Episode I: The Devil’s Seed Purse
By Kara Luna-Rankin
A glimpse into the world of Catchfly, my post apocalyptic novel set in the year 2250. Mutated pesticides and crops kill off most of the world’s population, and the human element nearly takes care of the rest. Those that did survive, work hard to stay alive.
This is their story.
The shouting had not immediately caught his attention, a common sound one would expect to hear on a busy dock. Rather, it was the creative use of expletives being used, specifically regarding the parentage of someone’s mother, strung together in such a delicately brash manner. Orpheus had to see what all the fuss was about.
The cussing had interrupted Orpheus’ stoic pose. All morning he had been mulling over the problems they would face on their month-long Tour across the water that stretched to the Scablands. He hoped Tish would catch him standing there. Alas, she did not.
The salty breeze blew his dark hair into his face as he climbed to the deck above for a better look. Orpheus held onto his tricorn hat for good measure and peered over the railing to the busy dock below. There, Gunther squabbled with a longshoreman about the manner in which his skulls were being loaded onto the 219 foot steamboat; nothing new.
The wind changed, bringing forth the scent of whetstone oil.
“If he could argue with himself, he would,” Hylonome said as she walked up. Her soft woolen clothes kept her movements silent.
Orpheus nearly jumped. He forced himself to be still, despite his thundering heart. He recognized her voice. Not wanting to give her the pleasure of knowing she startled him, he said instead, “That he would.”
“Word on the water is Nomads are getting extra brutal under the leadership of their new commander, Melon,” she said and leaned backwards against the railing next to him, looking out across the body of water they would cross tomorrow.
He could smell the wet wool heated by her body, mixing with the oil she used to sharpen her shuriken, giving her a heady odor. The cedar bark deodorizer rings worn around the neck could only do so much. They did, however, work well with the insects, which seemed to be plaguing the land worse this season. He couldn’t wait to be back out on the water where they weren’t.
He turned. The mountains framed the horizon, giving a view of land, sea, and sky. Somewhere out in the Scablands, bloodthirsty Nomads were murdering and pillaging with a fervor not seen since The Red Death.
“I have heard the rumors of this ‘Melon’, and I’ve arranged to bring extra bribes,” he said, nodding behind him towards the cases of liquor being carried aboard. “Tish is bringing a few extra ladies with her, all skilled in the art of persuasion,” he said, emphasizing the word.
“I’ll keep my seed purse a little closer this trip,” she said.
“No need for that,” he said, dismissing her concerns with a flourish of his wrist. “They know not to lift from us.”
She only nodded and turned back to listen to Gunther’s new usage of the word “prow”.
The commotion below grew louder.
“Uh oh,” Hylonome said, humor bringing out her thick, eastern accent. “Its gettin’ serious.”
Orpheus shook his head and rolled his eyes. “What now?” he asked. He didn’t want to look away from the gorgeous view. Instead, he took a swig from his small silver flask. It burned, tasting of liquid fire. He hoped it would scorch away the feeling of dread he felt in his chest. It wasn’t helping. He tried another swig for good measure.
“I think Gunther might have had a little too much to drink on the way here,” she said.
He screwed the top back on, placed it back in his breast pocket, next to his seed pouch, and slowly joined her, not really wanting to be a part of whatever Gunther was getting himself into.
Down below on the dock, Ronquil’s colossal arm restrained Gunther’s neck. In no time the balding blonde man pulled his head free. The dark-haired man shrugged and grinned ferociously, causing his curly mustache to tilt in a silly manner. Gunther screamed another slew of creative curses, his large belly hefted with effort. An imprint from the damp towel Ronquel always carried on a shoulder soaked into Gunther’s grey shirt. The two were the strongest men of the troupe; Orpheus didn’t know which would gain control of the other.
Orpheus scanned the scene and noticed a young longshoreman holding his bloodied nose. He already knew what happened without having to ask Hylonome. Ronquil believed in using violence as the absolute last resort, as long as no children, animals, or innocents were harmed. In that case, everything went out the window and he would do anything he could to bring an aggressor to vigilante justice.
