~ The Needles ~
I stood on the edge of Vayland, looking down into a ravine. Silver pain pulled at a single point in my body, dredging up memories.
When I was a kid in the first house my family ever lived in, my room was next to the living room and, thus, the television. After bedtime, whenever I heard the television and no conversation, I would slowly open my door, crouch down next to the floor, and slide into the room on my stomach. My door was right next to the foot of the couch back then, and sat directly between the couch and the T.V., so if I was quiet, I could curl up on the floor and watch TV while my Dad lay not three feet away on the couch.
Some nights, I would fall asleep while watching. What happened next depended on who found me; regardless, I would always wake up in my bed the next morning, like magic, but if my mom had found me, I would get a lecture during breakfast about needing my sleep.
Dad never said anything. I suppose he thought that, between the floor and my bed, I’d gotten enough sleep.
He understood; that much was clear.
When I opened my eyes, we weren’t on the road anymore.
The cage really wasn’t all that difficult. There were no locks, only tie-downs, which weren’t a problem if you ignored the burning of the mud. He’d driven seven loads of winter wheat to town while running a temperature of a hundred four; if he really wanted to, he could get the damned cage open.
Eventually, he proved himself right, although the sweat in his eyes burned almost as badly as his skin.
He slipped past the smallest number of huts possible to get to the edge of the camp, not knowing where he was going except away.
Just past the last hut, it got difficult to walk.
Twenty paces later, the needles started to burn like over-extended muscles. It felt as though he was trying to pull a truck with chains attached directly to his body.
”Stevn,” came the phlegm voice. He was too focused to jump.
”Where are you going, Stevn?” The voice was right in his ear, it seemed.
”The hell… away…” Steven didn’t even know if that was an answer or a command.
”What if there’s no one waiting for you?”
The thought bored right to the base of his brain and waited for him to give. He wasn’t going to. He knew if he could just get a few more steps, he’d be free.
But what then?
When blunt fingers wrapped around his arms, he was already on his knees, looking up at the sky.
Brock was standing at my elbow. Somehow, the smell of him didn’t seem overpowering anymore.
It’s not. Here, it fits in. It doesn’t clash.
I shook my head, partly to clear it. “Sorry, what?”
He watched me for a few seconds. “How’s the pain?”
I started, suddenly sure I’d lost the needle, and felt for it just below my right collarbone. Still there. Still there? I frowned. “There isn’t any pain.” I looked at him. “Not that I mind, but you said the pain would pretty much stay constant.”
Brock looked at me, then glanced over his shoulder as Bhuto emerged from the gray-green scrub where he’d gone scouting. “I was wrong.”
I wanted to ask what else he might have be wrong about, but the look on his face made me think better of it.
We started moving. The way they’d explained it, we’d still have a long way to go even after we came through. Now that I was here I knew that was true; I knew exactly where we needed to go. I had no idea what lay between here and there, but I could point out the direction we needed to travel with my eyes closed.
I did, and we walked into the land of the fae.
Hours passed, during which the ache in my legs and feed subsided into a dull burn, giving me a chance to take in the sere landscape and starry sky. “Are there territories?” I asked of no one in particular.
Brock glanced around. “Here?”
“Aye,” he said, “we’re nowhere near a friendly place or one of those princess palaces they put in those ridiculous fairy books, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“You should read one of those books.” I let my expression convey what I thought of his guess. “I have, and I wouldn’t go near one of those palaces.” I rubbed sweat out of the corner of my eye. “Why aren’t there any friendly territories around here?”
He shrugged, looking around. “Dirt-eaters lose most of the fae wars. The losers get driven to the hinterlands, and these are they, no offense. Even on your side of border, it’s nothing but violent winters, vicious heat in the summers; it’s the worst of all the worlds in one place. The things that survive here…” he broke off a branch from a bent tree that seemed to have grown up in the middle of a high wind. “They don’t have much choice.”
I frowned, feeling like I should be on the defensive. “At least they’re strong enough to take it.”
“Oh, aye.” Brock grunted. “That’s why the dirt-eaters want ’em.”
I didn’t understand what he meant, but Bhuto hissed a warning before I could say anything.
They let the thing that used to be Ted Schafer out of his cage that morning. The clouds weren’t a complete shroud over the camp, but it didn’t really improve the light; the sky was the wrong color to begin with.
There weren’t any helpers to clear away muck and detritus from Schafer’s body; it wasn’t necessary. The last batch of muck — Steven understood that that meant the third batch — was left on until it was absorbed almost completely, over the course of weeks. The camp then waited to see if the captive lived or died. In Steven’s opinion, Schafer had been unlucky.
There weren’t even any needles left to remove.
The tall creature stood before the Schafer creature in the center of the gathering and spoke in its gurgling hiss. “You have lived.”
The Schafer-thing wobbled its head.
”You are part of us now. We are part of you. I am Churkk. You are Zef.”
The thing paused, cocking its head as though listening to a distant sound, then nodded. “Zef.” It swayed slightly, and several of the creatures came forward to help it to a hut.
Churkk turned towards Steven’s cage. “It is the third day.” It gurgle-growled, and its smile returned.
This time, Steven fought.