Friday, December 9, 2011

Chapter Two: Part Four

Continued from Chapter Two: Part Three, on December 7

Silk hit the ground on one shoulder and slid a few feet, smearing blood from many small abrasions on the flagstones. As he stopped, he became again aware of the crowd. They roared their approval, whistling and chanting Digger’s name. Silk panted for a second—needed to catch his breath. Before it could be said that he was down, he rolled to his knees. His head hadn’t really cleared of the shaking from the uppercut. He’d get past it.

Kneeling and breathing, he looked around at the excited crowd. Ale aplenty and spiced wine circled the people. Chunks of meat—loaves of steaming bread and pretzels. A good time was being had by all. Silk laughed.

“Are you laughing?” Digger said. He bent over, leaning on his knees, trying to catch his own breath, but had his face to Silk.

“Yes. It’s just so ridiculous.” He thought watching a fist fight for entertainment so boorish. Study, maybe--to know your enemy if you would fight one of them, perhaps. Entertainment, though, not so much. The crowd made him laugh.

Digger looked unconvinced. He didn’t see it. People often didn’t see what Silk thought funny. Ah, well.

“Are you done?” Digger asked. Silk felt his jaw to be sure it was neither cracked or sprained. He shook his head. He still had fight left in him.

“You have a second,” Silk said from his spot kneeling on the ground. “You could bet on me—make some money.”

Digger raised an eyebrow. He was not amused.

“Just a thought,” Silk said.

He rose slowly to his feet. When he had, he went at Digger again. This time, his mode of attack was simple and reactive. He watched where Digger’s hands were and guessed where they would be next. Consistently, Silk put his hands just a little bit wrong for the blocks and punches that Digger expected. It’s how he often fought in the last few minutes. It looked sloppy. It was sloppy. His head still spun from the uppercut. When he’d been pressed to a point when he ought to quit he filled his head with breathing sounds, felt only his heartbeat and heard only a cheering crowd, as if a choir of excited and drunk ghosts stood as spectators to his fight. He heard them, always. They cried out for the success of his every move. And nearer, as if over his shoulders, a half dozen voices whispered to him, telling him what to do and where the next fist would swing. The voices were only sometimes the same and only rarely familiar. He used to ignore them, except occasionally and only grudgingly. They often said things contrary to the action he wanted to take. It made him assume they were hallucinations. Though he still wondered what exactly they were, he had decided recently to try listening to them. A mentor had suggested it to him. His life had gone in interesting directions since then.

The voices whispered—jab—feint—blindside—block—kick. He embraced the suggestions. The choir of voices like ghosts—invisible but seeming above the real crowd of people around the fight—sang a violent drinking song. Silk’s attacks had gone just sideways enough that Digger couldn’t compensate. He missed a block. Silk’s attack landed haphazardly on Digger’s cheek. The Wiga’s son tried to jab back. Silk caught his fist. In three quick punches, Silk put Digger off-kilter.

Now, the voices whispered. Silk threw a back-kick into Digger’s head. He fell to the ground, down for the count.

The crowd stood quiet at first, not sure what to do now. It suited Silk, who dropped to a crouch next to Digger. Checking his heart rate and breathing, Silk determined whether Digger would be all right—just to be certain. He had often been the only person near his fights who cared to check and knew how to check of the felled fighter would survive, so he’d gotten used to doing it. A moment of appraisal later Silk had finished. Dazed but not badly, Digger would recover soon. That was good.

The voices like ghosts applauded the effort. They quieted down and dispersed to the normal hubbub he heard all day every day, without there ever actually being noise.

“Well, stuff that for a game of soldiers,”someone in the crowd of humans watching the fight said. Someone else whistled an incredulous whistle. Murmurs traveled to the back as the people who couldn’t quite see asked what happened. Even the bookies had stopped talking. The upset took them all for surprise.

Nearly full dark had arrived. Freezing snow fell on Silk’s and Digger’s bare torsos.

“Does he have apartments?” Silk asked.

“He’s staying at the Currycomb Inn,” someone said.

“My inn is nearer,” Silk said.“The Crossed Wands. Take him there.”

