Chapter Eleven: "Something Sinister This Way Comes"
Eight months later …
The Summer Games, as Kaethe quickly learns, are no joking matter to the Barrens. A week long event, the Games are less ‘games’ and more brutal fights to prove who is the best at any given task. Concussions, bruises, even broken bones are all par for the course when competing in the Summer Games. In all actuality, at least to her, this entire week is just a way to stroke the egos of men to show their superiority to everyone else. She has seen what becomes of the winners, big chests and even bigger heads as they strut around after winning their event. She sees and she is far from pleased.
But that hasn’t stopped her from attending. It really can’t. Hale is competing in at least one event every day and she, Rett, and Louk have all gone to cheer him on, which is what they are doing now from the highest stand in the training arena.
“GO HALE!” she screeches as he dislocates the shoulder of his opponent, a man around his age that she has learned during her many months of this mountain has been tormenting Louk since they were slightly smaller – but still big – children. Reuben is his name, and since that first time she and Louk walked into Knoll together and the boy was greeted with a rotten potato to the face she has been his least favorite fan.
“KICK HIS ASS!” Rett chimes in, hands cupped around his mouth to make his voice carry. He gets several glares for his efforts, all from young ladies who, back in Thress, would have flocked to the womanizer that is her brother, but here he has found a way to piss off each and every one of them. And enjoy every moment of it. “THROW HIM INTO THE DIRT!” He smiles pleasantly down to his haters, waving to each mockingly. “Fine day for a beating, i’n’t it?”
They do not agree and give him their backs.
“They love me,” Rett declares to Louk who smiles a little and shakes his head. “C’mon. Cheer up. It’s not every day you get to see Filthy Barrens beating up more Filthy Barrens.” The teasing insult manages to bring forth a wider smile, what she knows her brother had been aiming for, and Rett ruffles the boy’s hair. “We’ve got one more event to hang around for today, and then we can gorge ourselves on fattening goodies and roll home.”
“Sounds good. Are you paying?” Louk wonders with a knowing smirk.
“Of course,” Rett agrees, tossing a leather coin purse up and down in his hand.
Kaethe laughs loudly and abruptly, startling the elderly man sitting beside her.
Louk’s eyes go wide at the sight before they drop down to his side, groping for something that is no longer there. “Hey! That’s mine! Give it back you stinkin’ Eive.”
Her brother shakes his head in a disapproving way. “Such a foul mouth you have there, Giant Spawn.”
The Barren’s response is a few choice words that Kaethe knows he never heard until her brother came around. Those two, while thick as thieves – the irony in that one statement – are horrible for each other. Louk somehow manages to bring out the even more childish side of her brother while simultaneously the protective one that she used to know growing up and is now beginning to reacquaint herself to. And Rett, well he’s a horrible example for the younger boy and it’s a wonder that Uncle West hasn’t banned the two of them from doing things together – or even simply speaking to each other.
Somehow that always turns into a competition to see who can give the nastiest insult with a straight face. Her brother is in the lead for now, but Louk is slowly getting practice and catching up.
“I’m very impressed,” her brother says, tossing the leather back.
Louk weighs it in his palm, still glowering. “All of it.”
Rett gasps, pretending to be offended. “I can’t believe you would think so lowly of me. It hurts, Louk. It really hurts.”
“It’s not nice to steal from people.”
“I didn’t steal,” Rett says firmly as he hands back several silver coins. “I never steal. I simply liberate from you that which you do not need.”
“Oh, that’s what it’s called?” Louk gripes, fastening the purse more securely to his belt, which isn’t very secure at all. Just a cursory glance at the intricate knotting and Kaethe knows it would take her hardly two seconds to undo it if she really wanted to. And her fingers are itching to take it, just to prove to herself that she still can. She has been in withdrawal for months, refraining from taking because she wants to or because someone pissed her off – Reuben – and it is beginning to make her jumpy and twitchy.
“Yes,” Rett agrees.
Down in the arena Hale delivers a sweeping high-kick that knocks Reuben out in a flash. The crowd goes wild, most cheering while others a booing because the competitor they were betting on just lost. Uncle West marches proudly onto the field, declaring Hale the victor as two others cart Reuben off to be looked after by Doc Ensen. A recess is called after that to give spectators a chance to stretch their legs and buy treats from the lines of vendors before the next set of Games commences.
After much deliberation she, Louk and Rett decide to move away from their seats and see about procuring themselves some of the fried dough they’d been smelling for just about the entire day. Louk doesn’t want to go, but she and her brother are insistent, dragging him along as they bounce down the steps to the ground and then over to the appropriate line for the dough. They wait an excessive amount of time, get their order and an extra helping of powdered sugar to go on top, and just as they are returning to the stands, just as they’re thinking to be in the clear from another incident, Reuben – who is completely recovered from his public faint – blocks the way with his gang of followers.
