, skinned and

spitted, stuffed with river snake eggs. A delicacy this time of year. Swamp rat stew with

boiled gourd. Wild pig and deer. Slabs of tsalag meat, the giant, cattle-like creatures

produced some of Lauk’s favorite cuts.

Cooking was an art, the elders would say. Like fighting or doing the dance of

lovers. And they were too old for both, so cooking was what the elders of the Boglachi

did, and they pursued the mastery of it as vigorously as they had pursued mastering

hunting, fighting or fucking in their youth. Elders were revered by the Boglachi.

Revered and then forgotten and forced to the fringe of society.

“Lauk!” A voice called. “He’s back!” Another said. “Let’s go! Lauk is here!” A chorus

of young voices followed as a dozen children ran barefooted, clothed in rags, wielding

mockeries of weapons they would one day use to slay other men.

“By the Bog!” Lauk yelled as he held up a hand to fan the air from his nose. “Uru-

Isa has been overrun by swamp-rats!” The children burst into laughter and ran circles

around him. “Idrass!” He called over his shoulder to a nearby elder as he snatched up

a squealing young boy. “Here! Make room in your kettle for another rat!”

The old woman waved her long, wooden spoon threateningly. “Don’t ye go foulin’

me stew with that unwashed, meatless vermin ye got there!”

Lauk shrugged. “No matter. I’ve eaten swamp-rat raw before.” He opened his

mouth wide and made to eat the boy’s arm before he was suddenly battered on all

sides by wooden weapons wielded by fledgling killers. “By the Crow! Stay your

weapons!” He called, holding his hand over his leather bag protectively.


“What did you bring us, Lauk?” Yelled a young girl wielding a long stick that appeared

to be an axe handle with a rusted dagger crudely fastened to the end. “Show

us!” They yelled.

“Little Cherata.” Lauk said as he knelt down to one knee, slapping a young boy’s

hand that ventured too close to his fighting axe and roughly pushing aside some of

the bigger boys who tried to muscle their way in front of Cherata. He motioned for

some of the smaller children to come closer as he pulled the leather bag from his belt.

They all went silent. Their bloody and mud spattered faces that spoke of a day spent

beating one another all stared at him in wide-eyed anticipation. He undid the throng

enough to allow the golden light from the skink’s tails to illuminate the gathered children’s


“Golden-tails!” Cherata squealed. “How many?” Another asked. “By the Great

Beaver’s wooden prick!” He heard a boy yell from behind. He’d said it with enough

awkwardness for Lauk to guess that it was probably learned from an older boy just the

night before.

Cherata made a grab for the bag before Lauk snatched it away. “Ah! What are the


Cherata rolled her eyes in exasperation. “We can’t kill’em or cut’em up.” He had to

make this clear. The violent little bastards roamed the streets in gangs some a hundred

strong and would murder anything they thought they could eat. The waifs were

at constant war with the packs of wild dogs that inhabited the inner city and it made of

them opportunistic savages. He saw even now little bones and rotting tails hanging

from some of their makeshift belts. It was a simple hierarchy among the Foundlings;

the more tails you had around your waist, the tougher you were and the more respect

you earned. Vicious little bastards. “An we gots ta bring’em back on the morrow.”

Cherata finished.


Lauk nodded, satisfied.

“My da used to say I ain’t never gotta listen to no pink-tongue.” One of the older

boys said.

“You ain’t gotta listen to me you little swamp rat, but if you ever wanna see another

golden-tail, leopard toad, or lightning-adder again you’ll damn well follow my

rules.” It was hard for Lauk to keep the anger from his tone at being called pink and he

felt a moment’s regret as he saw the boy shrink back in fear of a backhand that might

come next. Lauk took a steadying breath and opened his mouth to apologize.

Pain exploded in his hand as Cherata cracked his knuckles with her axe handle

and snatched the leather sack, squealing in delight as she ran away -a tail of screaming

Foundlings thrashing behind her.

