“Didn’t you hear what my moth . . . err, Audrel said,” Shel said, realizing his mistake halfway through the sentence. Tommy was large, taller even than his mother, who was one of the tallest women he had ever seen. But for all her size, he did not think his mother would have a chance against Tommy. She was street hardened, and he had seen Tommy take down men twice her size armed with nothing but her fists, or sometimes her small knives.
“What did you say?” Tommy screamed. She was hurling herself at Shel, moving quickly, her hands pulled into large fists looking like the sides of ham heading toward his face. Before she could reach him, however, Tommy fell back. When Shel opened his eyes, he saw his mother standing nearby, holding the broomstick in both hands, her right arm leaning out having spun the stick all the way around toward Tommy. Shel had not seen if the stick made contact, but he did hear a grunt. Tommy had pulled back and drawn her two knives.
“This is between me and Shel, woman. You get back inside before I teach you what us Littlelings do to adults who interfere with our shakedowns.” Tommy did not normally show off with her blades, but this time, she spun one knife around her fingers, and simultaneously switched grips three different ways with the other. Except for her hands, nothing on her body moved, her head still and eyes staring toward Audrel. If she was a snake, Shel was sure he would have seen venom dripping from her fangs.
Audrel straightened up and placed the stick end of the broomstick into the floor. “Put those away before you hurt yourself.” Audrel looked disinterested. Shel could not understand what she was doing. Why was she outside, and why was she bothering to protect Shel. He never needed to tell her the story of the Littlelings. Enough of the tavern patrons had stories of their own about Tommy and her gang. Audrel must have known the dangers of standing up to her, even standing up to her in Audrel’s own front yard. She could not understand what she was doing or why she as doing it.
“So the mother wants a fight.” Tommy grinned and chuckled as three of her Littlelings skid to a stop next to her. By the time she had finished laughing, eight more Littlelings surrounded Tommy, all with their knives drawn. They had joined in her laughing, and the sight of the little children, none older that twelve, at Tommy’s back, laughing, and holding one or two knives or daggers was frightening. Some of the Pretty Beak tavern patrons had come outside to see what the yelling was about, and they stood along the wall of the tavern, not willing to approach the Littlelings.
“Get out of here,” Tommy said toward Shel. “We don’t want you to have to watch your mmm . . . mmm . . . mother,” and at the word, the Littlelings broke into loud hisses, a few kicking dirt or lose rocks in Shel and Audrel’s direction. “We wouldn’t want you to have to watch us cut up your mother into nice little ribbons.”
“Stay back, Shel. I will handle this.” Audrel took a step forward. She held the broomstick at an angle to the ground and stepped on the side with the broom, until the stick broke and the bristles fell off. She began spinning the stick slowly, switching hands as it finished each twirl. Audel stood between Shel and the Tommy and the Littlelings, Behind Shel was the house. Shel took a step forward. He was not going to hide behind his mother. This was his battle, and he would be there with him. Audrel looked back and nodded in his direction.
“It’s your life,” Tommy said and advanced slowly on Audrel and Shel. The Littlelings spread out in their approach, gathering to attack them from all sides. Three stood with Tommy, and on their left side, five Littlelings approached, and on their right side, six Littlelings approached. Shel looked toward the house, judging the distance and how long it would take him to pull Audrel into the house and bar the door. He saw that Samuel stood in the doorway of the house. He was taking in the scene, but he did not appear concerned, as if he was watching a tavern fight where he knew there was no danger and accepted the outcome before it started.
Audrel held out the stick and forced Shel behind her. “This is not what I trained you for, Shel. Stay back and let me take care of these kids.”
“They aren’t just kids,” Shel began, but before he could finish, the Littlelings on both sides of them flung themselves at Shel and Audrel. They held their knives and charged with the knives flailing in front of them, cutting the air and anyone who were close to the knives. Audrel screamed, and then swung the staff around her, knocking the arms of the first Littlelings to approach them. Her torso bent almost all the way to the ground and she spun herself in the opposite direction, striking the Littlelings coming from the right side. Her movements were so fast that Shel was barely able to register her movement or realize where she was before she struck. She was a spinning blur, her feet skidding across the gravel covered front yard in such precision that by the time she was done, all the Littlelings had either been knocked out with the stick, or had fallen back, holding their hands or arms where Audrel had struck them. Small knives littered the floor around them.
The three Littlelings that stayed with Tommy charged Audrel, forgetting about Shel who watched his mother fight, unsure of what to make of her. Her movements were practiced and sure, each swing timed for ultimate impact upon her intended target. Her head came swiveling, watching all directions, taking in who was approaching and from which direction. She did not hold back on her blows. Each time the staff struck a Littleling, it hit hard enough to knock blades or wind out of the Littlelings, strong enough to send them backwards. Where the Littlelings tried to overwhelm their targets with their numbers, Audrel’s movement thwarted that strategy. She kept moving around Shel, switching directions and angle until it was impossible to predict where she would be the next moment. She would attack one group and then move beyond that group to swing around to the next group.