With all the commotion going on down below, a flash of movement on the fringe caught the smuggler’s eye. His peripheral vision followed a young girl as she slipped inside a box that waited to be loaded. The glimpse of her eyes reminded him of the distinctive Estray and he wondered how long the Tris girl would be able to hide.
This sort of thing occurred frequently. The Songsmiths were known for adopting those society rejected or persecuted. Contracted by the Nomads as tax collectors, they were allowed the freedom to entertain ports and mostly lived how they wanted, as long as they collected those tithes. Which also gave them the opportunity to smuggle people and goods, for a price of course, and to bribe eyes to look away. It could be a dangerous life at times. He didn’t have much of a choice, the devil’s seed purse held him captive.
“You saw her, too,” Hylonome said, interrupting Orpheus’ thoughts.
“I’ll watch for her to emerge,” she said and disappeared.
“Yeah, ok-” He looked behind him to see empty space. He hated how she did that.
Heavy steps and someone else ascended the ladder.
“You’re gonna have to talk to Gunther,” Captain Cabby said as he joined Orpheus at the railing. Thick cigar smoke wafted from the roll of tobacco in his hand. The water-born Captain didn’t smoke kinnikinnick like the Scabs. “I can’t have him punching the crew every time he gets a little upset.”
“He’ll be fine once we’re underway,” he said and shook his head sadly. “He doesn’t know how to deal with things he can’t control.” The cigar smoke invaded his face and he struggled not to cough. “No problem, no worries.”
Captain Cabby’s eyes flashed dangerously, “There better not be a problem,” he enunciated each word, “or else we’ll have a problem.”
“I’ll talk to him,” Orpheus said, knowing it was easier just to go along with the Captain, who did have ultimate say once they were underway. Gunther was Orpheous’ responsibility, as he employed him for his services. “There won’t be a problem.”
Slowly the look faded and the captain nodded.
Orpheus bowed respectfully, raising his hat towards the captain, then excused himself down the ladder to the deck below, away from the smoke. There he watched Gunther’s fight in peace under the shadow of the smoke stack.
Gunther tried grappling his opponent, but Ronquil had the upperhand. After a lengthy closing of his windpipe, Gunther stopped making noise and slackened in Ronquil’s grip. A woman splashed a bucket of cold water over his face. Gunther starfished to a stand, red-faced and hollering about Ronquil’s unfair treatment. An onlooker, which he now recognized as one of his crew, David, proposed a toast, distracting the angry man from his diatribe. The entire crowd cheered happily, raising their own flasks and cups into the air. They broke into song, laughing and jeering at one another. Once it was over, the two men made up. Orpheus watched as they wandered their separate ways. It was always over so quickly.
The commotion on the dock cleared like a change in tide. The longshoreman with a no longer bleeding nose motioned to the hoist operator aboard to lower the hook to the box the girl was hiding in. Slings secured, he motioned in the pointing up swirl that meant hoist up. The box lifted into the air slowly, but then began to rock back and forth. Orpheus wished right then he were imbued with that talent some have to communicate with the minds of others. He would tell the girl to stop moving, she could upset the delicate balance of the slings, and cause the box to plummet to their demise.
The movement ceased and the box safely lowered to the deck. The steamboat’s crew knew not to question such things and loaded the box just like any other.
Orpheus breathed in relief and slid down the two ladders to the open deck of the steamboat. Goose and Acorn, tall and lanky twins, worked to stow all the goods and supplies they would need for the voyage. One of them walked up to him. Without the two of them standing side by side, Orpheus had trouble telling them apart.
“The box?” the boy asked Orpheus in his drilled-in inconspicuous manner. One did not know when spies could be around.
Orpheus nodded. “I’m aware,” he said. “Put the box in the Workshop. Thanks… Goose?” he guessed with a wince. Orpheus could never tell them apart.
The twin shrugged, gave him a goofy smile, and walked off to continue his job.
