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Authors: Deb E Howell

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BOOK: Healer's Touch
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Damn Kynas! She’d never even met Mr. Maddocks, and she was sure as hell it wasn’t the old man lying on top of her that morning. She wondered if they’d found that body yet. It was likely someone had – probably a john taking a leak on the Diamond’s wall. But would they be looking for a killer?

Llew hadn’t taken the time to check, but she was certain there wouldn’t be a scratch on him. Well, nothing deadly, anyway. It was just that there was all that blood.
Her
blood, but they wouldn’t know that.

She headed for the seedier side of Cheer where shadows seemed deeper, drunks seemed drunker and morals were all but missing entirely. She turned down litter-strewn Prince Tanath Road and saw a gang of street kids loitering outside a half-collapsed building. These children were evidence that mining could be dangerous and prostitution had side-effects Llew preferred to avoid.

“Hi, Llew.” One of the girls looked up from a game of knuckle-bones.

“Annie.” Slowing to a walk, she tipped her head to the younger girl in the tatty dress; at the moment she was still young and pitiful enough to beg successfully, but she would soon graduate to a place in one of Cheer’s brothels. She had never mastered the art of picking pockets. “You didn’t see me, okay?”

“Okay.” The girl shrugged.

Llew stooped through a hole in the wall to a space under the building’s floorboards. The children behind her were silent, watching. She scooted along on her belly, thankful that she didn’t have breasts to worry about. Behind her the sounds of the children’s games started up again.

Her new shirts were now filthy, and one snagged on a stray nail sticking out from a board. She threw them aside and yelped as her knuckle struck the support beam above her. Sucking at the wound, she peered through the shadows under the building. Cheer’s sun was bright and its light hindered by little since the buildings were mostly only one storey. It filtered through the gaps, allowing her to see well enough.

Somewhere on the opposite side of the building she emerged into Lomirir Way. It was deserted, so she clambered out, dusted herself off, and walked briskly in the general direction she had been going before. If the Farry was still after her, there was nowhere she could disappear into permanently. She had to hope that he had enough doubt in Kynas’ accusation to give up, although she didn’t doubt that simply removing another kid from the street could be incentive enough.

She rounded a corner, walking past a man sitting on the rickety wooden steps at the back of an old store.

“Lady Llewella, are we peddling our goods today?” The words were slurred.

“No, sir.” Head down, she carried on walking past, not looking at him. How could he have picked her for a girl, let alone known her name?

“You wouldn’t turn away a paying customer now, would you?” His feet scuffed the dusty road behind her.

Llew turned to face him, recognising one of her father’s old drinking “buddies”; she continued to walk backwards. “Japod, you never were a paying customer. In fact, I think you still owe Pa money.” She turned away and walked a little faster.

“Your pa ain’t been chasin’ me for it.”

Well, of course he hadn’t.

Too many people knew who she was – hair short or long, dress feminine or masculine. She’d just been a tomboyish girl when her father had been around. Only after he left did she try to become known as a boy. But all her father’s friends still recognised her. She had hoped their respect for him would be enough for them not to put pressure on his daughter to entertain them. Apparently, she was wrong, at least in this instance.

“You’d do an old friend a favour, wouldn’t you, Llew?” The rasp of his feet over the coarse dirt grated on her ears.

Her mind raced with plans to lose him without running straight into the lawman. But Japod lunged, grabbing her legs, sending them both into the ground. Llew got a face full of gravely dirt and a bite of her own cheek, while the old man was cushioned by the backs of her legs. He scrabbled to start yanking at the waist of her trousers.

“Get off!” she yelled, coughing on inhaled dust.

Her belt-rope was thin and it gave under the man’s determined tugs. Llew’s efforts to right herself were thwarted as her legs continued to be pulled out from under her in Japod’s efforts to unwrap his prize. Her pants slipped, exposing her long-johns. The two buttons didn’t deter him long. Japod’s dry fingers dug into her flesh. He gasped, and the skin of Llew’s cheek healed. The distraction gave her the pause she needed to swing an arm, knocking him off her. He rallied quickly and was on her again.