When she finished laying out the last three Littlelings, her staff had been broken into three pieces from the impact. Audrel was breathing heavily, but she held the two ends of the staff in her hand and out to the side. Her upper body was bent low and her legs were spread out. She was barefoot, as usual, and Shel saw that she had her toes curled up against the rock, as a tree’s roots grasp the ground. Audrel looked up at Tommy, who was standing back away from the Littleling. She still held the knives in her hands, but she was no longer twirling her knives. She saw Audrel as a serious opponent.
“Littlelings, get back,” Tommy said. “Go back to the farm. I’ll finish here.” The Littlelings picked up the fallen ones, the conscious dragging the unconscious. Some of the smaller Littlelings ran in to collect the knives and daggers that lay on the floor. Audrel feigned attacked against them, but they continued to collect, unafraid of being smacked with her stick. Audrel did not attack them, and ignored their efforts to collect their friends and their weapons.
When the Littlelings cleared out from the yard, Audrel threw down the remnants of her staff. “Run along, Tommy. You won’t fare better than your friends,” Audrel said with a sneer. Shel had never seen her this angry before. Her breathing was still heavy, and Shel was not sure if she was bent over because she could not breathe standing up, or because she was waiting for Tommy to attack and that was a better position to be in.
Tommy did not appear angry. When Shel thought about it, she was never angry, only calculating. Even when she said something to rile you up, Shel now saw that it was always said in the hopes that you would concede instead of fight or run. He never realized she was so calculating, always assuming that what she did was the result of her misunderstanding of society, it was somewhat scary to realize that she was completely rational in her rants and threats.
Tommy approached Audrel slowly, her knives held in front of her, the larger one held higher than the lower one. Her eyes were locked on Audrel’s eyes, she did not give a second glance toward Shel. For not the first time, Shel stayed back away from the fight. When Tommy advanced with fists, he did not mind standing up to her, hopeful that his courage would make her go easier on him. But when she came with naked blades, he did not think she would be satisfied until she had cut him. Shel admitted that for all his stick fighting with Neal, he was not much of a real fighter, at least when it came to blades against bare fists.
Shel studied Audrel’s back and noticed that she had small cuts along her torso and arms. Because she had been moving so fast, he had not seen the small blades break through her whirling offense. Clearly, some of the Littlelings got through to her during the onslaught. Shel had counted eleven Littlelings, and to come away with only a few nicks, he did not understand how his mother had done that, but he knew there was much more that she was not telling him. The chest seemed only the beginning of that story. At the thought of the chest, Shel turned toward the house. He felt a slight weight coming from the direction of the chest, and, he now understood, the lock, which was the source of the weight.
When Shel turned back, he saw that Tommy was a step away from striking range. Audrel remained in her bent over stance, her breathing still heavy but now more controlled, her arms lifted above her shoulders, which made her look like a bird about to take flight. Tommy made a stabbing motion with one of her daggers, a clear feint. He had seen Tommy start fights before, and when she was not relying on the charging Littlelings, she always feigned an attack to read her opponents. For all her bullying, Tommy was more than just a bully. Shel had run across many bullies in Varis, and while they all had different techniques, none had the smarts or courage of Tommy. Even though she was much larger than most of the children in Varis, she ended up out thinking them more than out muscling them. No other bully, even the most violent, had ever gotten the upper hand in a fight against Tommy, even an even fight with no Littlelings around.
Shel gasped when he saw Audrel fall for Tommy’s feint. She leaned in with one of her arms. Tommy grinned and continued to lower the feinting arm, following it up with her other arm in at thrusting motion. Before the second knife could strike Audrel, Audrel pivoted on her closer foot and grabbed Tommy’s feinting arm, wrapping it up between her own arm and torso and twisting until Tommy’s arm was pulled against Audrel’s chest at a painful angle.
“Drop the knife,” Audrel said as she twisted Tommy’s arm. Tommy moaned but held on to both her knives. Shel could not understand why she was not bringing the second arm around for a strike. It was not until he saw her face that he understood. The hold that Audrel had on Tommy must have been very painful because her face had turned red in only a couple of heartbeats, and her face was gnashing painfully. Audrel twisted a step more in the position and Tommy yelled out in pain but did not drop either dagger.
Audrel pushed Tommy away from her and faced her standing up, no longer in a fighting stance. Her arms were down along her side as if she felt no more fear from Tommy. “This is the last chance I will give you,” Audrel said. She was still breathing heavily, but she articulated her words by talking very slowly, taking a breath between each word. “Go run along with your friends. The next time, I will not let go until I have broken your arm.”
Tommy shook out the arm Audrel had caught, and used her other arm to push back the strands of her red hair that had fallen over her eyes. She dropped back into her knife fighting position and circled around Audrel. Audrel stood there unmoving, her arms at her side and her legs together. She did not look mobile enough to parry any of Tommy’s attacks. After seeing her move, however, Shel thought that her stance was more of a trap for Tommy. It was almost as if he was daring her to attacking, daring her to ignore her words and come at her.