Mud sucking little monster! He thought as he gripped his hand, only a little mad.

Lauk stood shaking the pain from his fingers and checked his belongings. The mongrels

would have stolen anything that wasn’t secured. It was expected from the

Foundlings, really. The poor children were born with the wrong color tongue, pink and

not black, therefore they were fed to the ever-growing population of waifs on the

streets of Uru-Isa. Sure, some of them may come across their Rage as children and

into their adolescent years and therefore be allowed back into the very families that

rejected them. That would be their dreams as it had been Lauk’s dream since he was a

child. But, chances were that most of them would stay pink. True outcasts, looked

down upon and barely tolerated. The life of an insect as Lauk saw it, for even rodents

held loose familial ties throughout their lifespan. That’s why the words of that little

foundling still stung him.

“Should’ve cuffed the little shit.” Idrass said, squinting at him as she hunched over

her simmering kettle.


“Because he echoes the words of his father and mother?” And every Blackened in

Uru-Isa, including you. Lauk shook his head as he watched the children disappear

around the Temple of No Echoes.

“You’re makin’ em weak, ya know.” Idrass rasped. “They need to be sharpening

themselves against the hounds. Not playin with some shiny lizards.” Her words made

Lauk uncomfortable enough to start sweating. Conversations with Blackened, even

Blackened elders were always a reason to sweat.

“They’re kids.” Lauk shrugged, wanting out of this conversation.

“Bah, They run around causin’ more trouble than an idle beaver! If only their

tongues would go black their father’s would claim the whelps. That’s what they be

needin’ -their fathers.“

Lauk involuntarily flinched.

Seeing the effect her words had on him Idrass grimaced, then turned and spat.

“Bah, I wasn’t thinking, boy. Yer da now rides the Blood. He vi-”.

“Visits Rage on the entirety of the world.” Lauk finished, waving a hand dismissively.

“Aye, that’s what everyone tells me.”

Shit. He thought as the old crone’s eyes suddenly narrowed on him. He’d spoken

out of place -cut her off in mid sentence.

She gave the stew a violent swirl with her wooden spoon before fixing him with a

cataract clouded stare. “Followed yer da into some nasty shit back when he was chief

of the war-bands. Beat back the Men of Iron more times than I can’member.” She

poked the spoon at him, closing one cloudy eye. “And if I thought for a heartbeat that

look in yer eye was anything but regret at losin’ him -if I thought that turn of your pinktongued,

little mouth was filled with something like scorn- why, tomorrow I’d be

swirling around your untouched cock and balls in this here kettle.”

“Regret.” Lauk said, looking down and nodding. “It was regret, elder.”


Idrass spat on his moccasins and he turned and left, relieved to be out of the conversation.


Cherata sprinted passed the Temple of No Echoes, making sure she gave the

huge, stone entryway a wide birth. Statues like giant demons were carved right into

the walls of the temple, making it seem like they supported the structure on thick, upraised

arms. She didn’t like coming so close to the place. It scared her legs wobbly,

but the Blackened wouldn’t come anywhere near it so she found it was worth the risk.

She stopped at the end of the dark street, the dozen foundlings running behind

her finally able to catch up. “Take this to the hideout, Rut.” She handed the bag to the

biggest boy in her little gang -the one she could best trust to keep their little treasure

safe from the others. Rut’s belt of tails looked more like a skirt of tails and it made

most of the little monsters a’feared of him.

And they was monsters to be sure. Jundag and Hatan ran by her, eyeing the

leather bag in Rut’s big arms like they wanted to smash it against the stone without

even seeing what was inside -just to deny the other foundlings. Those two scared her

most. The way they killed stuff but not right out. One night she’d seen them cut up a

hound for hours. Taking it apart piece after piece, never once smiling or acting like

they enjoyed it. They just cut, stabbed and watched until Cherata had finally had

enough and crushed the poor bitch’s skull. Then they laughed. If Jundag and Hetan

found their Rage nobody in Uru-Isa would be safe.

