Save What We Can

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Kate Lansky


night-orchard
Photo Credit: Jeremy Hiebert

Tiba let out a gusty sigh and leaned back against the rough skin of an orchard tree. She could taste weather in the air, sweet and pungent. Gran had always said it was the voices of leaves singing up to the sky in anticipation. Most nights that heady scent would make her smile, the way it reminded her of Gran. Tonight, it just made her antsy, made her skin itch with worry. She wanted to get going before the rain hit, get back into the tunnels outside of town and on her way to safety.

She eyed the village, its dark buildings silhouetted by pooling light from streetlamps. Her Source should’ve been here by now, and in her experience these things had to move fast. Too long standing in some farmer’s orchard—even in the middle of the night—only resulted in you getting caught and some poor child getting dead.

Maybe I should just go. She tried to rub the night chill from her arms, gave up, resisted the urge to pace and settled for fiddling with the strap of her pack. It was special made, heavy leather lined with silk and spells all meant to keep her safe from the cargo she’d pick up tonight. She didn’t bother glancing at it. She knew how stained it had become over the years, blackened by a hundred and more such journeys. It was getting so she couldn’t hide the stains anymore, and she knew the spells laid into it were beginning to fade. She could feel them, a rustle and buzz in the back of her head. That scared her more than anything—she hadn’t always been able to hear them. A few more runs like tonight and a contact would report her, get her safely retired across the border. It wasn’t safe, carrying too much for too long. It got to you, eventually. And when it did, it was best not to be on this side of things. So you saved who you could any way you could, then got yourself out before the border guards could read you full. Tiba was pretty sure it was starting to get to her.

She forced her thoughts away from that eventuality, bringing herself back to the dark night, the cold wind, and the approaching storm. Much as she burned to leave, she kept thinking of that child and how they’d die if she did—cut up to bits on a surgeon’s table while they tried to figure out what made the poor thing tick. So she stayed, eyes steady on the village even while her mind raced ahead. An hour or so walk east of town to the old, unused section of mines, hopefully beating the moonrise. Then it was four days walk through winding tunnels, traveling through the places where man-made and natural caves kissed, passing beneath town after town until she was just a day from the border. She’d wait for a contact there, and they’d take the package on to safety.

She missed her tunnels, though she figured most folks wouldn’t understand that. But she’d been walking them for almost fifteen years now, and she knew them better than her own skin. Those tunnels were the one thing that let her be the most successful runner on record.

For just an instant, the lamps caught two figures in their yellow light: a tall, lean man, his face lost in the shadows of a brimmed hat, and a young woman in a full blue dress, pale hair loose like a child’s. Then just as quick they were transformed into dark silhouettes, lost against the darkness of the buildings. Tiba narrowed her eyes, watching as the two shadows angled toward the edge of town and the road leading to the orchard. Her Source had finally arrived.

They weren’t quiet, though they were trying to be. Even at a distance, Tiba could soon hear the heavy whispering of skirts and underskirts and the sharp clipping sound of shoes on the cobblestone road. The low murmur of a man’s voice hovered low in the night air. If the girl spoke, it was too soft for Tiba to hear.

By the time they reached the orchard fence, they’d resolved into more than shadows. Tiba could make out the man’s face, etched with the first lines of age. He came at a hurry now, half dragging his daughter down the road. Her skirts kept tangling around her legs as she tried to keep up, turning her run into a series of trips and stumbles. They paused, the girl straightening up and smoothing the fabric down, the man glancing around before unlatching the gate and swinging it open. Weathered metal screamed in protest and the two froze like startled deer before the man once again grabbed her wrist and pulled her along, leaving the gate standing open behind them.

Tiba watched them come, the way his head swung about as he glanced warily back toward the village and peered between trees. When he was near enough, Tiba stepped forward. The man jumped, briefly shoving his daughter behind him and making the poor girl squeak in surprise. Tiba’s irritation flared, then just as quickly faded. The man must be terrified.