Orpheus knew Hylonome was already in place to intercept the girl and find out what she was up to. He needn’t worry about her. She would find out if the girl was a spy for the Nomads. He did, however, worry about Gunther. His anger was getting more explosive.
Chever the cook, carrying a basket of vegetables, wandered aboard from the dock. “What is this blight?” he swore in his brusque accent from the east. “Where are the blighting fresh foods I asked for? Does nobody know anything?” he wandered around, asking no one in particular.
The First Mate, Hal, stepped out from the galley door towards Chever, a bowl of something in hand. “We’re waiting for the delivery,” he said then took a bite. “It appears they are late.”
Chever stared at the First Mate, eyes narrowing as a frown shadowed his features. “I do not like it when people get into the blighting food stores!” He growled. “I need to take inventory so I can plan to make fancy dinners, but if someone eats all of my ingredients first, I cannot make fancy dinners! You always blighting mess it up!”
Hal shrugged and stirred the contents of the bowl, “Relax! I brought it from home. Oats and yogurt,” he said defensively, holding it so the grumpy cook could inspect for himself.
“Bah!” Chever gestured in exasperation and stormed past the First Mate into the galley.
“I hear they’re fighting,” Lotti said, limping her way towards Orpheus. “Chever and his wife, they had a fight last night and she kicked him out. Bastion and I heard the whole thing when trying to sleep. This must be the hundredth time he and Greenlee fought! I don’t think she likes staying home with the kids anymore. Woops!”
He reached out and steadied her as she balanced awkwardly.
“Ah, thanks,” she said, out of breath. “It’s always awkward getting used to a new leg.”
Orpheus peered at the mismatched feet that stuck out from underneath her skirts. One was clothed in the common calf-high leather of seafarers, the other a mechanical apparatus built of salvaged metal parts and springs, covered in a soft brown leather “shoe”.
She lifted her skirt to show off the mechanical ankle that rotated with movement. “Cen made me a universal joint! See how it moves? I’m so excited! I just have to get used to the darned thing,” she said in her typical chipper manner.
Orpheus wondered how Lotti and the Captain shared the same parents and upbringing. They were worlds apart.
“My mom says you used to run a lot when you were younger,” Hal said and took another bite of oats.
Lotti’s smile faltered only a moment before cementing a proud grin on her face. “And I hope to again one day!” She stood tall, balanced with effort, and walked a fast pace across the deck. She ran out of room towards the paddlewheel, turned and walked back towards them, in full confidence. She put her hands on her hips in triumph and nearly lost her balance.
“Impressive!” Hal encouraged.
Orpheus nodded his hat at her and winked.
Lotti’s face blushed. “Thanks, fellas!”
Hylonome peeked out from the workshop hatch and motioned towards Orpheus.
He excused himself with a polite word and walked calmly towards the hatch where she’d already slipped back. The dark inside smelled of old oil and metal tools. It took his eyes a moment to adjust from the bright summer sunshine outside. He blinked enough and could finally see Hylonome’s face. Next to her cowered the girl.
Her distinctive features were even more apparent up close. Almond upslanting eyes stared up at him in defiance. She must have been 6 or 7, he guessed, but Tris could make it difficult to gauge. The bridge of her nose was somewhat flat and her pink tongue jutted out just enough to be seen. She was cute, despite her fierce expression.
He peered closer, then said, “Ah, so this is the little stowaway? You’re a Tris, aren’t you.”
“I’m not little!” In one movement, she pulled a dragger from her sleeve, lept towards him, and stabbed.
The quick movement from the girl surprised him. Winters of dance and martial arts had trained him to act on his instincts. Without a thought, he threw himself to the side, tumbled, and brought his own dagger up in time to ward off the child’s blow.
She hissed in irritation and jumped backwards.
He readied for a second attack, arms held up in defense, and squatted into a crouch. He could feel the bulkhead behind him. There wasn’t much room to fight in the workshop.
It was then that he realized she had knocked off his hat. He looked down and saw it on the floor between them. She noticed it too, and they both ran towards it.