“I didn’t think we’d see you here,” Reuben says haughtily, staring Louk down and pointedly ignoring Kaethe and her brother. “We never have before.”
“You know,” her brother forcibly butts in, “that is so sweet of you to notice. Isn’t it, Louk? Just the sweetest.”
Reuben rolls his eyes. “When I speak to you, Eive, then you can talk to me.”
That just gives Rett more encouragement that he doesn’t need. “Thank you,” he says sincerely. “Now, Offspring-of-Giants, I was just telling Louk here how sad it is that people never notice us, but then you all come over like the welcoming committee and . . . well, I just feel so loved!” He slaps the Barren on the shoulder and a tense silence follows behind shocked gasps.
“Sorry, Reuben,” Louk murmurs. “We’re just going back to our seats now.”
Now, Kaethe is no stranger to fearing others – she’d spent nearly a month trading unfocused anger with being terrified of her own shadow – but the way that Louk – a boy she’s taken to thinking of as the little brother she never had and never knew she wanted – practically folds and withers whenever Reuben and his friends are around is just wrong. On more levels than are in the hierarchy of the Thieves’ Guild. No one should be as scared and placating as Louk gets whenever he’s in contact with other Barrens outside of his family. The only one he seems even remotely comfortable around is Ekho, but even then he’s stuttering and looking at his boots, the complete opposite of the sarcastic, unfiltered, crazy kid that he is.
For some reason, right now out of all the other times she has witnessed it happen, Kaethe can’t stand by anymore. She steps in front of Louk, glares up at Reuben, and snarls, “Back off.”
A series of laughs follow her words. Not the reaction she really wanted but one she expected nonetheless.
“Got ourselves a bit of a spitfire, eh?” one of Reuben’s friends, a boy who really has earned the nickname ‘Rocks-for-Brains’, taunts, looking to all his friends for encouragement to keep laughing. They do and that only pisses her off more. “Whatcha gonna do about it, Eive?”
“For starters,” she replies, voice dark and low, “I’ll tattle.”
That gets even more laughs and Louk grabs at her wrist, trying to get her and Rett to leave it alone.
“Yeah, listen to the little pixie-lass,” Reuben sneers, his eyes focused on Louk.
Rett does not take the insult kindly while Louk just seems to shrink even further under his shoulders.
“Now see here, Large One!” he yells. “It’s not nice to call people names.”
“Whatcha gonna do about it?” the same boy repeats.
She answers that with a split-second upward jab. Her knuckles make contact with Reuben’s nose, cartilage snapping beneath the force. Blood wells and falls. Tears well and fall. And it takes less than three seconds more before Reuben’s friends are throwing themselves forward, intent on defending their friend to the last.
“I guess we’re not gonna eat fried dough then?” she hears Louk murmur mournfully before a girl grabs onto her hair and wheels her away.
Three boys gang up on Rett who is smiling too giddily to seem normal. He criticizes them, comes up with a dozen much more colorful nicknames for them, all getting more derogatory than the last. The three come at him together, and though, once upon a time, her brother had been known as one of the best fighters in his year at the Guild, he has been inactive for too long. His movements are less fluid, he is favoring his left side, he is making a few childish mistakes that bring the Barrens closer than he should have ever allowed.
The two girls Kaethe finds herself fighting are big and lumbering, built more for wielding the heavy swords and battle axes that she has seen them use during practice whenever she accompanies Hale to the field. So it’s easy for her to dodge and weave, stealing the daggers from their boots and waists. She tosses those to the side – keeps one for herself that she hides away in her own boot – and flips up onto the nearest girl’s back. Putting the Barren into a chokehold, Kaethe presses onto the girl’s windpipe long enough to bring the girl to her knees. And then she’s whirling to the second girl, catching a fist to the cheek and flying away.
On her hands and knees she starts to get up, catching a glimpse of her brother and Louk fighting the three other boys and now Reuben as well. Rett and Louk are not faring well, both are sporting bloody noses, split lips and an assortment of bruises that she is only slightly shocked to see swelling so soon.
“HEY! What’s going on!”
Never before has she been more grateful to hear Hale’s voice than this moment.
Her hair is wrenched once more and Kaethe finds herself airborne again, flying into a knee that mashes into her gut, knocking out her air and probably bruising a rib. The girl makes to knee her a second time but Kaethe breaks her hold, instead grabs onto the Barren’s raised thigh and then flips herself up to lock her own thighs around the girl’s neck. She clenches her legs together, holds on for all she’s worth as the Barren spins to attempt at dislodging her.
In the mayhem she can just make out Hale knocking Reuben and another boy into the dirt. She can just barely hear her brother congratulating him on a job well done and then asking if, so long as he’s not too indisposed, if he wouldn’t mind dislodging the ‘Smart-as-a-Boulder’ Barren off his back.
