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Harm’s Way

I just completed a full draft of Little Blade, the follow-up to Jago.

I’m already onto the third and final part of the trilogy, which is provisionally titled Harm’s Way. In the third book, everything comes together.

Here’s the prologue:


The girl picked her way across the debris.

What was left of the empty places.

A flash storm had finally overwhelmed the cracked walls of the reservoir, breaking it apart, sending millions of tons of water surging down the valley, powering through narrow gullies, scourging everything before it, taking down trees, sweeping away houses and hillsides. The empty places had long been a resource for the folk living in the valley, and now most of them were gone.

By nature curious, the girl had gone there looking to see what was left. She wasn’t reckless, and as she stepped carefully between the assorted debris of aging mattresses, shattered cupboards, felt roofing, entire walls, all mixed with the sickly sweet scent of decay, she was on the lookout for things that might injure her, for people or creatures that might injure her too. 

She was average height, though her posture and slender build made her look taller – the clothes she wore were a hotchpotch of repaired, remade and reinvented: the material used to make the skirt she wore came from a roll of curtain fabric that had been standing in an empty trailer, looted decades earlier only to be rediscovered by a scout and shared out amongst members the valley people. Her dark leggings were made from strips of denim she’d cut from pants found in a Jago storeroom a year earlier – huge, made for a giant she thought – she’d simply cut them into strips and sewed them back together, the denim now faded to the palest blue, worn paper thin at the butt and through to the skin at the knees. The boots she wore were light tan, doe-skin, darkening as she walked down the puddle-strewn remains of the old road, the leather supple and soft, the soles cut from the car tires that were still plentiful. Cars dotted the landscape, silent, rusting totems of some long forgotten creed. She wore a t-shirt with a picture of a leaf across the front; it was pretty, sort of, and she liked it.  She carried a light pack high on her shoulders. 

The road was cracked in many places, missing in parts, scattered with debris, some of it decades old, but the deluge had washed much of it smooth and made it easy to walk. She stepped lightly over the rusted bones of some machine that she could not begin to comprehend, wire deep in the dirt, a steel pot near the front of the tangle of metal had the letters Ha written in red, the rest of the letters rusted away, the machine itself was settling into a gap in the road and would disappear beneath the earth at some point in the next few years.

She was lithe and slender, not so much pretty, but she had pale skin with freckles that spread across her small nose and her huge cheekbones, and fierce hazel eyes that scanned ahead and around every few seconds, like a bird, alert to danger. She heard the flies before she saw the bodies.

The flies were feasting on the corpse of  man she found halfway up the slope, not drowned, not this high up, but as she neared saw he’d been opened with a blade from his balls to his sternum, the maggots crawling already. He was curled, fetal, and she wondered if the maggots had began crawling inside him before he was dead. He was a prowler, she guessed, a panga lay by his side, the hilt was simple rags of leather wrapped around the tang, secured with baling wire. Eight paces further on was another body, this one with his head half hacked off, lying facedown, arms splayed. A third was further up, and he’d died sitting up, a sheet of dried blood spreading down from a chest wound. She studied him, studied the way the blood had dried, flecked and bubbled around his mouth. Lung wound. He drowned in his own blood, his lungs crushed with air that leaked in through the hole made by the knife.  Three dead men. Three prowlers. But who had killed them?, she thought. They were always killing their own, that was part of their creed, the way they lived. She left the bodies and walked on. She could have searched them, maybe she would do later, but taking water and food from a dead man was a choice of last resort. Especially when the dead man was a prowler.

A handful of houses remained on the slope, high enough to have survived the surge. She walked up toward them, knowing that a predator might have done the same, might be lying in wait – a lion,  or a prowler, or something else intent on harm – but she trusted in her instincts and in her ability to run. No-one could run as fast or as far as she could, that was how she survived; she didn’t think herself smarter or stronger than anyone else, though she was cold-blooded when she had to be, she knew: but she could run. She was light on her feet, leaving barely a print on the damp, muddied road. She was hungry too, had been walking two hours like this, seeing what was worth scavenging: this was a scouts’ job and she was no scout, but times were hard and people had to do what was necessary. She paused before the scattering of houses, her senses working overtime: she could hear the wind, the cries of birds, feasting on the flesh of drowned animals, she could smell the earth, feel it beneath her feet, solid now, not liquid as it was yesterday, when she’d scrambled up an incline, legs burning, lungs ready to burst, the earth beneath her feet crumbling into the water below, death reaching out for her as she desperately the safety of solid rock beneath her feet. She shrugged away the memory.

Don’t think of bad things. A rule. The first one they all learned.

The house was empty, she could feel that, but the others were a mystery. Her sixth sense was illusive and, sometimes, untrustworthy. Often, hunger forced her to ignore it anyway. She breathed slowly, evenly, to slow her heart-rate, unsheathed the knife from her belt, palmed it, and stepped into the shadow of the first empty place.

