I spent the night of my thirteenth birthday wrapped in dark, uncomfortable dreams. They weren’t nightmares, and Mrs. Apothecary was there to keep me safe, but they weren’t happy dreams at all. They were dark and murky and confusing.
All I really remember of them was Mrs. Apothecary trying really hard to explain something to me. It was something terribly important that I needed to understand. But all I really remember from it all was her saying, “Of course I knew dear, but there are some things you have to do by yourself.”
I remember those words because, right after she said them, she slapped me with a hard, sweeping backhand. The shock of her hitting me, and the sudden pain across my cheek, launched me right out of my dream and out of my bed with a gasp—driving my head straight into the stomach of someone standing over me, just as they drove a sharp knife down into the mattress where my neck had been.
If I’d been lying on my back instead of curled around the broom, I would’ve leapt straight into the blade. I still felt it slice across the back of my neck when I shot up. I screamed, diving away from the pain and the dark shadow by my bed and the glint of steel in their hand. The shadow staggered back a little from my butting into its stomach, but caught itself quickly.
It was too dark to see anything but vague shapes, but it was my room and I knew where the door was. I tried to get to my feet, tangled and tripping on the bed sheets. I made for the door. The shadow was faster. It was between me and the door in an instant. With the shadow blocking my way, I froze. Ornery had always insisted that I know how to fight, and made me take lots of classes in combat and self defense. I could hold my own against the biggest of bullies, move faster, think faster, and leave them on the ground begging me to let go. None of it was there for me right then. I was disoriented and terrified and the back of my neck burnt like fire.
“This is for my brother,” a rough male voice hissed, reeking of whisky and other things, “not that you’ll be around to pass that along.” The shadow snickered darkly.
He lunged at me, blade swinging wildly.
I tried to leap to the side, but had a foot still tangled in the bed sheets. I twisted and fell flat into a corner of the room. I rolled over on my back, trying to move away from my attacker. His foot pinned a leg in place, his full weight on it, grinding it against the floor. He towered over me. He swung the blade down with a blow meant to slice me open from neck to navel.
The blade stopped with a splintering and a loud metallic clang. My arms went numb with a jolt. I still had the broom in my hands. Without even thinking I had thrust it forward with both hands. There was no way a piece of bamboo cold stop that blow, but the broom had held.
The shadow swore and stumbled back. He carefully moved the blade to his other hand as I tried to find some place to scramble away to. There were chunks of splintered bamboo on the ground around me. I felt a piece of metal slicing across my palm from somewhere. Recovered from the shock of the stopped blow, he stomped down on my leg hard enough to make me scream and drew back for another blow. I let go of what was cutting me and grabbed the broom at the base so hard I drove some scraggly twigs straight through my hand.
I thrust the broom up with all my might, trying to push him back long enough to get out the door, just as he was driving down for another blow.
The broom didn’t push him back. He just seemed to fall into it. But his blow never fell. He just stopped there, a sash tight about his chest brushing my two hands, my arms straight, holding his weight upon them and still holding the end of the broom.
There was a long moment when nothing happened, his blade glinting an inch from my breast. The only sound was my breathing and my blood pounding my ears. Then the blade slipped and fell from his grasp, sharp enough to stick me through my jacket before clattering to the floor. He gurgled. He coughed. Something wet splashed my face. My arms buckled under his weight. He fell forward on me.
Terrified that he had me pinned there and there was nothing I could do, the silence passed and the terror returned. I started screaming. I struggled wildly under his weight. I kicked, clawed, screamed, and bit as I tried to crawl out from under him.
I pushed him off me. I got up and ran to the door. As I threw open the door, some little bit of me realized he wasn’t chasing me. He hadn’t even been fighting when I was struggling to get him off me. I turned slowly, holding tightly on to the door.
In the glow slicing in the door from the front room I could see him. He was clean shaven and dressed like a well-to-do rake. He looked like someone who made a living mugging rich people in dark alleys. He was lying on the ground, trying to get up on his hands and knees, and failing. There was a long straight blade covered in glyphs sticking out of his back.
I started shaking and couldn’t stop.
The front door burst open. Mr. Apothecary and his wife charged in dressed in their bed clothes. He had a lamp in one hand and a pistol in the other. He was shouting, “What’s wrong? What’s happening?” The moment he saw me he stopped and stared, a look of shock on his face.
I stared back at him, half empty, half terrified, shaking.
He recovered, looked past me, pushed me aside, and went into my room. I backed away from the door, edging away from the bloody scene. The shadow was now just a human body lying awkwardly on the floor, an unknown man in a pool of his own blood. He was slowly ceasing his struggles against the blade that had pinned him.
