The following is an excerpt from the novel The Cracked Throne by Joshua Palmatier, available from DAW Books, Inc. © 2006.
I crouched down behind a pile of broken stone to catch my breath and gazed down the darkened narrow in the warren of buildings of the Dredge. In the moonlight, the alley was mainly shadow, with edges of dull light. Water gleamed in a thin stream in the alley’s center. No doorways, no windows here. At least none that I could see.
A sound came from behind, a rattle of stone against stone.
I spun, breath catching, heard my heart thudding in my ears, on the verge of bolting. My feet skidded on the wet dirt on the cobbles--
But there was nothing behind. The alley was as dark as it was ahead. There were many places to hide, but nowhere to escape to. He could be waiting for me, hidden in any of the shadows, ready to pounce if I turned back.
A sob tightened my chest and I fought it back, closed my eyes against the sensation. I breathed in slowly, tried to calm myself.
Use the river.
The thought slid across the darkness behind my eyes and I frowned. But then there was the unmistakable tread of a foot, moving cautiously, and far, far too close.
My eyes flew open, my heart shuddered, and I lurched out from the shelter of the broken stone into the alley, moving almost blindly, eyes catching glimpses of heaped stone, piles of shattered crates and rotting refuse. My bare feet pounded against the slick cobbles, splashed in the trickling stream. I heard a curse, heard a hail of loose dirt and stone as someone pushed away from a crumbling wall, then heavy footfalls. A cold sliver of fear lanced down my side, sharp with pain. I slapped a hand against it, tried to force it away, and then the alley turned.
I swerved too late, felt my feet skid in the muck, slip, begin to pull out from under me, and then I slammed into the mud-brick wall in the corner. My breath whooshed from my lungs, but I didn’t pause. I used the wall to catch my balance, shoved away from it before I’d truly gained purchase, and stumbled down the left turn.
A door. I needed a door, a window, an escape.
Behind, the footfalls burst into a run. Someone shouted, cursed as he stumbled into a stack of garbage, tripped and fell.
I darted along the new alley. Still nothing. No door, no window. I sobbed, breath hitching in my throat. The dagger of pain in my side dug deeper. I was no longer running smoothly, the pain too harsh, making me stumble. I’d been running too long.
A cloud moved across the moon. The alley plunged itself into total darkness. I stumbled to a halt, leaned heavily against one wall, one hand still clutching my side. My breath came in ragged gasps. Too loud, too filled with desolation. My eyes widened as I tried to catch even the faintest light, but there was nothing. Only the reek of shit and stone, rot and death.
The footsteps behind stopped.
I drew a deep breath, held it to listen.
Breathing. He was still there. But he’d learned caution. I’d hurt him when I’d first escaped, bitten into the fleshy part of his hand hard enough to break the skin, then shook it like a dog with a rat carcass while he screamed. I could still taste the blood in my mouth and smiled with grim satisfaction. He’d let his guard down, but that wouldn’t happen again.
Use the river!
I tried to slip into that other world, tried to force everything to blur and gray, tried to suppress all sound into a dull wind--something I’d been able to do without thought since I was six; something I’d relied on to survive on my own since then--but nothing happened.
The river was gone.
Choking down a sob, smile fading, I turned to the wall I could no longer see, pressed my shoulder against it a moment, then with effort forced my weight away and began edging down its length. With my shoulder scraping the stone for support, I ran one hand ahead of me, felt for a corner, an edge, an opening. I’d only get one chance at escape.
Behind, the man heard my movements and edged forward. But he came too fast in the total darkness. His foot splashed in the stream and then he stumbled over loose stone. I heard a bark of pain, followed by a bitten-off curse. But he got back up. I heard clothing rustling against stone, more cautious this time.
My fingers slid off the stone wall in front of me into open space. I halted, explored with my hand.
Another corner. The alley turned again.
I edged around the side. The sounds of pursuit quieted, but I pushed on. He wasn’t going to give up, even in the dark. I’d hurt him too much for that, dared to defy him in front of all the others, dared to run.