He acted first and dove to the floor. His hand swept out to grab the hat while he flipped to a standing position. She somersaulted forwards, kicking her feet towards him, almost knocking it from his grasp. Defensively, he brought his arm up, set the hat atop his head, and caught her feet in a single fluid motion.
She snarled upsidedown as she realized she couldn’t break free. She’d made a mistake, become vulnerable as she tried attacking, leaving herself open. Raising the dagger in the air, she readied to stab it into his ankle.
Before she could act, Hylonome flicked the sharp side of a shuriken at the girl’s throat. “Don’t even think about it,” she ordered, and removed the girl’s dagger from her hand.
“You give up?” Orpheus asked. “We won’t hurt you, but if you attack, you’ll regret it.”
The girl snarled an illegible affirmative and he lowered her carefully to the ground so she could stand. Once he let go, she popped up and glared at him.
“So what was the point of all that?” he asked her, sizing her up. He was a little too winded for his liking. A good reminder of the need to exercise often. “Like I said, we won’t hurt you, we’re friends. So no need to do that again, okay?” he asked in a firm tone, making sure she understood. He admired her tenacity. “I can tell you’ve had some training. You’re very quick and have a keen balance.”
She nodded and shouted, “Yeah I have, winters and winters!” She glared back at Hylonome who didn’t trust her and still pointed both the dagger and shuriken at the girl. “She don’t need to do that, neither!” she yelled at the older woman.
Hylonome glanced at Orpheus and conceded to a relaxed pose, but didn’t put the weapons away, either. She merely lowered them to her sides. The girl faced him fiercely, showing that she wasn’t afraid of him.
“Again, child,” he said, and peered at the girl with a serious frown. “Why did you sneak aboard? Is someone chasing you?”
With that, the girl fell to her knees and clasped her hands up towards him in surrender. “Don’t let them find me!” she begged desperately in a thick lisp. “The Nomads cannot find me! They killed him, killed Mack, the man that protected me. Now I have no one,” the girl said softly. She began to weep big tears.
Orpheus nodded with understanding and kneeled with the girl. He put his arms protectively around her. Hylonome watched closely from behind, ready to move. “You’re safe, child,” he soothed. “We won’t let the Nomads find you. We’re used to that sort of thing. You’re welcome to hide below if they come aboard. You are worthy, just as the rest of us. And just as we pledge our lives to each other, we extend that to our entire crew, including you. We will gladly offer you protection, miss…” he trailed off with a smile on his face. “I would love to have the honor of knowing thy name, damsel,” he said, and bowed with a flourish.
The girl finally giggled and wiped the tears and snot on her sleeve. “Lump,” she said simply. “My name is Lump. My family don’t want me and gonna give me to the Nomads for extra rations,” she said with a broken look. She began to cry again.
Orpheus consoled the girl, lifting his gaze to Hylonome. He knew what the meant. Anyone who willingly gave up a child for the use of slavery would be given perks, like extra rations. The Nomads felt they were doing people a favor by getting rid of “undesirables”, as they did not see Tris as human. The birthrate got higher closer to old bomb sites. He tried not to think of the child’s potential future if captured. People were always afraid of what they didn’t understand. He knew that well enough.
“Lump?” he asked the girl. “Do you like that name? You’re welcome to change it, as others have done when they’ve joined us,” he suggested happily.
She shook her head defiantly. “I’m named after the Lumpsucker fish,” she explained proudly. “Cause I keep sticking around!”
He thought of juvenile lumpsucker fish adhered to rocks in the shallows. “Okay, little Lump, would you like to join our crew of ruffians and thespians?” he asked and motioned towards her in an elaborate gesture of dance.
Lump smiled, relaxing somewhat, and joined his outstretched hand. He spun her into a little twirl and danced with her towards the family room where she could be more comfortable, yet still hidden away.
“Wait,” the girl paused when Orpheus began to walk towards the girl. “You’re leaving me alone with her? She’s gonna hurt me!” she said, looking at Hylonome. He understood her fear, as the woman more resembled a stone statue than a cuddly, maternal creature.