“It’s all right,” she said, pitching her voice low. “Leth told you about me.” She didn’t offer a name, only stood there with her hands out and empty, waiting for him to react.

A few heartbeats later, his shoulders finally dropped, all the tension fleeing on one heavy sigh. “Oh, thank god.” He tugged his daughter out from behind his back, took her by both shoulders, and held her before him.

She was young, Tiba realized. Maybe only nine. Younger than most Sources she’d pulled empty. But it came on people different ways and different days, Gran had always said. Showing her surprise would only make these folk worry, so she smiled a little down at the girl, taking in the way her white-knuckled fists gripped at her blue skirts, the way her lips pressed thin, the way that even trembling and scared, she met Tiba’s eyes straight on.

“This is my daughter. Please, fix her.”

Tiba kept that smile firmly in place, though it felt a bit more strained now. He’s scared, she repeated to herself. Just wants her safe. “Of course,” she said between her teeth. Then she turned away before the smile could crack and fall away, leading them back into the orchard until the lights of town were little more than stars shining in at odd angles between dancing leaves. The storm was coming up fast.

There was a small tool shed here, and a chopping stump beside. Tiba leaned over, quickly dusting the little curls and chips of wood away, then motioned the girl over. “Sit her down for me please.”

Neither moved.

Tiba was about to step forward and push the girl down herself when the child spoke.

“Father says they’ll want to kill me. The Law.” Her eyes were fixed on the bare dirt in front of her, though Tiba knew that wasn’t what she was seeing. “Is that true?”

Tiba knelt down in front of her, plucking the girl’s small fists away from worried skirts and holding them in her own hands. “Your pa tells you right. They’d kill you if they knew what you’ve got in you—and they’ll kill you after, if they ever learn what I took. You can’t ever say a word.” She felt the girl begin to shiver, her fists trembling in the curl of Tiba’s palms. “I know that’s scary as anything you’ve ever known, child, I do. But I can promise you, as long as you and your pa never speak a word, nobody will ever know. There’ll be no sign on you, nothing to give it away. It’ll be the worst, most dangerous secret, but it’ll be a secret.”

“If we don’t… do this? What if I hide it?”

Tiba saw the man twitch at this, felt his distaste at the idea. After all, they were here to fix his daughter. He didn’t like thinking of this thing as a part of the girl, as something that’d leave scar inside once it got pulled out. She wondered if he’d let the Law take his daughter if there were no fix, if the only other choice were running for the border. Not for the first time, Tiba was glad she wouldn’t have to find out. It was just about impossible, getting a person across the border illegally.

“You and your pa won’t be able to hide what’s in you much longer. That’s just not the way it works.”

“And… will it hurt?”

“Like the devil,” Tiba answered, not even flinching. She wouldn’t lie, not to a Source.

The girl watched her for a long minute until her hands went still in Tiba’s grasp. Finally she pulled her hands away and sat, nervously smoothing her skirts again. “I guess I’m ready.”

Tiba swung her pack down beside her and opened one of the outer pockets. She pulled out a red stone, hardly more than a large pebble, oblong and pierced at one end. A red string looped through it, matching the stone’s color perfectly in the dark. She let it drop, swinging for a moment at the end of its string, rocking back and forth between them. Then its swing changed, tugging toward the girl like gravity had somehow just shifted.

“I need you to swallow this.” Tiba held the stone out, edging closer to the girl so it seemed to float above her lap. She lifted her hands, caught up the stone, closed her eyes and shoved it into her mouth. Tiba let out a little slack on the string, but kept a grip on the end as the girl swallowed it down.

When the girl nodded, Tiba tied the string to a little loop necklace she wore and turned to her pack one more time, this time digging out eight gold rings. She slipped them on one by one, whispering the words she’d been taught so long ago. The words, like her bag, seemed to carry extra weight these days, strengthening the low hum in the back of her head. Then, with one last deep breath, Tiba leaned in and hit the girl’s hand as hard as she could. The child jerked away, coughing around the string in surprise. Her father stepped forward, but Tiba glared him back.