Tommy did not wait long before throwing herself at Audrel. She did not bother feinting this time, throwing all of her weight behind a wide arcing swing of her knife. Audrel did not move during the attack. Shel screamed out as he saw that Tommy’s swing would end at Audrel’s neck. As the knife got closer, Audrel thrust her arm up and hit Tommy’s wrist with the knife-edge of her hand. Tommy’s knife went flying from her grasp, and Audrel sidestepped it as it flew past her.
Even as the knife was flying out of her hand, Tommy was swinging her other hand toward Audrel, who had stepped toward the swing as she dodged the flying knife. Audrel danced backwards out of range of the second knife, and Tommy’s swing missed. She hastily switched hands with the knife, and presented only the right side of her body, poking holes in the air in front of her and taking short quick downward stabs with the knife. She moved slowly toward Audrel, stopping any opportunity for her to block another one of her strikes with an upward motion.
Once out of range of the Tommy’s swing, Audrel again assumed a straight standing position, her hands at her side and her feet together. It was clear that she was toying with Tommy now, having measured her skill, she now understood the strengths of her attacks, and she was no longer worried. While that was what her body language was saying, her face gave a different story. She still breathed heavily, but she probably did not realize she was doing it. Her eyes did not leave Tommy’s, watching her around her torso or maybe her arm. Her concentration was complete, and Tommy marveled at how poised and measuring she looked, as if she faced down knife fighters each day at the tavern.
At the thought of the tavern, Shel looked over to see the people standing near the tavern. They were not cheering, as he had often seen when the watched bar fights. They were standing there, all looking shocked. Tara, the tavern owner, was standing outside the front door, wiping her hands continuously on her white apron. Neal stood next to her, and a little behind his grandmother, as if Tara wanted her body between the violence and Neal.
Tommy attacked again, this time striking in a downward arc with her dagger. Audrel did not wait this time. She leaped at a diagonal angle to Tommy’s strike. As she landed, her left leg kicked out and her knee contacted with Tommy’s stomach. Tommy bent over from the blow, still managing to hold on to her knife and strike down at Audrel’s leg. Her strike missed as Audrel pulled back her leg, pivoting on her other foot. When she had both feet on the ground, she threw a punch with her front fist that caught Tommy on her right strike, snapping back Tommy’s head and sending her once again falling backwards.
Audrel continued her attack, walking toward Tommy and punching her other cheek. Tommy still held on to her knife, but both of her arms were hanging down to her side. She looked dazed, and Audrel took advantage of her lull, punching her first on one cheek and then on the other. Tommy kept falling backwards, somehow remaining standing up until she was forced up against the side of Audrel’s house. Audrel did not stop with her attacks. She lowered her fist and brought it up against Tommy’s stomach, forcing Tommy up onto her toes and then into the air for a moment as Audrel twisted at the end of the strike, throwing her entire body weight behind the punch. When Tommy landed, she tried to cough, but could not make a sound. With Tommy’s head bent over, Audrel swung her fist and struck the side of Tommy’s head, striking the cheek next to her ear. The strike sent Tommy flailing and falling in a fetal position to the ground. She clutched the dagger but made no noise. She wrapped her arms over her head.
Audrel approached Tommy’s prone form and pulled back her leg and kicked her in her stomach. On her fifth kick, Shel heard Samuel cry, “enough!”
As she kicked, Audrel spoke, emphasizing each of her words with a kick. “It is never enough.”
“Mother, please, stop! She’s had enough,” Shel screamed. Tommy’s hands were covered in blood, and her face was hidden by her arms, which protected her head. She made small grunting noises with each kick, but they were barely audible. Nobody spoke after Shel screamed, except for the kicking. Samuel approached Audrel, and Audrel stopped kicking to spin around, her arm pulled back to strike. Samuel fell backwards before she could strike and Audrel watched him.
She turned again to face Tommy, and Shel was afraid she was going to resume kicking her. But she did not.
“When you’re done playing with your Littlelings, Tommy, find me.”
Shel was not sure what Audrel meant or whether Tommy even heard her words. Shel did not notice that a few Littlelings had stood off among the crowd until they walked up to help Tommy stand up. They’re short, bowl-cut hair slicked back with sweat. They gave Audrel a wide berth as she walked past them, and they helped gather up Tommy and help her stand up. She leaned heavy on the two small children as she left the Shel’s garden. Shel went over to where Tommy had dropped her first knife and picked it up. He did not know what to do with it, so he brought it inside with him. Samuel was sitting on the ground where Audrel had almost attacked him. The patrons near the tavern were talking now, repeating what they had seen to each other, probably feeling the only way they could remember or believe what they saw was to describe to other people.
Neal stood at the entrance to the Pretty Beak tavern. His eyes were distant and his mouth was moving, but he was not looking at anyone. Tara Lastname was shaking him, but his mouth kept moving and he did not look toward her. Shel closed the door behind the crowd, bringing the knife into his house.
Shel brought the knife over to the chest and placed it on top of the chest. The knife was still wet from Tommy’s sweat, and it glistened. Audrel had not bothered to cover up the chest after removing it earlier in the day. The knife looked to have been made for kitchen use. It was very sharp, Tommy probably spending much time tending to it. Shel knew that on the streets it was best to be ready for anything. He did not know, however, how anyone could get ready for what Audrel had done to Tommy.
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