Sunk into his chest you could still see the scraggly bristles covering the hilt of that blade. Someone had tried to kill me. I had killed them. Neither one made a very good birthday present. But at that moment I was nothing but scared, and the thought of a birthday was far away.
Mrs. Apothecary came forward and placed her hands gently on my shoulders. I jumped in spite of her tender touch, but couldn’t tear my eyes away from the body Mr. Apothecary was cautiously inspecting. I heard him swear. It sounded so odd coming from him.
Mrs. Apothecary turned me away from the room to face her. “Are you all right child,” she asked in a way that was both urgent and soothing. Her words broke through the spell and I collapsed into her a mess of tears and snot for the second time that night. She didn’t even complain that I was ruining her beautiful white gossamer and lace night gown with the blood that covered my hands and front.
I jumped at the sharp sound of a single pistol shot behind me, but couldn’t be torn from the comfort of Mrs. Apothecary’s arms. It was the weird, almost keening pop from a pistol that worked with magick, not gunpowder and lead. A weird burst of something brushed past me, like an unexpected voice, but it was quickly lost in more tears.
The apothecary came back out of the room still swearing softly and saying something about a life locket. He was carefully holding the same knife the shadow had held. He quickly found some more glow disks to turn on so he could look at it better. It was a knife made for business, unpleasant business. The steel was an odd shade of blue. He looked at it with a simmering mix of fear and hatred.
“Get the guard,” Mrs. Apothecary said softly to him.
The apothecary didn’t look up from the blade. He turned it gently back and forth in his hand. “This was meant to make someone suffer,” he said, “to die in as much pain as possible.”
“She’s not laying on the ground writhing in convulsions. She’s not foaming at the mouth, though maybe a little at the nose.” Mrs. Apothecary smiled at her joke. “She’ll be fine. Just get the guard.” He nodded, his normal nervous look taken over by a dark decisiveness.
He drove the knife into the wood of the mantle over the fire and hurried out the door. He started shouting as he ran down the street to attract the attention of a patrol.
Mrs. Apothecary pushed me back to arms length to get a better look at me. She looked me up and down as I stood there wrapped in tears. “No worse for the wear,” she said, “except for some cuts on your hands. And not much of that blood looks to be yours.” She quickly yanked out a twig from the broom that was sticking through my hand. I was too busy crying and shaking to even gasp in pain.
“You’ll be right as rain in no time,” she said brightly with a hint of a smile crossing her face.
Done taking stock of me, she let me fold myself back into her arms and cry myself out. After a short while, she said, “You do know you were supposed to stay at our place tonight.”
I pushed away from her and stared at her, confused, as the dreams I’d been having before flooded back into me. I stammered, but no words came out except for weak attempts at “you”. Then she said, “Of course I knew dear, but there are some things you have to do by yourself.” Then she smiled that warm smile of hers that she always used to cure little kids of their small injuries.
Her smile filled me with a warm glow and made me feel fuzzy headed. The shaking and tears faded. The events of a few minutes ago felt like something speeding farther and farther away, too fast to catch, and I was standing somewhere on a cloud, watching it all as the world slid softly into a different focus.
“He cut me,” I said between receding sniffles.
I rubbed my hand across the back of my neck, feeling the collar soaked in my blood.
“Let me look.” She turned me around and pulled back my collar.
“Not a scratch,” she said brightly.
She turned me back around. “Show me your hands.”
I held out my hands for her.
She turned them over in hers. “See, not a scratch.”
I looked at them. There was not a scratch. But they seemed terribly far away from me, like I was trying to look at them through the wrong end of a telescope.
“Right as rain. Just like I said.” Then she laughed. “I do believe your eyes are the wrong color again, young lady. I suppose we should fix that before anyone notices. There’s going to be enough questions to clear up tonight.”
She stared deeply into my eyes, and held me as my legs buckled, lowering us both slowly toward the floor until we were kneeling facing each other.
Suddenly, I felt a something rushing through me, an overpowering need to tell her about my dreams, and the things she had said to me there, but thoughts faded away as fast as they came, a manic buzz racing through me but not stopping long enough for me to grab hold of anything. All I did was stare at her, my mouth moving with no sound coming out, my thoughts slipping away before I could grasp them.
I was still kneeling there, blankly staring at her, feeling fuzzy and empty, when Mr. Apothecary returned with the city guard. He didn’t look like the nervous, funny man I was used to. There was something about him that felt powerful and dark.
I think Mrs. Apothecary said some more things to me while we waited for him to return, and they seemed like terribly important things that I needed to understand, but they faded like the dreams before them. By the morning they were distant, fuzzy things that probably never happened.
The Pirate Apprentice by Mootly Obviate is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.