A sense of uselessness, of total despair, washed over me. I tasted it, like grit in the back of my throat, and forced it back with a hard swallow. For a moment, I leaned more weight against the wall, heard my tattered clothes scraping harshly against the mud-brick. But I kept moving. Why couldn’t he just leave me alone? Why couldn’t he just let me go? He had other workers. He didn’t need me.
But I knew. It was because I’d bitten him. I could still hear his howl of shock and rage.
“I won’t go back,” I mumbled, too softly for anyone to hear, voice choked with tears and anger.
My fingers found another opening: a window, its edges ragged and broken with decayed stone.
With a surge of hope, I stepped back from the wall, placed both hands on the crumbling ledge and pushed my small form upwards. Stone ground into my stomach and the sharp pain in my side lanced down into my leg. I began to flail, tilting forward. I couldn’t see where the window led, but it didn’t matter. Anywhere was better than here.
I began to fall forward into the darkness, gasping with effort and triumph.
A hand latched onto my ankle.
“No!” I screamed, hope flailing desperately in my chest. “I won’t go back! I won’t!”
“You bloody well will,” the man grunted.
Another hand grabbed the waist of my breeches, gripped the cloth tight, and as the man heaved I felt myself lifted up off the window’s ledge by the pants and ankle and thrown backwards, out into the alley.
I hit the opposite wall hard. As I collapsed to the ground, no longer able to breathe, the moon reappeared from behind the clouds, startlingly bright. I tried to catch myself with my hands, but I had no strength left. My arms crumpled and the side of my face struck the mud-slicked cobbles. Pain jolted through my jaw and I tasted fresh blood. My own blood. I moaned.
The man didn’t give me time to recuperate. My arms still useless, my hands grasping feebly at nothing, the man kicked me hard in the stomach, the force of the blow throwing me onto my back. I coughed as blood trickled down into my throat, tried to curl into a protective ball, but a hand latched onto the front of my shirt and hauled me upright. The man loomed over me, then jerked me in close, my feet no longer touching the ground.
“Thought you could run, eh?” Putrid breath blew across my face. “No one runs from Corum.”
My head rolled sideways, no longer under my own control. I had no more strength left. And for the first time I saw my attacker:
His face was screwed up into a snarl of hatred, eyes sharp and black in the moonlight, teeth yellowed and crooked. Brown hair lay in tangles on fatty, bulging skin, a few locks twisted and tied together with thin, colored string.
“No one,” he said again when he saw he’d caught my attention.
I spat into his face.
He hesitated a single moment, trembling in shock. Then he growled and threw me again.
I hit the mud-brick wall, bounced off it into something wooden resting in another corner, where the alley turned yet again. I caught myself on its edge, one hand holding, the other slipping off and splashing into collected water.
A rain barrel. Or what was left of one.
I steadied myself, pulled myself upright so that I was kneeling over the water.
And then I froze.
Confusion stabbed deep into my gut as I stared down into the reflection on the rippled surface of the water.
It wasn’t me. It was a boy, not yet ten. Round face with smooth skin encrusted with the Dredge, with dirt and blood and tears. Light brown eyes wide and desperate. Hair short and crawling with lice.
Then the reflection of the moon in the water was eclipsed by Corum’s shadow.
I jerked back but Corum was too quick. His hand fell onto the back of my head, fingers curling tight in my hair. I screamed as Corum, nearly three times my height and weight, dropped to one knee beside me and in a rough voice spat, “No one!”
He placed his other hand over the one wrapped in my hair, then thrust my head downwards. Stagnant water closed up and over my ears, drowning out my screams, drowning out Corum’s harsh breathing as he held me down with his full weight. I struggled, pushed back from the barrel, kicked my legs, writhed and squirmed and fought. Water splashed out of the barrel, soaked into my clothing. But there was no purchase, no strength left in me, and then water filled my mouth and I drew it in, pulled its coldness down into my lungs and I felt it filling me, seeping into every part of my body. And as it touched my arms I felt my struggling relax, felt my arms go numb and slack. Strength ebbed from my legs. And then I felt myself sinking, down and down into the depths of the barrel, down and down forever.
As I sank I suddenly realized why I couldn’t use the river.
Because this wasn’t me dying. It was someone else. Someone who lived in the slums beyond the Dredge.
And then I woke.
All contents are copyright of Joshua Palmatier, 2017.