She counted off the foundlings as they pattered passed her. Edeliss, Cup Nose,

Sunrise, Twinkle, Faila, Breeze and Rag Hair. When the foundlings came to her without

a name; her or Rut would give them one. She always tried to make the names pretty,

but unfortunately Rut had the creativity of a stone. Only eleven? Where was Tulip?


She peered back down the dark road, framed by empty, stone houses -some still

with bones inside from the Cleansing. She still didn’t know what that was. It happened

lots of years ago and she only knew what she overheard the Blackened say about it.

An’ they only said strange stuff like “The weak are no more.” An’ “The Crow now bear

their burden.”

There, at the edge of No Echo. Tulip was staring into those great, black doorways.

Beaver bless me. Keep the Crow away. Cherata’s heart thumped as she sprinted back

down the dark, cobbled road. She slowed when she saw that Tulip didn’t have one of

them fevered looks like she was about to walk through those doors made of pitch

black darkness.

Sometimes children disappeared into that place an’ never came back out. Cherata

had seen one boy just last winter go shambling into that door, sweatin’ and bleedin’

from every hole in his head. Her and three other Foundlings, including Rut, had tried

pullin’ him back, but his feet moved all on their own. Like a giant, invisible hand was

pulling him into the temple. Cherata didn’t like thinking about the ones she lost. She

guessed Tulip was just being curious. Though she thought there were better places to

be curious about. Like maybe a killing ground between a dozen blood-drunk Blackened.

Or even a Gnasher’s nest. Both of them meant nigh on certain death; only they

was better because at least it’d be fast and your soul still got to go to the Great River,

unless the Beaver found you worthy enough to change yer fate, of course. Not with

the Sisters. When they sank their teeth into yer soul it was theirs forever. Or so the

Blackened said.

“Tulip?” She said quietly. “Come along, dear.” She had found out long ago that if

she spoke to the foundlings like she was their great-mother then chances were that’s

how they’d treat her. “Step away from there and let’s be off to the hideaway.” She held

her spear low and back with one hand and offered Tulip the other. “Rut has the gold11

en-tails and I plan to finish off that clutch of swamp-rats we stole from old Idrass.

Doesn’t that sound nice, dear?” She took another step towards Tulip doing her best

not to look at No Echo. She wanted to believe that the pool of darkness around the

entrance wasn’t spreading and that it was only her imagination. Just like the cold air

on the back of her neck that felt like the icy breath of the Crow himself. Just her imagination.

Tulip looked over at her, confusion in her furrowed brow. “Cheratta, it called my

name. And not the one you gave me.” She turned her head back slowly to look at the

doorway set back amongst columns of black stone that reached forever into the night

sky. “The one my da gave me.” She scrubbed her blood and dirt streaked face with a

grimy hand. “Cherata, why do they call it No Echo?”

“It’s just a name, dear.” She said as she gently grasped Tulip’s hand. Cherata didn’t

want to tell her that the boy who’d been dragged into that doorway by the invisible giant’s

hand had been screaming. A high pitched, helpless wail that cut off as soon as he

passed through that pool of blackness. Nothin’ escaped those doors. Not light, sound,

nothin’. No Echo.

She looked at Cherata. “My name is Bludgeon Blackhand.” Her lips curled back in

a sneer. “I think my da wanted a boy. That’s maybe why him and me mum made me

leave.” She stared at Cherata, unshed tears rimming her eyes. “I like Tulip better.”

Cherata squeezed the girl’s hand and pulled her along to get her moving. “Go on

now, back to the hideaway.”

She looked back down the way they’d come in time to see old Idrass spit at Lauk.

She then watched as Lauk calmly walked away. He wasn’t no Blackened. A Blackened

would’ve drowned the old bag of bones in her own kettle. No, Lauk was pink through

and through.


