A City Reclaimed, Chapter 1
Ella was trying to sleep, but it was difficult. The bed she was sleeping on had previously belonged to one of the maids of her family’s estate—who had either been fired after being blamed for stealing something which had in fact been taken by Ella, or had left in order to avoid the same fate from which Ella was now hiding—and for this reason it was much less comfortable than what Ella was used to. Apart from that, she had been hearing the occasional thump sound from upstairs, and this was wreaking havoc with her nerves.
It must be raining outside, Ella decided, and turned over to burrow under the thin cotton quilts she’d piled on top of herself. The number of occupants in the estate was now down to—three? Four?—who were still alive. Ella was one of them, and intended to stay that way. But she couldn’t be caught by any of the others. Explaining would be too difficult. Being expected to inherit—no, she couldn’t be pinned down, that would be certain death. Besides, she knew full well that someone was watching the house, and this person could not be allowed to know that Ella wasn’t sick or dead, lest they attempt to remedy the issue.
Someone was waiting for the noble family to be wiped out. Someone wanted Muncival, and the best time to take it would be when the Blackwood family was out of the way. So they were spying, watching now that disease had already struck the house, waiting for the golden opportunity when their claim to the city would be unchallenged.
Ella wanted to take the bag she’d prepared and leave now, but she had no idea when the house was being watched. Too risky. She’d shifted a few bricks here and there to make little spy-holes so she could see into the garden. Only a few times, however, had she seen the well-dressed man lurking outside. She couldn’t see his face, only his expensive clothing, but she knew it was the same person. The visitor always had the same gait and build, and the same neat leather shoes. She wished it was always the same time of day, too, but his visits seemed to be random. That meant she didn’t know when it was safe to run.
To any passersby, he looked like a man calling on business matters. Nothing unusual; her father met with merchants frequently and had a very good relationship with both the city’s local vendors and the traveling merchants that greased the wheels of commerce between cities. Muncival was a trading city if nothing else. Ella’s father was known well for being among the sharpest businessmen in the southern cities dotting the banks of the Panh river. There were no guards to be suspicious of the intruder, either; even the most loyal had long since deserted in the wake of hephrol, leaving for their family before they, the guards, also became fatally ill—with, Ella suspected, one exception, and he wasn’t going to be of any help.
There was no cure for hephrol. It was terribly contagious, and for whatever reason, tended to attack the rich and powerful before anyone else. Ella knew her father was suffering from it even now; he had held on longer than many of the house’s other occupants, but in her heavy heart Ella knew he had become weak from it and would not recover. She felt terrible about leaving him to be not only ill but lonely. Yet she knew, because of Samuel, that she couldn’t help this if she wanted to stay alive herself.
The words “contagious,” “bacteria,” or “system of immunity” hadn’t yet reached the ears of most people. Only one of Ella’s tutors had known about it, and he, Samuel, was the main reason Ella had shown no signs of the nausea, seizures and eventual paralysis which had taken almost all of the rest of her family. Now Ella knew about these things too. This was her reasoning for staying in the basement, in the vacated maids’ rooms. Hephrol could take lives so randomly that the house was ridden with decaying corpses which had not yet been found; those who had collapsed into bushes or deep in the labyrinth of the family library, for instance. Going upstairs was not an option at this point. After all, she had stolen all she needed to steal—mainly small, easy-to-carry valuables which could be traded for food.
Something big knocked into the side of the mansion, against the wall above Ella’s adopted room. It sounded heavy. Ella jumped.
Stop, calm down. You can’t let the paranoia—
She heard a muffled curse.
Ella froze. Then, panicked but still cautious enough not to make too much noise, she clambered out of bed and pulled on her disguise as quickly as she could. It was a thick cotton maid’s uniform which included a bonnet. Ella had clumsily removed the Blackwood estate insignia from the outfit a while back, making it somewhat less recognizable. She pulled a little silver mirror from her bag to check that her blonde hair had been completely concealed under the bonnet. Blonde hair was very common in the southern river cities, but better to keep any malicious watchers guessing and have as few distinguishing features as possible. She carefully slid the mirror back into the bag.