Japod’s long hair was greying, his chin unshaven, and his few remaining teeth yellow; his breath was a mix of the rotting remnants of his previous meals and whatever concoction he had just been drinking. He planted a wet kiss on Llew’s lips, and she clamped her mouth tight.

“Get off me!” Llew’s arms and legs worked furiously, but he was stronger than he looked.

For a fraction of a second, Llew believed he had listened to her as his body moved away. But then arms looped under her armpits, helping her to her feet. She was pulled to the side of the road and was vaguely aware of someone ramming Japod into a wall.

She pulled her pants up, watching the old man take a hammering. His assailant had long hair and was wearing a wide-brimmed hat. The man who’d lifted her, and now stood beside her, was his curly-haired companion.

Before the old man lost consciousness entirely, the dark foreigner threw his limp body to the ground and turned away. He headed straight for the cart in which they had arrived.

“You alright?” Al asked.

“Fine.” Llew cleared her throat and forced her voice deeper. “Fine.” At least at her assumed age she could brush the slip off as her voice breaking. She crossed the road to the limp old man and kicked him in the gut.

“Slimy old coot. You don’t—” Kick “—do that to your mate’s kid.” She went for one last kick, but was spun around by the young man.

“Hey, hey,” said Al. “He’s down already. He’s no threat, now.”

Llew nodded, lowering her head to show her remorse. Living on the streets, she knew there was always a point at which the fight ended, and it usually came before someone died. But Japod’s attack had scared and angered her, especially coming so soon after her encounter with Renny. She hugged herself and then, realising it might not have looked manly enough, she dropped one arm to her side, still gripping the elbow with her other hand.

Even if the lawman had given up on her for today, she was well aware that developing hips and breasts could not be covered forever. She needed to leave Cheer. And here and now, an opportunity had presented itself.

The men returned to their cart and Jonas urged the bay horse into life. It moved off at a walk. Llew walked alongside, wondering how she could get them to take her with them. Al must have caught a glimpse of her, for he suddenly laughed, grinning over his shoulder. Jonas looked at her, turned away and urged the horse into a trot. Llew began to trot along behind, hoping he wouldn’t go to a canter. Al kept looking back at her, now and then saying something to Jonas.

Finally, Jonas reined in the horse. Llew ran into the back of the suddenly stationary cart, and took a moment to lean on it, catching her breath. Jonas jumped down off the cart and rounded on her.

“What d’you think you’re doin’?”

“Coming with you.” She fought to keep the pleading tone out of her voice.

Jonas shook his head. “No.”

“Come on, Jonas. Hear the kid out.” Al swung down from the cart and joined them.

“I ain’t no kid”. She crossed her arms, scowling at her supporter, who laughed. She narrowed her eyes further, to no effect, then returned her attention to Jonas. “You’re leaving Cheer, right? I want to leave Cheer.”

“Not our problem.”

“No. But all the same. I have a little money. Not enough to get me a ticket on a coach, but I could make myself useful, earn my passage with you.”

“Ain’t nothin’ we need from no thief.”

“I wasn’t always a thief. I used to help my pa in his smithy. I can help.” The selection of knives in Jonas’ vest caught Llew’s eye again. “I can fight.”

That got a brief laugh out of Jonas.

“I can!” She made fists, waving them in front of her just as she had many a time against boys she’d rough ’n tumbled with.

Al placed a hand over hers, pushing down.

“We could at least see what Aris has to say,” he said.

“No. This ain’t no job for a criminal, no matter how good his words sound.”

A movement behind Jonas drew Llew’s attention. It was the Farry. She dived into the back of the low cart, pulling sacks and an old blanket about her.

“Get out,” said Jonas flatly.