Pushing through a curtain rag that someone had hung in place of a door, she stepped over the threshold into an open space that smelled of dust and stale air and paused to take stock.  The early morning sunlight sliced through gaps in the tattered curtains revealing torn-up floorboards, the blackened, salty remains of a fire in the grate, months, perhaps years old, it told her nothing, faded stories, the furniture all gone, the walls tired and grimy. She rolled her fingers across the bone hilt of her knife. The rest of her was still.  These places were mostly empty inside, the contents ransacked over decades, and she expected nothing, but hunger and curiosity had driven her inside, so she resolved to inspect the entire house, to perhaps find something overlooked. The thought made her smile, grimly, nothing had been overlooked, she knew, not in the last sixty years, but hunger drove her to look anyway. It was empty, and she left it as quietly as she had entered.

The next house she went to was a single story, and she was glad of that, no one ever walked up a lone staircase if they could help it. The first rule of survival was to know your escape routes before you took a single step in any direction, and a staircase was an invitation to become trapped, to become food for a beast, or the victim of a prowler, first raped, then tortured, and then… she shrugged away that thought too. The third house felt different, immediately she could smell the iron tang of death, somewhere close, but she was toughened and she ignored the fear as she searched through the rooms, finding nothing but some bedding that was cold to the touch and a plate with dried on food, ground corn soup, she lifted the plate almost to her mouth, and could smell there’d been meat on the plate. But it was at least a day or two old. Her senses lit a fire. No scouts had been this way for a week or two; she was the first one to leave the valley after the reservoir came tumbling down; she was always the first out of the traps, her mother often told her, front of the queue, first at the door. Speed would be her downfall, mother had said. Look before you leap and all that.  She preferred to leap, then look to find out where she’d landed. She left the house and went out back; padded up the hill a way so that she could look down on the remaining building, study them. Three houses searched and nothing to show but the remains of someone’s camp. One house left to explore, for food or supplies, and no guarantee she’d be alive at the end of it. But there were never any guarantees. She sat down on a rock warmed by the morning sun. She sat and studied the houses for some time, then she stood and walked back down toward the fourth house, hand still cupping her knife, thumb stroking the bitter edge of it like a child strokes a blanket. 

The final house smelled of musk, the windows covered with sheets tacked onto the frames, and she could hear the tiny noises of movement in a room above her. She was hungry and she was bored of taking care. She checked the rooms on the ground floor and, finding nothing, she jogged lightly, silently, up the stairs, feet keeping to the very edge of the stairs so as to not cause creaks or pops from the old wood, she was as stealthy as a cat when she needed to be, eyes looking everywhere that could be seen, ears straining for noises. Noises, she recognised, that came from one room. It could be a trap, but she was young and unafraid. And hungry. Very hungry. So hungry that the smell of food coming from inside one this room caused her almost to burst through the door, but she paused, listened. Sensed someone else, sensed breathing. She could hear it now. Labored, heavy, almost a snoring. Prowlers were silent: they weren’t good for much, but they were good for killing, and killing quiet, when the killing needed quiet. She took the doorknob in her hand, very lightly, didn’t turn it but simply pushed, gentle but firm. The door swung open with a creak.  A man lay on the floor, unmoving, in the dark. He looked up.

‘Come in, little girl,’ he said, his voice deep,

He was lying on a blanket that had been rolled over an old pallet to serve as a bed. He was using a rucksack as a pillow, and he was stripped to the waist, his face turned toward her, the whites of his eyes as yellow as the evening sun.  And he was dying. She could see the shadow of Mister Death on him; the wound to his belly, another at his waist, the blood seeping black and stinking onto the floor, dried and clotted beneath him like a shadow.

‘Come in,’ he said again.

But his voice promised a power his hands no longer wielded, his blade was lying beside him, a long, long Bowie of cold grey steel, the weight bellied toward the front, a well-worn hardwood handle; she doubted he had strength to lift it. But even lying down, he was tall, his mane of dreads and the yellow-brown hazel of his eyes reminding her of the lion she’d spotted the day before yesterday, picking its way through the debris, upwind. Despite his injures, he was well-built, muscular, slender but wide too, somehow; he had amber-dark skin and yellow, bloodshot eyes, and big hands, and long unbooted feet. 

He was helpless.

Helpless as a baby, she thought., and unaccountably, a tenderness she’d never felt before swept over her, swept all before it, like the bursting dam had done, days earlier. She shivered. She looked around the room, empty apart from the injured man, the bowl of food half-eaten. She closed the door behind her and dropped her rucksack onto the floor, retrieved a bottle from inside, unscrewed the cap and squatted down beside him.

‘Drink,’ she said.

And he did.

Then she went for to find more water.