Mr. Well Dressed had been going towards the north end of the house, to judge by the direction the cursing had headed off. The nearest exit was towards the north. Drat. Ella would have to make the trek to that old trapdoor by the wine cellar—not an ideal escape route, as she hadn’t tested yet whether it actually opened. Ella had an awful feeling about this particular visit. She knew her father could die any day now, and he was one of the few people left in the estate, apart from maybe the cook and an old, nearly blind guard who didn’t have a home to run to. Ella had wondered why the well-dressed man hadn’t simply come in and finished the rest of the house’s inhabitants off. She had a gut feeling that this was what he’d come to do today. It was unlikely that he’d bother searching the maids’ quarters, but she could make her escape while she was sure he was busy.
…On the other hand, he might have friends outside who would be watching. No, not likely, Ella decided. He thinks this house is completely defunct. He won’t think he needs help, and why draw more attention than necessary? Besides, no one would want to stand outside in heavy spring rain.
Ella slipped out, cradling the bulk of her bag and trying not to let the door creak. As quietly as was possible while wearing the thick, heavy leather guards’ boots she’d taken, she darted down the narrow passages of the servants’ quarters.
She’d almost come to the doorway that led to the near end of the wine cellar when the first explosion hit.
Dazed, Ella picked herself up off the ground and tried to think past the buzzing in her ears. The intruder wasn’t merely trying to assassinate her father. He was going to blow up the mansion.
Ella hadn’t heard or felt anything in her bag break, but it had been hard to hear or feel anything other than the detonating charge. Scowling and trying to gather her legs under her, Ella stumbled further down through the cellars. She hadn’t gotten much farther when a second explosion rattled the wine bottles and shook her to her knees again. Her ears felt even worse; this one had been closer. Working through anxiety-fueled aggravation, she stomped straight back up again and started running, clumsily, not worrying quite so much about the semi-fragile contents of her bag. Was that a piece of the basement collapsing behind her?
She was gripping the termite-chewed wooden railing that led to the trapdoor when the third explosion hit. Ella had a hard time gauging whether this one was closer because of her impaired hearing. The shock wave hit a little later than before, but was still strong enough to shake both Ella and the floor, causing the railing to snap under her hand. Ella decided to stop worrying about where the explosion was and to just leave as quickly as possible.
Holding her bag in both hands out in front of her to help balance and push herself forward, Ella managed the rest of the stairs on her own. She heard what sounded like wooden beams snapping and a load of bricks falling down, but it was nearer the center of the house. At least the well-dressed man would have fled the scene to avoid injury. Ella herself was already having trouble breathing, although whether this was due to blast damage or anxiety was yet to be learned.
She tried the trapdoor.
Panicking, she put her bag down and struck a desperate blow against the door with her elbow. Thunk, went the trapdoor. Again, again, she hit it. Terrified, Ella gave up on the limited range of her elbow, brought her tiny fist all the way back, and charged it straight into the trapdoor next to the latch.
It shattered. The insects which had chewed away at the railing had obviously taken just as much of a liking to the door. Ella clutched briefly at her right hand, then pulled at the frail wood with her left until there was space to escape.
She hauled out her bag and then herself, scrambled to her feet, and bolted away. Her heavy boots were a help rather than a hindrance now, letting her run straight over wet grass without slipping quite so easily. She was wheezing, was seeing stars flash in her vision, but pushed herself forward.
Then Ella glanced back. One corner of the house was still standing. She was amazed how much ground she’d covered since spilling out of the basement.
One corner still standing. A sizable piece of the house.
Ella’s presence of mind tapped her on the shoulder just in time to give her the forewarning to drop to the ground and cover her head.
The shockwave rocketed across the field. Without any barrier to stop it, the blast traveled straight across the plains. Ella sat back up and looked around warily. She could even see the round ripple of a wave on the somewhat distant river, reflecting the moonlight.
Ella realized that she was wearing white. Not good camouflage.
She was wearing white, and it was pre-dawn darkness, and she was visible and scared and at least somewhat injured.
I have to leave, Ella thought. The traders. I should get to the traders. There’s a band coming in from the southeast today, if they’re running on schedule. If I can stop them before they get to the city—they won’t want to trade here. Once they hear the talk in town about the mansion being blown to pieces… Everyone will have heard those explosions. But unrest is bad for business, they might be locked down in the city by the new ruler until he establishes power, because he won’t want them telling anyone else that now might be a great time to try to grab Muncival…
Breathing quickly and heavily, Ella made a concerted effort to keep down her dinner. She could feel the adrenaline draining away, and it left nausea and a splitting headache in its wake, along with the sudden inability to think. She noticed the jittering sort of motion her hands were making.