Orpheus knelt to be face to face with the girl. “She won’t hurt you, unless you try to hurt her or any of our crew,” he said, trying to ascertain if the girl was a spy or as she had told them.
She nodded in acquiescence and walked back towards the assassin.
Once Lump was settled with Hylonome to watch over her, Orpheus returned outside to the dock traffic, assessing for threats. He wasn’t sure how badly the Nomads would pursue Lump. He knew the girl’s options, and her only chance for survival would be with the Songsmiths.
The steamboat and barge were nearly loaded, all that was left was the harvest cart. The delivery was very late. A local farm always gave the Songsmiths extra so they wouldn’t have to depend so much on generosity on Tour. Every little bit helped. In turn the farm would get first pickings on the returned spoils.
Ronquil walked towards Orpheus, concern afflicting his eyes. “Something’s wrong, the cart should have been here by now.” He smelled of sweat and earthy, smoldering kinnikinnick.
Orpheus nodded. Ronquil felt it, too. He trusted his friend’s gut more than anyone’s counsel, as his barometer for stuff going sideways was usually spot on. This was serious, then.
Ronquil spun and looked over the hill towards where the cart should be approaching from. A thin line traced through the sky.
“What is that, smoke?” Orpheus asked, peering at the horizon.
“Yes, smoke,” Ronquil agreed.
At first he thought he was imagining things. Two horses flew over the hill, pulling a flaming cargo of death behind them. As they drew closer, he realized they were not imaginary, very much real, and headed straight towards the boat. If the horses ran aboard the wooden vessel in their panic, it could set the whole thing aflame, killing people. He could lose his life savings, and the Nomads would not help him replace it. Orpheus couldn’t let that happen.
“Ronquil, we’ve got to stop them before they run aboard,” he dashed towards the edge of the deck. “Take that extra line and pull it across the road, block the path, so the horses run towards the water, instead. We might be able to put the fire out.” They didn’t have much time to act.
Orpheus had to hope.
Ronquil didn’t hesitate and followed his commands as ordered.
Orpheus finally saw Tish and her finely dressed ladies approach the dock. He ran towards them, whistling to get their attention. Their bright, shiny clothes would be perfect to startle the horses away.
The green, yellow, and pink ladies stared at him in confusion, until Tish caught his eye and did that thing where she seemed to know just what someone was thinking. She pulled the ladies beside her to scream and wave at the approaching horses, hopefully scaring them away from the ramps onto the boat.
Orpheus joined them and seized a parasol from one, and began opening and closing it at the approaching panicked horses.
Lilly appeared beside him and blew a plume of flames towards the horses. That did it. The horses reared, panicked from the flames ahead and behind. The crazed creatures turned and ran towards the open water of the harbor.
He had no time to thank the flame dancer. The horses lept into the air, pulling the flaming cart with them. They arched into the sky and careened into the water. The splash hit them all and the flames sizzled audibly.
Reuben lept from his hiding spot above and landed on the back of one of the horses. The parkour assassin and periotic knifethower began to hack into the straps that tied the sinking cart to the horses. He slashed at what he could, but the metal parts refused.
“I can’t cut it all!” he cried out.
The horses’ panicked eyes held just above the water.
Orpheus thought quickly. “The boat ramp is just over there,” he shouted while pointing. “They’ll reach bottom!” He cast a line to his friend.
Reuben nodded and caught the cedar rope. He disappeared underwater for a moment, then reappeared, water dripping off his tan goatee. His hands secured a quick bowline. “Pull!” he shouted.
Orpheus darted towards the boat launch, hoping to make it in time to save the horses. The cart was heavy and they could only swim so hard. He stood at the top of the boat launch and pulled hard, sweat poured off his face. He couldn’t fail. His arms ached. His back pitched an angry complaint. The thick cedar rope pulled at his callouses as his fingers shook in effort to hold. It was too much weight and he could feel the panicked horses pushing away, pulling him backwards. He couldn’t hold them much longer.
“Gunther, come on!” called a voice Orpheus knew well. “Give me that,” Ronquil demanded and yanked the rope from his hands. He cast Orpheus aside like a lazy summer fly.
