Running Shoo- Episode 78

I’ve been rich for about five minutes and I’m already paranoid.

As we head up the hill, all the blue-skinned, poshly dressed people of Ash End are still staring and glaring much as they were five minutes ago, but suddenly it seems much more predatory.

We’ve stopped eating from our sacks of food, it seemed to scandalise the locals.

Has that bloke on the fruit and veg stall told all his friends that there’s an over-sized girl throwing precious plastic away?

Perhaps he hasn’t but did anyone see us? If I saw someone buying biscuits with what is essentially gold, I’d notice. Do they have phones or some other comms here? I’ve not seen tech much more advanced than this shovel I’m clutching for dear life but that don’t mean anything. For all I know, they could communicate telepathically.

The word could be out. Alert: Weirdly tall, peach-coloured ‘human’ girl with lots of money up for grabs. Last seen in the company of worm-child, good sauteed with onions.

Oh, my days! These grim, cannibalistic people! I suppose living in a snowy wilderness means you take protein where you can find it but go to grubs and insects first, right? If you can have a conversation with it, don’t eat it. Right? What’s wrong you?

An elderly blue lady walks past and clutches her bag to her chest like I might grab it.

Yeah, you, lady. I’m thinking about you.

And until now, I’ve never given the shade of my skin a second thought. I mean, why would I? But in a place without other species, it seems people will find the weirdest excuses to draw a dividing line between them and us. I bet in a world of clones they’d do it by, I dunno, geography or something equally ridiculous. We don’t trust that lot, they button their shirts from the bottom up.

Ash Enders are blue. I’m not blue. Therefore, I’m not normal. Abnormal. Abnormal is wrong and dangerous. Abnormal is a threat to normal, to everything you hold dear which, in Ash End’s case, seems to be puritanical fashion rules and a warm stream.

Both Nom and me are on the ‘them’ side of the line.

For a certain type of person, and with minimal nudging, such as conspicuous wealth (how dare they? They must have stolen it!) being on the wrong side of the line gives them permission to do pretty much what they want to us. We just don’t count. I can feel it in their glares.

I take a look behind. No-one seems to be following us, though a few Ash Enders catch my eye and react with afront and disgust. Nom is walking so closely pressed up against my left leg, she may as well be trousers.

At least in Footfall, when folk took your stuff, they didn’t pretend it was due to some essential defect in you or a fundamental superiority of theirs. They just wanted what you had and would take it if they could. It may mean casually murdering you to do so, but it was mostly malice-free.

Ahead of us, a man comes out of one of the buildings. He sees us, gasps, then immediately knits his brows and bares his teeth. He watches us as we pass. I don’t look back, but I know if I did he would be there, fuming. Incensed that we not only exist, but we exist near him.

How dare we?

This is not good. All this needs is some muttering, a few people egging each other on, one lit match, and boom! We’ll be the guests of dishonour at a lynching.

We need to defend ourselves. One shovel may not cut it.

I scan the shops left and right, resisting the urge to run.

Eventually, across the road, over the other side of the stream, I spy a shop front with what look like knives and swords in the window. Right, it’s worth a try. I mean if I was them, I wouldn’t sell the scary weirdo weaponry. But let’s see how those scruples stand up to cold, hard plastic.

I could jump over the river, but I’m pretty sure that would trigger the locals. Luckily there’s no shortage of low wooden bridges. As I step up to the nearest, it creaks and bounces under my weight. I savour the novelty of being big. The people coming the other way press themselves across the railings or shield their children. I’m an ogre to them.

Yeah, it’s pretty great actually. Fear me, little people!

Beneath the bridge, the steaming stream trickles by. All sorts of odd and interesting flora line the banks. There are some flowers that look almost fractal and green things that I can’t tell whether they’re mushrooms or tiny trees. If I wasn’t so keen to put this place behind me, I’d bend down for a proper nose.

I approach the shop, ignoring the scowls and stares, and duck inside.

It’s dark in here.

Once my eyes adjust, I can see there are various tools and weapons hanging up. They all appear to be crafted from the same strangely metallic stone out of which the building itself is made. What I really want is a gun; a nice beam rifle or some complicated technological terror randomly created by the Suicide Shrooms. I’m not sure they have the Shrooms casually creating and discarding tech in this realm though. Wherever this realm is. Or much technology at all come to that. There certainly aren’t any guns.

The shopkeeper is as skinny as the tools behind him. He has a wiry white beard and no hair on top. He’s watching us with… interest as it goes. No fear or loathing. Nice for a change.

“Um… Good day,” I say, cautiously.

“And to you,” he says courteously.

“We’re just leaving town,” I tell him. Best get that in early, he might be more inclined to be helpful if he thinks it’ll expedite our departure.

He nods, “probably for the best.”

Is that regret in his voice?

“And we need some, you know, safety for the road.”

“Strictly speaking, I shouldn’t sell to you, Outsider,” he says.

“No?”