“Please.” With the realisation that her safety was in the hands of someone who had every reason to turn her over to the law, she could think of nothing else to say. She threw everything she had into a pleading look

Jonas looked down his nose at her, then along the road at the approaching law man. With a grunt, he flicked the blanket over her.

Llew waited to discover her fate. Maybe Jonas wasn’t an unfair man. She had deserved the fist to the gut. She didn’t deserve to hang.

The sack closest to her nose smelled of dirt and potatoes. Something else nearby smelled sweet. Apples? She inhaled and her mouth watered, remembering that she had yet to eat. She forced it from her mind. For now, she could do nothing but be still.

“What happened here?”

“Old drunk walked in front of us. Spooked our horse,” said Jonas.

“Yeah. He just stumbled out of nowhere,” said Al.

“You two ain’t from around here.”

“No, sir. Over from Phyos,” said Al.

“What for?”

“Just helpin’ a friend,” said Jonas.

“Where you staying?”

“Postmaster Muor’s house.”

“Nice place.” The lawman sounded impressed.

“Sure is,” said Alvaro.

“He’s a good man,” said the officer. Another pause, as though he was waiting for the boys to confirm. “Well, maybe the old drunk’ll learn for next time, huh?” The officer laughed, inviting the two young men to join him. They didn’t. “You wouldn’t happen to have seen a young lad about so tall, white shirt, grubby, would you?”

“Just that old boy,” said Al.

“If we see him, we’ll be sure to let you know,” said Jonas. “What did he do?”

“He’s wanted for questioning about a murder.”

“Murder?”

“Yeah. We have an eye witness saw him do it.”

Silence from Jonas and Al. Llew tensed. This was it. They were going to give her up. She’d swing from a rope by the end of the week. Or worse. There was always worse. Llew just didn’t have the imagination to fill in the blanks.

“Alright.” A hand slapped the side of the cart. “You boys stay out of trouble, you hear?”

The distant sound of children playing reached Llew’s ears. A bird fluttered overhead. What would they do? They hadn’t revealed her so far. That was something to cling to.

The blanket was pulled back.

“Get out,” said Jonas.

“I didn’t do it. You have to believe me,” she pleaded with him, making no effort to keep her voice deep.

“I don’t gotta do nothin’.” He looked at her with his stony expression. “Out.”

She turned to Al. “I’m innocent.”

Al raised an eyebrow.

“Well, maybe not entirely innocent. But I didn’t kill anyone. On my mother’s honour.” They still looked unconvinced. “She was a good woman!”

Jonas grabbed the triceps of her arm closest to him, half lifting, half pushing her from the cart. Llew made herself as heavy as possible and dug in her heels, but it made little difference.

“You’re heading for the Postmaster’s, right?”

“So?”

“Well, if I’m going to leave Cheer, then I need to start at the Postmaster’s anyway. Maybe he’ll let me earn my ticket. At least take me that far.”

“You’re a thief and we ain’t got time to decide whether or not you’re a murderer. You can walk.”

She knew he wasn’t going to change his mind. Still, it didn’t mean she had to take his attitude. He turned his back on her and returned to his seat at the front of the cart.

“Sorry,” said Al, coming to the same conclusion. “Good luck.” He resumed his seat at the front of the cart and Jonas flicked the horse back into life, then with another flick called up a trot.

Llew stood for a time, watching her brighter future disappear into the distance. “Fuck.”

“I knew I seen you come this way.”

She turned to the voice, then darted away, the law hot on her heels once more. Unfortunately, this time there were two of them, and one was young, tall, and fit. He had her on her belly in less than a minute.

“I knew we’d get yer.” The older officer knelt in front of her while the younger pulled her hands behind her and cuffed them. “No point running from the law, ya scoundrel. We always get our man.”

The younger officer wrenched her to her feet, one arm over her shoulder, cupping the opposite armpit. His hand slipped and he took an experimental squeeze.

BOOK: Healer's Touch
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