Gunther stumbled up and latched on behind the fire dance spotter. “Heave!” he bellowed.
The two stout men shouldered the load, digging their feet into the weedy gravel. The force yanked the rope taunt and seawater flung off in all directions.
These two men who had nearly killed each other not a half hour before, now worked together in well-oiled tandem. The task at hand outweighed their petty squabbles.
Each massive step pulled the horses closer and closer, slowly inching foreword to safety. The animals responded to the command and calmed down enough to assist their rescuers. Hooves touched down. They pulled the horses to dry land to a crowd of cheers.
“Whoah!” Reuben shouted, pulling back on what reins were left. The horses trotted to a stop and nervously pranced in spot. His feet carefully balanced atop their backs. In a quick flip, he jumped off the horses, showing off just a little.
Orpheus clapped Ronquil and Gunther on their muscled backs in thanks, then checked the horses for harm. Their tails were singed, but had no lasting wounds.
Seawater streamed from crevasses in the cart and trickled back down the ramp home. Orpheus examined the now extinguished burned carcass of the wagon. The seawater gave the smoldering wood that strange briny creosote smell. It reminded him of his stepfather and he scowled.
“So what do you think happened?” Tish asked as she picked debris off of Orpheus’ hat.
“I don’t know,” he replied, knowing her special attention didn’t really mean anything, but her presence gave him that tingly warm feeling. “It was on fire,” he said simply, then felt like a fool. How could she tie his tongue by just standing near him?
She gave him a raised eyebrow look and giggled. “Why do you think it was on fire, I mean?”
“I’m not sure,” he said as he continued to examine it. Scorched carrots and a few blanched beets were all that was left.
The wind changed and her lilac and honey perfume enticed his soul. Did she know how gorgeous she was? Of course she did.
“What’s that smell?” Tish asked, sniffing closer to the cart.
The ladies that had accompanied her watched from the sidelines, hiding their faces behind luxurious feather fans. They were evidently well paid, or had access to someone’s seed cash.
Lilly walked by the fancy women and gave them a vulgar smile.
The ladies made all the appropriate noises well-to-do ladies are expected to, holding their noses in the air. The one in green yelled back, “We’re not on the clock yet!” The group erupted in a chorus of laughter.
Orpheus, distracted by all the beautiful women didn’t understand what Tish meant, until the wind changed again and the tangy smell of biofuel hit him. He shook his head knowingly. “Sabotage,” he said and looked around to see if any strangers were watching. The culprits could be observing them right now.
“Sabotage?!” Tish looked at him with her big brown eyes. “You don’t think it was an accident? Who would set fire to a cart of live horses? It would take an absolute brute to think of something like that!”
He didn’t even have to pause to think. “Nomands,” he stated. “We’re in danger. We need leave sooner than we had planned. This evening we’ll set out under the cover of night to hide us and the moon to guide us. Hurry, spread the word!”
Tish rushed to her ladies and they headed aboard to alert the crew.
A man strapped into a wheeled chair (another of Cen’s inventions) rolled up to the edge of the boat ramp. His rope-wrapped wheels gained traction and he climbed up. The force nearly overturned his chair, upsetting the arrangement of his limp legs. “Hey, boss,” he said and shifted his knees back into position with his hands. “I saw the flaming cart go by! What happened?”
“This was a message,” Orpheous said, and began pulling the ruined gear off the restless horses. “I don’t intend to be here when they show up to see if it was received.”
Wheels nodded. “What can I do to help?”
“Quietly tell everyone we need to leave tonight,” he said, then crouched closer so only Wheels could hear. “We might have a spy among us, be extra careful,” he whispered.
Wheels nodded. He shifted a lever, engaging the drive. The rope-wrapped wheels spun with sudden acceleration, and he zoomed off towards the steamboat, roosting sand and debris behind him.
Orpheus had a lot of work ahead of him in the next few hours. Once they were on Tour, everything would be better. He hoped, at least.
Catch the exciting continuation of the story next week!