“It’s frowned upon. Our city is not a welcoming place nor indeed somewhere with much tolerance for any stripe of the unusual. Our doors are perpetually closed.”

How to respond to that? Hmmm. He’s dropping some truth on me there. He looks as wise as hell. I think it’s the feathery eyebrows. Is it an invite for an honest conversation? I should be careful. Got to say the right thing. Some insightful observation to let him know he’s dealing with a kindred spirit, another enlightened soul.

Unfortunately, this is me. Best I can do is a quip.

“Really? I’ve been fending off invites to come home to dinner.”

I didn’t say it would be a good quip.

It makes the shop keeper smile though.

“Most know to avoid Ash End,” he says. “What brings you here?”

“Weirdly, I, um, started off here,” I say.

“Oh?”

“Long story. How come you’re nice?”

“Ah. Another long story but travel essentially. I’ve been up and down The Path,” he says. “I’ve visited every city. Even lived in the Citadel for a while. But as you get older, home has an increasing allure.”

“The… Path?” I ask.

His eyebrows shoot up “My my, you really are from outside, Outsider,” he says.

“Um… yeah.  Guilty.”

“The Path is a chain of cities leading from The Warmest Sea to The Empiric Citadel of the Path. It was your good fortune to… land perhaps?… in probably the most insular of the lot.” His eyes look at something behind me and his face darkens. “With apologies, you’d should buy what you need and be gone.”

I don’t need to look behind me to see the angry glances from passers-by; the hostility is warming the back of my neck. I nod and look at the case in front of me. There are various swords and axes. Which to choose? I’d be equally useless with both. Sword then probably; more blade equals more chance of hitting something, right? A short-sword with a jagged stone blade about the length of my forearm catches my eye.

“That one,” I point.

“Fine choice,” he says, reaching under the counter.

As he’s doing this, I look around the shop, “Maybe a spear as well,” I muse. “Could double as a walking staff.”

“Yes, quite logical.”

“Also maybe…” I look up.

And stop talking.

Oh…

My…

Days!

It’s beautiful.

Reverently, I reach up and unhook the dark crossbow.

“Ah, I see you’ve discovered Her Majesty,” he says.

She’s heavy in my arms, but much lighter than she should be. Her Majesty is made from some supple, blackened wood. She has a strong body, dark brown with vanilla grain, polished beautifully, and a large, padded rest that fits comfortably against my shoulder.

“Queenie,” I breathe.

I’ve always wanted a crossbow.

“And how will you be paying for this?” he asks, frowning for the first time.

I reach into Daisy’s Pocket of Endless Tat and pull out a cracked plastic alarm clock with a plug. It looks like it was recovered from the bedsit of a heavy smoker after he’d died and, since it’s mains-powered, it’s utterly useless here. It’s complete trash. The old man stares at it in astonishment. “Her majesty is yours,” he says. “I’ll throw in a travelling bag for you both too.”

I smile at him, “and since you’re so lovely.” I reach into the witch’s pocket again and produce a broken calculator, then a stained toy frog, then a handful of old clothes pegs, a cucumber spiralizer, a fake plastic plant, two beakers (slightly melted) and a crumpled carrier bag with a picture of apples on it. He goggles at the pile of worthless crap.

“This is too much!” he says. “Much too much.”

“Nah, I think you’ve earned it. Um… You got any arrows?”

Unable to take his eyes from the plastic, he reaches under the counter and produces a fat leather quiver stuffed with green-fletched arrows.

As he’s putting his riches away, I’m tooling up with my purchases. I strap the stone sword to my left thigh and hang the quiver on my right. Her Majesty, who I’m definitely calling Queenie, has a carrying strap so I sling her over one shoulder on top of my white Tik furs. I strap the travelling bag diagonally across my middle and jump up and down. It all seems to work together. Experimentally, I swing Queenie into my arms, pull her string back, mime placing an arrow in her groove, aim and twang!

Yeah, that feels good.

I sling her back over my shoulder as Nom is stuffing her food into her new rucksack.

“Oh, you got some furs for the little one?”

“Not cold!” she says.

“Shush,” I say. “We haven’t hit the snows yet.”

The old man gauges her size at a glance and thumps some folded furs onto the counter.

Nom awkwardly puts them on. By the time she’s finished, she looks like a smiling furball.

“Cosy,” she says, a little uncertainly.

I take my spear and, as an afterthought, a smaller one which I give to Nom.

“Don’t stab anyone,” I tell her, sternly. “Unless I tell you to.”

“Okay, Shoo.”

I turn to the old man. “Well, thank you for your kindness,” I say.

“And to you too, for your remarkable generosity,” he says, tears in his eyes. I think he may retire in the near future. “Good luck on your journey.”

“To be honest, with all this, I feel we could take on anything,” I say. “Right, um, bye then.”

“Farewell.”

As I walk towards the exit, even though I’m more far likely to damage myself with my new weapons than anyone else, I’m feeling, frankly, pretty badass.

We step into the bright outside.

And find there’s a mob brewing.

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