She tried to stand up anyway. After staggering for a second, she managed to keep her balance and then tried to pick up her bag, which seemed quite a lot heavier now.
Tired but still aware her life wasn’t safe yet, Ella made her way into the city, slipped through one of the safer back neighborhoods, and was awarded with a brief half-hour of rest before the sun slipped out of the cover of the clouds and the southeast gate opened.
Ella was fortunate; not only was she still alive, but the traders had been running an hour late. She intercepted them easily before they got to the city. Their heavy carriages didn’t go much faster than walking pace in any case—or, at least Ella had never seen them do so.
The shout made Ella cringe. Her ears still hurt. “Stop!” she shouted back, and the whine and buzz returned to her hearing along with the same piercing pain. She was sure she’d felt her bones rattle.
She backed up some, allowing the caravan of clockwork carts to slow to a halt. Someone peered at her from atop one of the carts.
“What is it? Who—Lady Estelle Blackwood? What’s wrong?” The driver of the cart in front, a trader dressed in a richly dyed blue coat, called out to her.
Am I that recognizable? Ella wondered.
Well, you did just command an entire caravan to stop for you, and the head trader was the one in front and he knows—knew—your father well. Of course he recognizes you. But who told him to address me that way? …Probably my mother.
She realized she’d paused without answering, but she still hadn’t prepared what to say. “…You don’t want to trade here today. In Muncival. Please, take me on the caravan. We have to pass by to the next town.”
The trader climbed down the stepladder off his cart and bowed slightly to her. “I am Luther Spenlow II, m’lady. What has caused you your distress?”
Ella gathered her composure and stepped closer in order to speak a little more privately—and also more quietly, to spare her headache. “The Blackwood estate has been obliterated. It was bombed last night. I very nearly did not escape. I believe this to be the deliberate action of a person or persons who intend to take the city.”
“Some would say this would mean a reason for you to stay, meaning no disrespect.”
Ella had to stop herself from letting on how moronic she considered this remark. “I would say it means I’m in danger, and should gather allies before I attempt to encounter such forces, if such an attempt is even plausible.”
Spenlow’s face darkened. “Then this means that your father…”
“Perished in the attack, yes. I’m afraid.” Her mind still felt sort of cloudy on this; she hadn’t had time to process what happened.
She and Spenlow both pulled a box of matches from their respective pockets, as did the surrounding drivers and those traders who had come to the uncovered front of their carts to find out why they’d stopped. Simultaneously, all watching struck a match, silently watched in respect as it burned down, then gently blew it out.
Those several who had emerged from the covered parts of the wagon to investigate the situation while this ceremony proceeded stared in shock as they pieced together the situation: the girl who’d stopped the caravan, the grieving look on Spenlow’s face, the scattering of matches lit in the fog off the river and the dim dawn sunlight. Someone had died. Awkwardly they ducked their heads, somehow intangibly adding to the silence.
“I’m sorry,” Spenlow said. “Please join us.”
Ella climbed up next to him and decided to drop the formalities right now. “Can I call you Luther?”
A mildly surprised but warm smile spread across his face and he nodded.
Ella stuck out her right hand. “Ella.”
Luther nodded again, shook her hand, then hazarded: “Ella… you look beat, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
She looked down at herself. The modified maid’s uniform was covered in grass stains, mud, wood splinters, dust, and blood from her scuffed knees and elbows; it was torn in several places; and on top of that it was soaking wet from the rain and fog. She reached up and touched her face, scratched rather badly by the door she’d climbed out of and the twigs she’d fallen on when she dived to the ground. Everything else was achy or sore, so she hadn’t yet noticed them. Now those abrasions hurt too.
“I look like I’ve been dragged through the river and then rolled up the bank,” Ella said. “You wouldn’t happen to have a clean dress about my size around here? Perhaps a bucket of water and a scrubbing brush? I’ll trade for”—she glanced at her bag—“whatever’s left that isn’t broken. Old silk dresses, if nothing else. I don’t want to wear them; they’re far too noticeable.”
Luther turned to the trader driving the clockwork cart and nodded at him, and the driver slipped back into the canopied part of the cart while Luther took over driving.