Cherata herself was pink, but she’d seen that thing inside her. The thing that

screamed and clawed for release. She knew that if she wanted to she could let it out

and the Rage would take her and her pink tongue. She’d be Blackened. She just

couldn’t leave the children, not yet.

Tomorrow she would bring the foundlings back here. She would steal every scrap

of food old Idrass possessed. She would coat the underside of her floorboards with

the slime of rot-lichen and then plant a nest of fire beetles there. Not because she disliked

the old hag. No, she would do it for her friend, Lauk. After all, Foundlings looked

after one another.


Lauk carefully walked the wide, dark avenues that were the streets of Uru-Isa. The

moons overhead had unified to provide enough meager, red-tinged light to the dark

cobbles that he had little trouble in finding his way. When you weren’t Blackened, you

stayed away from the Blackened. This meant the easily accessible living quarters were

off limits as they were claimed. The foundlings had taken what the Blackened didn’t

want and Lauk and others pinks like him had to make do with what was left.

Lauk supposed there was one good thing about living in a city that utterly

dwarfed it’s population; there was no need to live in squalor.

Yet, living in squalor may be preferable to living under the constant threat of being

torn to shreds by a pack of dogs. Lauk had already had a standoff with a small

pack of the mottled horrors and now walked aggressively down the moonlit avenues,

iron bladed fighting axe in hand. He’d heard their piercing brays only minutes later,

announcing to the city that the hounds had found a victim. He whispered a prayer to

the Beaver that it wasn’t little Cherata.

As he rounded a corner he sighted the small estate he’d chosen as his dwelling. It

overlooked what may have long ago been a park or natural area, now it was nearly a


forest that had erupted from its stone wall boundaries and now overflowed into the

city. Stag pines and giant, mossy oaks grew straight up through the roofs of old houses

and shops. Thick ropes of leech vines entwined with spider-ivy seemed to be the

only thing keeping most of the edifices from simply crumbling. It seemed the wild was

slowly devouring the city from within.

The outer wall of his small estate was soot smeared and webbed in heat fractures.

The encroaching forest’s outthrust roots had upturned and tilted the flagstones that

led into an inner courtyard and beyond that to a pair of ornate double doors. Centered

in the courtyard on a upraised, marble pedestal was a breathtaking statue of a

woman. Naked, except for a crown of towering horns and a strip of cloth tied around

her eyes. One arm was casually draped across her breasts while the other was held

forth, a hooded viper coiled about her forearm and poised to strike. At her feet were

all manner of beasts. A tiger, boar, mastiff, bull and others he didn’t recognize. All

were crouched for employment -eager and hungry.

He paused as he always did to stare at the statue. Anything to delay what was to

come. His heart was already beating heavily in his chest and his mouth had gone dry.

It always did right before he had to go in and face them. A part of him entertained

thoughts of turning around and simply finding another estate to call his home. Be

done with them and no more worrying he might have his head caved in or his throat

slit in his sleep.

He took a deep breath and pushed through the doors and into the vaulted entryway,

twin spiraling staircases led up into dimly lit second story. Would they be up

there -on the terraced rooftop? He’d asked them to stop going up there at night. The

noise attracted attention.

“They just went up.” A hoarse, scratchy voice called from beside him. He turned to

see Jahdis approaching him, arms tucked tightly beneath her bosom as if fighting off


a chill. She wore a deerskin skirt and loose fitting shirt, a strip of cloth wrapped tightly

around her neck as always to conceal the wound that disfigured her and stole her

voice. The hounds of Uru-Isa left their mark on everyone. “They won’t listen.” She said

shaking her head. “Must you teach them how to fight? They scare me Lauk.”

“You worry overmuch, Jahdis.” Lauk said reaching a hand towards her which she

roughly slapped away.

“By the Bog, woman!” Lauk said shaking the his hand in exaggeration. Jahdis had

the temper of a cornered badger but made up for it by being beautiful. He stepped

towards her and she stopped him with a stiff hand into his chest, she leaned towards

him and sniffed like a hound before she narrowed her eyes at him.