A small crowd obeyed, picking Digger up from the ground. Six men carried him toward the Crossed Wands Inn. Pulling his shirt and jacket on as he went, Silk followed them. He carried Digger’s things.

Not sure what else to do, the crowd dispersed, chatting about the fight. “Bit strange,” some called it.“Thought our sheriff had him at the end, didn’t you?” one said to his mate.“They say Silk uses some mischief or witchwork to win fights,” at least one person muttered, but he was quickly hushed. None wanted the Secret Police down on their heads. Engelkind’s Secret Police were allegedly everywhere, though no one knew if they had ever seen one—not for sure. The Secret Police wandered through recent urban legends, as pervasive as the Boogeyman. And as imaginary, some would say in hushed tones. Still, they explained to one another, best not to risk it. That idea always received warm agreement.

At the Crossed Wands, Silk saw to it that Digger had a room. Then he sent away for Digger’s things to be brought over from the Currycomb Inn.

“He ain’t got much there,” one man told Silk. “Travels light, does our sheriff.” Silk, weary and beginning to feel the fight, grimaced at the man. He had no patience. “Right you are, sir,” the man said. He and his companions skittered off to get Digger’s things.

Without saying another word to anyone, Silk thumped up the flight of stairs to the room he had rented for himself. He shut the door behind him and tugged off his shirt and jacket again. Exhausted, beginning to ache, he fell onto the four poster. Blissful sleep seemed eminent…. Then it felt too cold. He tried to ignore it. A draft from the chimney blew on his skin, though. It fluctuated—cold for a moment, colder for the next. The skin of his side shrank and went goosepimply at the wind’s bidding.

Without speaking, Silk rolled to the floor. He walked in his now bare feet across the well-scrubbed wood slats. Next to the fireplace he found a heap of wood and a pile of wood shavings for kindling. He could light a quick fire. So he did, using the matches on the mantel of the fireplace. Soon, the logs lying in the grate crackled and smoked.

Good and better. He stood—his back felt over-worked—and went back to bed. Falling onto the covers, he closed his eyes. He let himself sink into the downy comforter. The warmth of the fire caressed his aching sides.

But now that he had awaked again, he heard whispering. A voice spoke in the corner of the room. Though the volume and the proximity were near enough, he couldn’t make out the words it said. If he listened to it—he tried not to listen to it but found his attention drawn to it—he thought he could make out every third word or so. When he tried to remember the words he didn’t know what they were.

Though he knew what he’d see, Silk opened his eyes and looked at the corner where the voice nattered. Empty, as he knew it would be. The voice seemed aware of his presence. It turned its attention to Silk and made some salutation, then it went back to talking to itself.

More voices followed. Some in the room—others outside the room but still nearby—most of them moved. He never heard any of them with his actual ears. They more took the form of distinct imaginings that had some origin outside himself. He had no idea where. They went about their own business, if they had any business at all aside from chattering. They always, always talked. He had spent a lot of energy running from them and had never succeeded.

Their inane hubbub filled Silk’s subconscious. They had long since driven him past the edge. He heard a great deal from folk about how he came off as mad and gone astray. Theories aplenty accompanied what folk said, as many theories as towns Silk had visited. Some theories had to do with him selling his soul—others thought that he’d been to the edge of the world—many suspected he’d been tortured so that his mind had gone. The theories all had enough truth in them to be getting along. The voices did little to keep him sane. They never made any sense. Except in desperate moments—near the ends of fights, during raids, at critical moments in negotiations—at those moments the voices assumed perfect clarity.

A mentor of his had recently observed that something important might be happening there. He’d been a much wiser man than Silk. A man called Sagan Van Vleidt who had written books about asceticism and the workings of the mind. Van Vleidt had been a good friend to Silk for the last few years. He had warned Silk against attempting to quiet these voices. “They might be trying to tell you something important,” Van Vleidt had said. Then died—assassinated by Holy Assassins. Now Silk felt guilty. He had always argued with Van Vleidt, never allowing that Van Vleidt might know a thing or two.

Grimbling, Silk rolled onto his back. He tugged a cigar and a box of matches from a pocket in his jacket. When he'd lit the cigar he lay still, smoking slowly and listening to the voices.

End of chapter two. Continued on December 11...

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