Ella had never seen someone drive a cart up close before. She knew how the mechanisms worked, of course—Samuel had taught her—but she’d never seen the front of a cart in person until now.
Luther’s strong hands pulled the handles on the large power wheel smoothly. He used both hands to get the cart moving again, but then switched his left hand to the control stick next to it, making minor corrections to the steering to keep the cart from straying.
Luther’s cart was not the largest; in fact, it was one of the smallest. Other carts had multiple drivers, not to control steering but to keep at the power wheel.
“Whoops, it’s a hat-bump,” Luther said. “Hold on. Pull us over with the wheel, would you dear?”
Ella grabbed the power wheel and pulled down on its handles as Luther did his best to navigate around the lump in the road. She was expecting the wheel to be difficult to pull, but it was surprisingly easy to handle.
“Smooth, isn’t she?” Luther asked, noting Ella’s surprise as he took back the handle. “Sorry about that. It’s the repeated action all day that wears you down, you see, not the strength you need,” he explained. “The gearing and machinery inside the cart is what makes it go on such little power, see.”
“Impressive,” Ella said, figuring it was best to get on very friendly terms with Luther as soon as possible.
“Arithmetic and aether, that’s what they say. I don’t understand it. Verney’s keeps breaking down for some reason… Ah, but that’s our problem; don’t worry about it.”
“I do understand,” Ella said.
“I understand how carts work,” Ella said. “I could probably fix…”
“No, no,” Luther said, laughing. “Not Theo’s daughter. You ride free of charge here.”
Ella bristled and drew herself up. “I will be useful, if you have any respect for me.”
I need to learn how to fix things, she thought. I need to learn a trade, and mechanics is at least interesting. If I mess up here, Luther probably won’t be too hard on me. …Still, better not to mess up. I should try to find some books to use as reference material.
Apparently, being glared at by a thirteen-year-old noble girl who was presently covered in half a dozen kinds of grime struck some kind of nerve; Luther looked impressed, a little bit chagrined, and very much like he was trying not to laugh. Eventually he managed, “Well, you’re your father’s daughter.”
Ella decided this was a compliment and gave a mild, noncommittal smile.
The driver was back with Ella’s change of clothes and bucket of bath water. Ella bade Luther a temporary goodbye as she followed the driver back to a spot of privacy in the back of a small cart filled mainly with boxes of candles. She cleaned up and put on the new dress. It was wool, and was rather scratchy and thick; it hampered her movement. Ella didn’t like how it felt, but it fit and it did keep the chill from the fog away.
When they stopped for supper, Ella met with the rest of the merchant group. Although some traders higher up the ladder had acquired the skill of knowing when to keep gossip to themselves, it wasn’t a very common ability among traders in general. Part of what drew crowds to marketplaces when trading bands came in was to hear news from other cities. The more exciting or interesting the news, the longer the people would hang around to hear about it, and the longer they hung around, the more likely they were to buy something. Ella, however, had no desire to be a marketing tactic, so she and Luther simply told the others that Ella was a family friend of Luther’s and was traveling to Corveny to be a mechanic’s apprentice.
Even Luther didn’t know her real plans, however.
Ella had no intention of returning to Muncival. Muncival would stay in the hands of whoever destroyed the estate. Ella had no real power; the only money she had was what she’d make by selling the things she’d taken out of the estate, and she’d need that money to live off of until…
…Until she found Samuel.
Samuel would take her in. Samuel would give her a job, or if not, he’d find her one. He had been very fond of Ella, had been kind to her, had cared about her, and there had been precious few people like that in Ella’s life. Her father had cared for her. Her mother, too, in her own strange way. But she hadn’t known either of them very well, and her siblings hadn’t been overly fond of spending time with her, either. Ella had spent most of her days in odd corners of the mansion with a short stack of books while she hid from her nursemaid and sometimes her other tutors—who did not like her—and she’d worked through pieces of the library based on her own interests.
But not when Samuel was around. He had been like an older brother, teaching her things that her mother at least certainly wouldn’t have approved of. Some days they spent in the library; other days, they took long walks while Samuel wore out his voice answering an endless stream of “but why?” questions from Ella. Other days, Samuel told Ella’s parents they were going out for a walk, when they were actually going to a machinery shop in town and examining generators.