“Fool!” She spat. “What must I tell you of that place for you to stop going? Is it not

enough that even the Sisters in all their terrible power will not walk there? Is it not

enough that the Blackened warriors you hold in such high regard would shit themselves

at the idea of spending a mere heartbeat before the Crawl?” She grabbed his

face roughly and examined it. Her lips peeled back as she must’ve seen the punishment

he’d caused himself. “Why do you want to be one of them so badly?”

He pulled his head free and looked away. He couldn’t explain it to her, he’d tried.

Jahdis was a bog-witch and commanded power. She was respected in her own rights

even by the Blackened. Despite being a pink she had a place in Uru-Isa. He didn’t. As

she always did, she seemed to read his thoughts and suddenly pressed herself

against him. She smelled of the earth. Like soil and flowers. Like an eastern breeze off

the Urian River.

“Your place is here, you mud-brained eel.” She said into his chest.

He untied a small pouch at his belt and held it to her. He was pleased at her sudden

inhalation and smiled.

“Thorns?” She rasped.


He nodded. “Thorns from the Black Briar and seeds of the twilight roses I brought

you last time.” He cupped her hand around the small bag. He wanted to tell her of the

beauty he saw there at the Crawl. The silence he felt -the quietness in his soul. Oh,

sure he unfailingly ended up self mutilating and castigating himself for something that

was utterly out of his control, but that’s what happened when he was forced by the

Crawl’s silence to deal with those innermost feelings that over time spread through

him like a poison and turned him into a self-loathing derelict. It was his own self imposed

therapy and the only way he’d found to deal with being a pink in a society

dominated by the Blackened. The Crawl cleansed him, if only momentarily.

Jahdis’s lips compressed and he could tell she was stuck somewhere between berating

him once more for going to the Crawl, and kissing him for bringing her such


He nodded and she knew that he knew. He turned and dropped the heavy, iron

locking-bar across the doors and let down his pack. He looked up the steps, heart

once more beating heavily.

“I try teaching them.” Jahdis whispered. She only rasped and croaked when she

was angry or excited -whispering was how she normally spoke. “They just stare at me

like statues. They worry me, especially the eldest. I know you feel you owe them this

Lauk but-.” She stopped as he raised his hand. Another conversation they’d had too

many times to no avail.

“They’ll come around.” He said, as he always did.

“And if they don’t? And if you walk up there and one of them has Blackened and

takes your ugly head from your spindly shoulders? Don’t smile at me like that Lauk -it’s

bound to happen!” She was rasping again in anger. “The Crow knows there’s enough

anger in the eldest for us all. Lauk, if his Rage manifests-.” He held up a hand again,

forestalling her argument.


“They’ll give me what I no doubt deserve, Jahdis.”

She arched an eyebrow at him. “If you get yourself killed, I swear by the Crow I’ll

tie your useless soul to a catfish.” She then spun on a barefooted heel and left the entry


Catfish had their place. He mused.

He ascended the stairs quickly before he became mired in thought once more.

Up, passed the gloomy second story that was never used. He emerged onto the

sprawling, torchlit rooftop to the sound of fighting. Two pairs of eyes regarded him

and he nearly wilted under that gaze before the two boys resumed their sparring.

They hadn’t attacked him upon sight which meant their moods weren’t fouled, so

Lauk edged slowly out onto the roof collecting a knotted ash cudgel from a weapon

stand. Half of the giant roof was Jahdis’s garden where she grew all manner of rare

vegetables and fruits. The other half Lauk had made into a martial arena of sorts. The

Dueler’s Heart was carved into the stone floor. The giant training circle with its myriad

of enigmatic lessons was first shown to him by his father. Ten years he’d trained Lauk.

Ten years until he got tired of waiting for Lauk’s tongue to turn black and banished

him to the streets.

The boy’s axe hafts cracked against one anothers as they sparred. Although no onlooker

would call this sparring. More like two boys barely into their teenage years trying

to kill one another with vicious, full-armed swings from wooden fighting axes.