“This is where it starts hurting.” She turned back to the child and began to beat her in earnest. She moved up the girl’s arms, one by one, all the way to her shoulders. Then up her legs, from toes to hips. Then top of the head down, slowly pulling all the currents of her hands together over the girl’s stomach and the place where the little red stone would sit. Alternating palm and back of hand, she worked at the girl’s belly like a ball of dough, beating it down. When the girl’s soft whimpering started, she ignored it and began again.

The girl’s father turned away, pulling the hat from his head and worrying at the brim.

By the third time through, the girl was going pale under the red of her beaten skin and the whimpers turned to crying. When Tiba slapped her face, her hands came away wet. On the fifth pass, the girl began to shake. Tiba didn’t pause as she called the girl’s father over, didn’t break concentration as she ordered him to hold her down.

“Tighter,” she said on the sixth pass, as the girl’s shakes strengthened, making it harder for Tiba’s blows to land right.

On the eighth pass, the child’s shaking became violent. Her head cracked back into her father’s chin, and they both tumbled down from the log. Tiba followed, not even waiting for the father to crawl out from under the girl. She kept beating her, starting a ninth pass and finally concentrating entirely on the girl’s torso until the child went suddenly still.

“You’ve killed her.” The man’s voice was soft and dangerous as he pulled himself free.

“No. You asked me to pull a part of her out, and that’s not an easy thing, but it’s all I’ve done.” Tiba stood up, untied the string from her necklace, and began to pull. The girl coughed and choked as the string came up, thick with black tar down its whole length. Her mouth gaped wide and all sound stopped as the stone came free at last. It hung like a dark moon at the end of it all, looking too large to have come out of the poor child.

Tiba held her breath and stepped back, watching the pendant swing a bit, watching for a hint that it might still be pulling toward the girl. But it hung straight, and Tiba let out her breath. “She’s safe now. Take her home.”

The man eyed the awful tar hanging from Tiba’s hand and didn’t say a word. He just nodded, turned away, and scooped his daughter up into his arms. The child groaned and shied away from his touch.

“Don’t let her go out until the bruising goes down. Just tell folks she’s sick, if they ask.”

He didn’t look back at her, though Tiba caught his slow nod. Then he walked back through the trees without so much as a thank you.

Tiba held the string and stone as far from her as she could and leaned over to fish a pair of heavy leather gloves—metalworker’s gloves—from her pack. She slid them on one by one, flexing her fingers inside. She slowly peeled the tar away, pulling it from the string and rolling it up into a ball bigger than both her fists together. Finally she dumped the whole thing into the leather sack and peeled off her gloves, tucking them in another pocket along with the pendant. Then she leaned back and took a long, shaking breath. The girl had been strong. She didn’t think she’d ever had to do nine passes before. Eight once, a few years back, and she’d heard more and more runners having to do seven, but never more. More than anything, Tiba wanted to lean back against the stump behind her and rest. Just close her eyes and rest her aching hands. The girl was safe.

But the magic isn’t, Tiba reminded herself, glancing at the pack and remembering what it held. The magic won’t be safe until it’s across the border. Tiba forced herself up, shouldered her pack, and started walking just as the first drops of rain began to fall. Time to get back to the tunnels. A contact would be waiting for her on the far end soon, wondering why she was late. Unlike Tiba, they might not wait. So she sped up her steps, trying to ignore the warm weight of her pack and the musty smell of it, the way the magic inside curled around her spine and slowly nibbled at the buzzing spells.

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Kate Lansky has done a lot of things in her life, but writing is the only one that seems to stick. She currently lives in Chicago, IL with a small menagerie of beasts, a husband, and a son. Who might as well count toward the menagerie too. Email: Katelansky[at]gmail.com