Home > Tales of the Otherworld (Otherworld Stories #2)

Tales of the Otherworld (Otherworld Stories #2)
Author: Kelley Armstrong

· REBIRTH ·

AARON STUMBLED FROM THE TAVERN AND gasped as the first blast of cold air slapped him. He paused in the doorway and took a deep breath. Geoffrey jostled him from behind, and Aaron gave him a good-natured shoulder that sent his friend staggering back.

“Move it, you big ox,” John said, kneeing Aaron in the rear.

“Just push me out of the way.” Aaron shot a grin over his shoulder. “Or maybe you should squeeze past instead. You’re skinny enough.”

Aaron stepped onto the cobblestone street and grimaced. So much for fresh air. The narrow street stank of shit—horse shit, dog shit, human shit; that’s what came of living so close you couldn’t take a crap without piling it on someone else’s. Give him farm life any day. Plenty of shit there, too, but at least there was room to spread it around.

He squinted up and down the street, his ale-soaked brain struggling to remember which way they’d come. That was another problem with towns. You couldn’t see a damn thing. The buildings not only crowded your view, they crowded out the moonlight, and the lanterns dotting the street added more smoke than light.

“Inn’s this way,” Geoffrey said, smacking Aaron’s arm. “Come on before the mistress locks the door.”

She had locked them out the last time, and it had been a long, cold night on the street. Aaron and Geoffrey came to the city every other month, bringing goods to market. They’d finished their work this morning, but their families didn’t expect them back until Sunday night, knowing that any young man who stayed home to help his parents on the farm deserved time to sample the cosmopolitan treats he was forgoing.

One of those “treats” peered out from a side street as they passed. She met Aaron’s gaze and batted her lashes in what he supposed was meant to be a come-hither look, but seemed more like soot caught in her eyes. She couldn’t have been more than twelve, the bodice of her dirty dress stuffed to simulate the curves she wouldn’t see for another few years…if she lived that long.

Aaron walked over, and pressed a few coins into the whore’s palm. A look—part relief, part trepidation—sparked in her eyes, then they clouded with confusion as he returned to his friends.

John bumped against him. “How drunk are you? You forgot to take what you paid for.”

“Oh, Aaron never has to pay for it,” Geoffrey said. “When a tart sees him coming, she closes her purse and opens her legs.”

“If you don’t want it, I’ll take it.”

John started to turn, but Aaron grabbed his shoulders and steered him forward.

“What?” John grumbled. “It’s paid for.”

As they stumbled past an alley, a whimper snaked out from the darkness, followed by the crack of a fist hitting flesh.

Aaron stopped.

“Ya gotta have more than that,” a voice rumbled. “Find it…or I will.”

“Aaron …” Geoffrey said, plucking Aaron’s sleeve. “It’s none of your business. And, for once, let’s leave it that way, or we’ll spend another night on the street.”

Aaron brushed his friend off and strode into the alley. As he walked, his steps steadied, the effects of the ale sloughing off as he focused on the voices. He pulled himself up to his full height and peeled off his jacket. That was often enough—tower over the thug and flex his muscles, and most decided they really didn’t need that few pence tonight after all. As he approached the black-haired lout and quaking shopkeeper, his gaze went to the ruffian’s hands, looking for a weapon. Nothing. Good.

Aaron grabbed the man’s shoulder. “You want to rob someone? Try me.”

The lout’s hand slammed forward. A flash of metal. Where had that come—?

The blade drove into his chest. Aaron shoved the man away and staggered back. His hands went to his chest. Blood pumped out over his fingers. The man came at him again, but the sound of running footsteps made him think better of it and he ran off into the darkness.

“Aaron? Aaron!”

Aaron tried to take a step, but faltered and hit the wall. He stood there, knees locked, forcing himself to stay upright. Then he crumpled.

Aaron twisted in his bed. The damned thing dug into both of his shoulders and butted against the top of his head and bottoms of his feet. Inns. Cram as many people into a room as they can, and if you’re more than average height, well, that’s not the inn’s fault.

Eyes still closed, he took a deep breath. Flowers and a faint musty smell. The mistress probably set out fresh blooms to cover the stink, so she wouldn’t have to change the bedding more than once a month.

He should open his eyes. He knew that—but he also knew that first blare of morning sun was going to feel like Satan’s imps stabbing his eyes with pitchforks. He shouldn’t drink so much. He wasn’t used to it, and he paid for his folly every morning after.

Speaking of folly…He let out a groan as he remembered the man in the alley. Next time he decided to rescue someone, he’d take an extra moment to make damned sure the lout wasn’t concealing a knife. Now he really didn’t want to get up. He’d been stabbed in the chest once before, and it had taken him weeks to recover.

The last time, he’d been unable to lift anything heavier than a piglet for a month. His father had to do all the chores, and he’d kept sighing and muttering “Aaron, Aaron, Aaron,” his weathered face wrinkling. But he kept his gaze down when he said it, to cover the pride in his eyes.

“A big strong boy with a good heart,” he’d boast to the neighbors when he thought Aaron couldn’t hear. “What more could a father want?”

“God gave you strength,” his mother always said. “Always remember that it’s a gift, and gifts from God are to be used in his service. Help those less fortunate than you, and you’ll please him.”

Helping others, though, did not mean getting stabbed and being unable to help his father. His mother would be very firm about that.

“Be careful, Aaron,” she’d say. “You’re too quick to act. Take a moment to think as well.”

Maybe he could persuade one of his brothers to come back home for a month and help. Even as the thought occurred, though, he dismissed it. They had their own families and jobs and farms. He was the only one left. His father relied on him.

He groaned again.

Enough of that. Time to grit his teeth and get up.

   
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