“Your strength is born off your back foot, Boshtovan.” Lauk said quietly as he observed

the boys. “A flat footed strike leaves you off balance and vulnerable to a

counter. There, better. Breathe, Mikhail. Establish your center. Tighten your guard,

you’re gripping the haft wrong. Here, slide your hand to to the bottom. Not so tightly.

There. Widen your stance. More.”


He firmly tapped flaring elbows and out turned knees with his ash cudgel, all the

while making minute corrections to their footwork and technique. “Parry. Faster.

Stronger. Well struck! Faster. Be faster! Fade. Now Advance.” The boys were fast learners.

For hours longer he put the boys through their steps. Jahdis brought up three

steaming bowls of soup that went warm and then cold while Lauk worked the boys to


Then, as always, it happened. Slowly, but inevitably as the sunset -it happened. It

started with an angry glare after a harsh correction he made. Then the boys were on

him. Boshtovan in all of his iron hot rage came at him with heavy sweeps of his wooden

fighting axe and a long, iron stiletto he pulled from his knee high moccasins.

Mikhail, the younger, cold, calculator of the two moved into Lauk’s flank -producing

a dagger of his own.

Lauk continued with his instruction as he worked the heavily knotted cudgel in defensive


“That was a slow pivot, Boshtovan.” Lauk said as he cracked the boy’s lead knee.

Then Lauk pivoted in a snap of his leg to stab the cudgel into an advancing Mikhail’s

unprotected midsection. “Too slow. Do not hesitate.” He said to Mikhail as the boy retreated

-unable to draw breath. “Do not overcommit to any attack. Remain light on

your feet, prepared to fade.”

He turned to meet the wild swing he knew Boshtovan would follow up with and

was met instead with a wooden axe flying through the air. The handle smashed into

his mouth and nose in an explosion of pain and Lauk blindly threw himself into a low

roll across the stone. He came up facing both the boys and faded back two steps. He

shook his head violently to clear his vision -blood already spilling from his broken

nose. As always, Boshtovan came first. He threw his cudgel at Boshtovan in a stalling


maneuver that nearly tripped the boy, then pulled free his iron fighting axe. He caught

Mikhail’s overhead chop in the beard of his axe and yanked him across Boshtovan’s

path. The brothers collided in a tangle of pale limbs and curses and Lauk pivoted, faded

back a step, then two -bent down and retrieved his cudgel.

Lauk did not speak. Did not ask the boys to stop. This too was an old argument

-never resolved -that always left Lauk wanting to leap face first into the Crawl. Boshtovan

retrieved his axe and the brothers slowly approached once more. Burning hate

filled boy’s tear streaked faces. In unison they both scrubbed their faces with the back

of their hands and advanced.

Lauk snapped a kick flush into the chest of Mikhail -launching the boy back off his

feet. Boshtovan reacted faster than he thought possible by slashing Lauk’s extended

leg across his upper thigh. Instinctively Lauk brought his cudgel around and cracked

Boshtovan across the face. The blow spun him and and he went down limply onto his


“Crow take me.” He growled as he knelt down over the boy, fearing he had landed

on his stiletto. He hadn’t meant to strike him so hard. As soon as he touched Boshtovan

to turn him over the boy rolled and brought the dagger around in a wide, stabbing

arc. Lauk caught the boy’s wrist easily but then Boshtovan looked over Lauk’s

shoulder -a victorious smile parting his lips.

He’d forgotten about Mikhail. He lowered his head and desperately flung up his

axe in a horizontal guard over the shoulder Boshtovan was staring. Mikhail’s wooden

axe clattered down painfully against his axe haft and fingers. Lauk jerked his axe savagely

and pulled the boy forward and off his feet. Lauk then jabbed his axe haft into

Boshtovan’s midsection and pried the stiletto from his hands before straightening and

backing a step.

They almost killed me.