The girl Kaethe has leeched herself to grows too dizzy to stay upright. They topple to the ground where Kaethe then twists her legs around the Barren’s arms and shoulders, rendering her immobile unless the girl doesn’t mind having any dislocations. It takes a moment for the girl to make a decision, floundering a little before she drops, panting, back onto her stomach.
This is how Uncle West and the Captains Nanchester – a stern looking man dressed in a variety of weapons and graying dark hair – and Isahl – a beautiful woman with a scarred right eye – find them after a concerned Barren sees the fight. None of them appear very pleased. Nanchester seems very put out as he marches back and forth, yelling and preaching about the maturity and sense that seems to be lacking in this generation of soon-to-be adults. Uncle West is gazing at Kaethe, Rett, Hale and Louk with disappointment and an underlying emotion of concern. Isahl appears to be the least concerned, staring at her nails the entire time Nanchester gives his speech.
“Who started it?” she asks quietly when the older captain finally loses his wind.
Reuben and his friends all immediately point fingers at Kaethe. She knew it was coming so she is totally unsurprised. She rolls her eyes and steps forward, raising her hand as she does so.
Captain Isahl’s eyebrow lifts. “. . . Mmm-hmm,” she says, the disbelief apparent, looking her up and down. “And what did you do to start a brawl?”
Kaethe opens her mouth to answer when Rocks-for-Brains beats her to it.
“She punched Reuben in the nose!”
Isahl is not amused, slowly turning to regard Rocks-for-Brains with a withering stare. “Was I talking to you?”
“Then bite your tongue.” The kind, friendly manner in which she says it makes it sound even worse than if she had snarled it. Rocks-for-Brains falls back, cowering with his friends. “Is this true?”
She shrugs, looking over to Louk who has already been humiliated enough. While it would get her out of trouble if she gave the entire account, explained that Reuben was bullying the kid and that she was only defending his honor, which would also just ruin any self-esteem Louk has managed to hold onto. So she doesn’t. She keeps that information to herself. The ones that matter know what happened and that’s good enough. She’ll take the fall and do whatever menial chore they give her as punishment.
“I don’t like his face,” Kaethe supplies.
It could be a trick, but Kaethe is almost certain she saw Isahl’s lips twitch in a smile.
“Lord Chief?” the female captain asks, turning to Uncle West. “What is your decision?”
“You’re banned from the remainder of the Games,” he says without delay, silencing Reuben’s protests with a stern glare. “You’re banned. Brawling, of any kind, for any reason, is not acceptable. Ever. You’re banned and I just might let you back next year. Go home. All of you.”
Reuben and his friends slink off, Captains Nanchester and Isahl departing not long afterwards. With just the five of them left Uncle West drops the serious, Chief-air, and asks again what happened.
“Reuben’s an ass,” Rett explains, as though that is answer enough.
To her – and possibly Hale and Louk, too – it is. More than enough, in fact.
Uncle West sighs wearily, moving to Louk and placing an arm over the kid’s shoulders. “What happened?”
“Same old, same old,” Louk murmurs. “Rett called him ‘Giant Offspring’.”
“Actually, it was ‘Offspring-of-Giants’,” Kaethe corrects with a smirk, high-fiving her brother. “And ‘Large One’.”
“And don’t forget that Kae punched him because of his butt-ugly face,” Rett supplies with a smile that a proud parent would give. He sniffs and pretends to wipe away an imaginary tear. “I have never been more proud of you, my Little Sister.”
She snorts and shoves him away. “Shut up. You’re not looking so hot right now either.”
“Don’t offend me,” he dismisses.
Uncle West lifts his head from where he was talking quietly with Louk, fishing a few coins from his pocket and tossing them to Hale. “Get yourselves from fried dough before you head home.” It’s obvious that Uncle West wants to speak with Louk privately, so the three of them leave without a word, ordering the last few napkins of fried dough. Returning to Louk they walk slowly. Rett offers his congratulations on Hale’s earlier win. She apologizes for him getting removed from his next three Games.
“It’s fine. There’s always next year,” Hale tells them. He doesn’t seem at all upset, more seething with rage and grinding his teeth because of Reuben, but he is taking the expulsion fairly well. “Besides,” he tells them, smiling and slinging his arms across both her and Rett’s shoulders. “I’d rather get into a brawl with my two favorite Eivish.”
When they return to Uncle West and Louk they are given the strict order to return home; Uncle West will talk with them then more thoroughly. They leave the arena just as the next set of Games start, an echoing roar following them on the path up the mountain. At first the walk is tense and silent, but then Rett starts acting too childish for his own good, drawing Louk from the melancholy, and then the two are racing each other back home while Kaethe takes a more leisurely approach with Hale.
“Thanks for sticking up for him today,” Hale tells her after a time, when the house is just within sight and they can see their brothers running into the front door, grappling for who gets to enter first.
She smiles up at him, linking arms. “That’s what family does, Hale, right?”He seems stunned, but only for a second, grinning down at her and nodding. “Yeah. True that.”