From the writer: This is a rewrite. But even if you recognise the plot, I hope you'll stick around because who knows, there might be a new twist or two down the line. Also, I'm trying out an approach which I've not used before – alternating first person and third person POVs (though not necessarily in successive chapters). Credit goes to WaterBudget, whom I got the idea from.
Title: Under a blue-grey sky
Chapter 1: Scar
It's taken over my face.
When people look at me, they don't see me—Cray—the blacksmith's apprentice and third-born child, master stone-skipper, inexpert tree-climber, and decent whistler. They see It: starting inside my hairline on the left and running down and across my forehead like the end of a fringe to go between my eyes. That first line is deepest, born from the strength of desperation.
Sometimes I feel that I'm slowly being replaced by it.
On the bridge of my nose, where the soft bone begins, it branches. One side snakes off to go under my right eye in a curve that rides over my cheekbone to meet my right temple. One would expect it to be like a ditch—it was carved out of my flesh, after all—but instead it's a raised weal, dusky pink, that goes deep scarlet on hot days. It looks exactly like a stretched-out earthworm, according to my younger brother who is something of an expert on bugs and other creepy crawlies.
There are three of them. And like a fool I've fallen literally at their feet. All because I was late, and I was trying to be less late, and so I was running, and not looking. Fool. Always look where you're going, and after you've looked, you look again. And if you don't…
I'm lifted off the ground by brawny arms. I kick, scratch, try to gouge his eyes, but it's useless. He grabs me by the back of the neck, twisting his fingers in my hair. There's a lot of hair for him to grasp. I should have gone against mama and had it cut short. It hurts, but I don't scream. I deny the pain, blunting its edge with a hiss of fury.
A chance kick strikes a good target – a knee, or some other joint. I'm free, but only for a moment. Another hand grabs hold. It's large enough to encircle both my wrists like an iron band. Another hand strikes brutally across the back of my head. I'm brought down to the ground on my knees.
I want to hate it, but I can't, because it's part of me.
And because, as difficult as it is for anyone to accept, it's there because of love.
The second branch goes down the side of my nose like a tear track to end at the edge of my upper lip. This line is lighter and thinner than the others; maybe they ran out of strength at the end, or resolve. Or maybe I was just screaming too loudly. I suppose if I were talking to someone who didn't know me, and I kept the left side of my face to them, and the light was exactly the right shade of gloom, they might not even notice my marred appearance.
That's what I tell myself anyway.
One could argue whether I have three scars or one, but to me, they are the same one mark that I've worn from the age of eight. And now this scar is about to save my life.
I'm down in the dirt. My arms are twisted behind my back. But I am still fighting, kicking blindly, lunging with bared teeth like a snapping turtle at whatever is in reach.
"Hold still it!"
The order is clear, even if the words are jumbled up and the accent is foreign. But then all the Lady's armed men are foreigners. Mercenaries. Completely loyal as long as her silver continues to flow. We shun them, and in turn they usually leave us alone unless we've crossed the Lady in some way. I've done nothing that could be seen as such, and that means something much worse.
These three are the worst kind of mercenaries. Snatchers.
Fingers violently twist in my hair again. If I move my head, they'd be yanking out clumps by the roots. A calloused palm under my jaw makes an efficient vice. Sharp-nailed fingers trace my scar roughly, making my eyes water from the sting. I can't see much beyond a thicket of beard and a bulbous nose.
The same voice speaks again. "See? No pretty. No good. Lady no liking it."
The grip on my jaw does not loosen, but the hand on my wrists removes itself and starts to grope my rear, creeping quickly round my hip towards my crotch.
"Is nice... I keep for me."
His meaning is unmistakable; I start frantically struggling. Unexpected help comes from the third Snatcher. Rear-groper gets a solid thump—in the groin, I hope—which makes him drop me to throw himself at the source of the thump. They go at each other, both big and vicious, both snarling what are no doubt curses at each other. They look like two bears wrestling.
The talkative one steps in to pull them apart. "No waste time! Must find goods for Lady. Sun high already."
They clearly have no love for one another. Probably come from different lands if they have to use their imperfect Common Tongue to communicate. I can see little of their faces except beards and bared teeth, but it makes no difference to me. Whatever they look like, I just want to get away from them. I start running.
And then I fall.
The struggle has loosened my shoes – it is losing one of them that's brought me down. I scrabble to my feet, ready to continue whether it was running or fighting that's required, only to find that the Snatchers haven't given chase. Unbelievably, they're walking away, still shoving each other and cursing loudly. They don't look back, not even the groper.
It seems I'll live because I'm ugly enough. I have a sudden urge to giggle. Like the Snatcher said, I'm not good enough for the Lady. She wants the comeliest of youths. So the Snatchers only take the beautiful young people. Male or female, it makes no difference.
If you have a pretty face, odds are the Snatchers will get you one day.
But not today. And not me, because whatever prettiness I might have had or imagined myself to have, the scar surpasses it all. The shock and relief are strong enough to make me light-headed, which sends me down on the ground again. For a long moment, I just lie there, sprawled out while the world spins around a little.
"You alright, scarface?"
I know that voice. "No thanks to you, stinky."
He pulls me to my feet. He's the refuse-cart man, real name Haylden. Tall and skinny, always in black, he looks like a child's nightmare with his one eye and wild mane of red hair. The hand he offers me has only two fingers apart from the thumb.
He gives me a twisted smile. "What did you expect me to do, stink them away or dazzle them with my wondrous beauty?" The smile grows wider to reveal pointy teeth that somehow look catlike. "Or perhaps I should have tried to distract them by selling them a nice coffin?"
That's why people keep away from Haylden. He's also the village undertaker. Death walks by his side, they say down in the village, along with other less polite things about him. I'd keep away from Haylden too if I had no ties to him. But Haylden and I have something in common – or rather, someone.
Her name is Cresta.
Cresta. My elder sister, whom most people have always agreed to be a head-turner of a beauty. So when the Snatchers began their kidnapping, of course she'd been among the first taken. It's a known fact that those that get Snatched are taken to the Lady in the Fortress, but nobody knows what happens to them after that. We only know that every so often, Haylden's cart would enter the village loaded with a simple wooden box. And one more family would mourn the loss of a son or daughter.
Haylden's second occupation as an undertaker may suggest a certain grim fate for Cresta, but the truth is much grimmer: he was her betrothed. They say it was trying to fight off the Snatchers that cost him his eye and fingers. Heroic, romantic – whatever one called it, he hadn't managed to save her. So now he's broken, not quite right in the head, or so they say. I agree – why else would he work for the villain who took his beloved from him?
His mocking words stink of self-justification. I don't bother to reply. Instead, I flex my ankle tentatively. It's rather sore from my fall earlier, but it doesn't seem to be sprained.
After a while, he speaks up again. "You're thinner every time I see you." He's using a placating tone. Perhaps he regrets his mocking words from earlier, though I doubt that. Stinky isn't particularly fond of me. "You should take better care of yourself."
"I'm late," is all I say. Then I start sprinting. I've had enough of his mocking bossiness.
"You'd run faster with more flesh on your bones!" he yells after me.