Lauk spat a mouthful of blood onto the stone and winced in pain. The inside of his

lips were split and his nose still ran with blood. The chest of his hide jerkin was wet

and bright red -as was his right leg from the thigh down. A deep cut.

He hit a bleeder, shit.

The stiletto he’d taken from Boshtovan clattered to the stones -fallen from his suddenly

numbed fingers already deeply bruised and swollen -perhaps broken.

Everything was still now. The boys stared up at him with wide eyes. Something between

fear and excitement.

Lauk took a deep breath and slid his iron axe back into the loop at his belt.

“You’ll start respecting Jahdis when she’s teaching you.” Lauk blew air through his

shattered nose -strings or blood roping out to decorate the stone.

“Never asked her to teach us nothin’.” Boshtovan said as he sat up.

“Never needed her to teach us nothin’.” Mikhail followed up.

Lauk walked over to one of the iron torch sconces rimming the rooftop and stared

into the flame.

“You’ll respect her and the time she gives you. Or you can leave.”

“We’ll leave then! Right now!” Boshtovan screeched.

“Will you?” Lauk asked calmly as he took the torch from the sconce and heaved it

off the roof and into the night. “They wait for you.” Lauk pointed down into the streets

at the hundreds of glowing eyes that reflected off the flying torch’s light.

The torch landed and was like a catalyst as howls and baying erupted from what

seemed like every hound in Uru-Isa. Lauk had to raise his voice over the cacophony.

“The foundlings will take you in. You will be robbed first. All of your possessions

taken and divided amongst the Bigs with the most hound tails. You will eat what you

can steal from broken Elders and the meat of hounds your gang manages to kill. Not

to say it’s easy. Hounds are smart and traps rarely work. They’re never alone, you see,


and they’ve got a nose for a gang of foundlings on the hunt. Usually what happens is a

pack of foundlings squares off against a pack of hounds. Both sides take losses and

both sides get to eat.” The boys said nothing. “When you get too old, usually around

seventeen or eighteen, they’ll run you off or kill you in your sleep. Depends on how

afraid of you they are. Ideally you just run away before the gang is forced to do that.

Messy business but it’s gotta be done. The older someone gets the more… appetites

they gain.” The boys comprehended his meaning and swallowed heavily in unison.

“Some nights the Blackened will round up as many foundlings as they can. Hundreds

of boys and girls that were either too slow or just unlucky. They’ll march you right into

No Echo in one big line. To sate the Sisters, you see? There’s more, but you’ll learn. It’s

really not so bad being a Foundling. It makes you tough.”

The boy’s were slack jawed and it almost pained Lauk to see the utter dismay in

Mikhail’s eyes. The howls seemed to die in response to Lauk’s words and a forlorn heir

pervaded the rooftop. Was that fear he saw in their eyes?

“I’ve never asked a thing of you two.” He said. They hadn’t yet risen and instead

had drawn close to one another. Lauk shook his head to dispel a sudden dizziness he

felt. “Everything I’ve done for you two has been in anticipation of you one day killing

me.” Lauk swallowed hard. “So that you can take care of yourselves out there.” He

pointed out into the darkness. “On that day you must flee here lest Jahdis boil the

blood in your veins and feed you to the very hounds I’ve taught you to stay away

from.” He tried to laugh to dispel the growing sense of grief but it came out as a high

pitched whistle through his broken nose.

Mikhail was sobbing and Boshtovan’s inner rage seemed to burn up any tears he

may have shed.

Lauk was feeling lightheaded and reached out a hand to steady himself on the

waist-high stone wall surrounding the rooftop. He never remembered it being so cold


this time of year. Never remembered the stars swarming around the moons. He closed

his eyes.

“I pray to the Beaver and any other god I think might listen. I pray that you two find

your Rage. I pray that I wake up from this nightmare I’m forced to live. I pray that your

mother never stumbled into my home. I pray that she had killed me before I killed


About The Author

Evan McCleskey

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