He had been fired by Ella’s mother after she managed to find out Samuel had taught Ella how to shoot a gun. In Muncival, weaponry of any sort—but especially guns—were considered crass, not something to even be spoken of in polite company. Weapons were never displayed on walls and their use was not taught to nobles who were not part of the military (which was considered an honorable calling, but such a career was still not a polite topic of conversation).
Ella knew that Samuel hailed from one of the towns around the Panh river’s wide, lazy bend. She needed to travel northwest—that is, upriver—to get there from Muncival. Corveny was her best guess as to where he might live, as their customs matched up well with Samuel’s behavior.
In the month it took to get to Corveny, Ella changed. Through working on machinery nearly every day, she not only became increasingly competent and more confident, but she also became stronger. Every evening, a woman called Alice would come to Ella with salt compresses for her stiff muscles, and every morning, she’d be sore anyway. Nevertheless, Ella didn’t stop working. By the end of her trip, she not only knew the mechanisms of clockwork carts very well, but she could put quite a large dent in a sheet of copper with a wrench. Ella found herself pleased with this development, and carried herself with less fear of the city streets she walked when the traders finally stopped in Corveny.
Ella found herself some lodgings in a barn belonging to a man whose clockwork tractor she’d fixed. It wasn’t well-insulated, but the spring had long since become warm enough for that not to matter, and it had a watertight roof. She’d made a nest of blankets in a big pile of hay, and that was where she slept. It was much more comfortable than the maids’ beds.
Every day, Ella looked for Samuel, and for freelance work. She wasn’t doing too badly for herself; she ate well, had a warm place to sleep, and wore decent clothes. But it was lonely and stressful. Ella was thirteen years old and didn’t pass well for much older, being short for her age. She was acutely aware that even armed with heavy tools, she could be easily overpowered; she never went out after sundown. She was also homesick. Ella had a feeling that, were she not alone and scared, she might have liked Corveny very much. Her search for Samuel became all the more desperate.
Had she not been so desperate, she might have avoided the trouble that came to her one evening.
The sun hung low in the sky. Ella carried the same bag she’d first packed back in the estate, except now it held only her money and her tools, which, apart from the blankets and spare dresses which remained in the barn, were all she owned. She had been working all day and was long since ready to go back to her nest in the hay.
Then she saw the back of a familiar blond head. A tall, straight posture, a custom gun on his hip, good-quality working clothes, a friendly sort of gesturing as he spoke to a lady selling lamp oil, who seemed to be very interested in what he was saying.
Ella watched him bid farewell to the stall owner and turn away. She stood for a moment, frozen in indecision.
She followed him.
He went into one of the sketchier back neighborhoods.
Hesitantly, Ella still followed him.
He got into a clockwork cart.
Ella jogged to keep up. The cart wasn’t fast, but her bag clanked loudly with tools that felt increasingly heavier. She hoped he’d stop soon.
Unexpectedly, the man turned a corner, went around a block, and…
…Ella lost him.
Wondering where she should go and whether it was worth trying to pick up—Samuel’s?—trail again, or whether she should just go home, Ella stalled again in deliberation. But this time it was no safe market square in which she was standing. Someone grabbed her around the waist.
“What’s in the bag, kitten?” someone behind her demanded, making her jump.
“Nothing for you!” Ella swung up her tool bag, aiming for her pursuer’s head. He released her and stepped out of the bag’s range. Ella swung again and this time managed to connect the bag with the man’s ribs.
A blow struck the side of her head from out of her peripheral vision. Someone had managed to sneak up behind her while she was busy. Stars blurring her vision, Ella turned and swung wildly again but lost her balance. A quick second blow to the side of her head, and Ella was knocked unconscious.
AN: Here it is. This project has been something I’ve worked on on and off for years, except in a way that doesn’t imply so much time and effort. I have an old draft of it that’s 2/3 finished, but I’ve gotten better at writing since then. The story’s definitely worth telling, but I’d rather retell it.
Anyway, imagine I’m smashing a bottle of expensive fizzy wine on the metaphorical hull of this thing, because we’re off. It’s gonna be a long voyage.
Poor Ella has already had her family killed, been chased out of town by usurpers with bombs, and been mugged and KO’d while trying to scratch out an honest living looking for the one dude she trusted. Sadly, this may not be the worst thing that’s going to happen to her. The jury’s still out.
This entry was posted on Friday, July 22nd, 2016 at 12:35 am and is filed under A City Reclaimed. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.