He drank that too, though it caused him cramps and he groaned and twisted. Then, without asking his permission, she took out some clean rags and a bowl from her rucksack, poured some of her precious clean water into the bowl, and began to wash his wounds.

‘You killed those boys.’

He grunted.

‘Friends of yours?’ she asked.

‘You should go,’ he said.

‘You need fixing.’

‘Nothing you can do, sister,’ he rumbled.

‘Ssshh,’ she told him, scouring the flesh clean, but gently, firmly, and though it pained him he bore it well.

After she had cleaned him, and cleaned the stinking mess in which he lay, she said, ‘I need to fetch some things. To heal you.’

‘No one can heal me,’ he whispered, voice papery and rich.

‘I can,’ she said.

‘Leave. It’s dangerous.’

‘I can’t,’ she said. Her mother was a healer, and her grandmother before; healing was in her blood.  ‘You won’t die,’ she told him.

He closed his eyes.

She made him comfortable then went downstairs where she gathered an old steel pot and a ladle from a drawer, rubbing the dust from them with the hem of her skirt, before emptying her pack of most of its contents. She took out her long-sleeved cotton shirt, a pair of butter-soft leather gloves and a rolled sheet of silk mesh, and then she looked around the house until she found a window with a single curtain that was hanging there. She tore it down, packed it in her bag. She left she house and walked straight up the hill until she stood on a flattened, low, escarpment, looking down on the devastation caused by the flooding water, like a giant child had dragged giant hands down the center of the valley, scooping up everything in its way, pushing some houses aside so they lay at odd angles above the waterline, but flattening most everything else in its path. She squatted down, closed her eyes and listened.  The sun was hot, she was desperately hungry, thirsty too, but she listened to the world until her ears picked up a tiny buzzing. Opening her eyes she looked for the point the sound was coming from and found it.

A single bee.

She whispered, ‘Take me to your hive, little bee.’

An hour later she was back at the house, flicking bees from her makeshift skirt and veil, repacking her bag, setting the pot with the honey on a table.  Dressed properly again, but still cautious, she walked lightly up the stairs and found him where she’d left him. He looked up, eyes burning bright, part fever, part the essence of him, and she said, ‘I need to clean you out properly, then sew you up.’

‘Go away,’ he mumbled.

‘It’s going to hurt more than anything has ever hurt you,’ she said, ‘But if I clean you out, you’ll recover from the infection. If I don’t fix you, you’ll live four or five more days, you’re strong, but you’ll die hard. Every second will be a nightmare.’ She stared down at him, implacable. ‘So it’s bad pain now, and life after, or worse pain later, then death. I can wait ‘til you’re unconscious, but then there’s less chance of you surviving.’

He lay there, staring at some spot on the wall past the soles of her boots, behind her. He said, ‘I’m not afraid of pain, little sister. I’m just bone tired.’

She said, ‘Pain now, sleep later.’

He looked up at her, eyes gathering her to him, mind calculating, working things out. He said, ‘You keep me alive, I owe you.’

‘You owe me nothing.’

‘You keep me alive, I owe you. Deal?’

‘Deal,’ she said softly. ‘Now I have to move everything out of the way, and I’ll need to fasten your arms and legs down, cos there’s no way you won’t thrash, and you’re too big for me to handle, sick as you are.’

‘I won’t thrash.’

She tutted to herself, thinking, yes you will, and went back downstairs to find some bindings for his arms and legs, and bring up her sewing kit, bandages, everything she’d need. She picked a bee from her mesh headcover, freeing it and letting it fly away. Pulled the mesh over her hair, holding it back but leaving her face uncovered this time. Once she started she couldn’t afford to leave him alone while she went to fetch anything. In his agony he might tear himself apart.  She hummed to herself as she prepped everything she needed: hot water, bandages, honey, needles and thread… she’d lit a fire to heat the water and to warm the wax she needed to coat the thread, the honey for her fingers for when she burrowed inside him to dig out the waste, clean him out, and then she could feel for the guts that’d been cut, she’d need to sew these up. So, clean the waste, sew his insides where they were damaged, clean again, just thankful it wasn’t his liver, because the liver can’t take a thread. Then she’d sew all of him back inside himself. As the water heated she unspooled her belt, used her knife to cut six inches from the end; folded, he could bite down on it, cope with the pain she was going to give him. And finally, ready, she carried everything upstairs.

She opened the door and squatted down beside him, methodically laying out her tools on the floor.  She was not a healer, but her mother was and her grandmother had been; she knew the trade. He lay quietly, watching her. He had self-control, she thought, a good sign, if he wasn’t already crying like a baby then maybe he was tough enough to survive, though he’d have a scar like a crescent moon from his navel to his hip.

‘What’s your name?’ he asked, his voice like stone grinding on iron.

‘Esta,’ she said. ‘Yours.’

His voice lower than a whisper now, he told her, ‘They call me Johnny Harm.’


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