Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Gallow's Play

Huntress

Chapter 1

8th May, 1850. Artemis Gallow first set foot on Asphodel Space Station late in the proceedings of the VE Day celebrations, the machine at her side and the metal plate on her skull hidden in the sleeve and hood of an old GW1 trench coat, with Saber silent at her heels.

Making their way through the station the woman and tiger walked subdued past merry celebrants with drink in hand, or dancing to the music made by those with the skill to play an instrument. Children ran laughing, trailing bits of coloured cloth and waving miniatures of the crossed flag of Great Britannica, with the wings and spear of Nike and Athena. Some, in particular the girls, held aloft crude makeshift spears and swords, and chased their friends and brothers over chair and under table.

The level of brevity ensured that Artemis and Saber passed unnoticed, at least by the drunk adults. A girl-child of five stared at the giant dusky cat as he passed with his mistress, then turned to wrench on the skirts of her mother, a prostitute haggling with a gibbering shrimp of a prospective client.

The throng remained close-knit til they reached their destination, a red curtained portal guarded rather loosely by three burly men who joked amongst themselves. They were distinguished from the crowd by a clan-mark of swirling blue ink, which had been tattooed over each man’s left eye, running down from hairline to curl over cheekbone and under jaw.

Whether sober or intoxicated, everyone avoided the space they held.

Artemis came to a halt before the biggest of the three, a six foot monolith of muscle and sinew topped with grease spiked hair. He regarded this woman’s intrusion with amusement, and winked at his smirking comrades. She looked down at him through narrowed eyes.

“You lookin’ fer sumfin’ love? Or’a you jus’ lookin’ fer yer marbles eh?” His two pals burst into vulgar laughter.

Artemis punched the man in the stomach, her metal fist back at her side before he hit the deck, doubled over in pain.

“I can assure you I am quite sane.” Uncovering her head she revealed her deformity to the two left standing, who were only now drawing their knives from their belts.

“My name is Artemis Gallow. I hear your chief is hiring.”

She received no answer, but it was apparent that the men knew her name. “Is that correct?” Saber appeared to add weight to her words.

They sheathed their knives and stood apart in answer. One held the red curtain aside, contrite as his fellow, and Saber followed Artemis as she entered their den.

Behind the curtain a wide corridor ran straight to another portal, this one barred by an iron door and guarded by three more men. Displays of wealth encrusted the spotless chamber, expensive arches of silk attached to various pipes running along the ceiling and walls, with statues of jade and gold placed with impeccable care on shining pedestals. Even the floor was embellished with white and black diamond patterned tiles to hide the ugly iron mesh.

The man who admitted them, a shaven haired fellow with ears full of rings, followed through and led woman and tiger down the corridor. Saber paused to sniff at the first closed door they passed, the smell hovering in the air before it making him sneeze.

“Saber, quit nosing around,” Artemis chided.

The tiger trotted back to her side. “Men mark door, smell bad Artemis.”

“Its opium Saber, try to ignore it.”

The shaven man waved his comrades aside. Their eyes focused on the giant cat as Saber growled and bared his teeth in distrust, smelling on them the same evil stench as before. Knives and guns were partly drawn in response. Artemis placed a flesh finger to Saber’s nose and the cat closed his mouth in obedience, though deep in his throat he continued his dissent.

Their guide worked the opening mechanism and rolled the door aside to reveal a grand apartment, furnished with the finest materials and ornaments to be had on the black market. Beyond a dark wood desk adorned with carved fruit, a concave window framed the star woven fabric of black nothing that clad Asphodel Station.

The shaven man gestured silently to a luxurious armchair placed in front of the desk, then quit the room through another curtained doorway in the left hand wall.

Artemis took the seat and settled herself comfortably. Distracted by this comfort it was a few seconds before she noticed that Saber was not at her side, so peered back behind the chair. And found her companion washing his stomach.

“Oi you, presentation is utmost with these people!” she hissed, irate.

Grumbling the cat levered himself off of the wonderfully soft rug he had desired to lie upon, and came to Artemis’ left side, where he downed haunches and looked effortlessly fierce and regal. By way of begging pardon she gave him a satisfactory scratch behind the ears.

They were only kept waiting a few minutes, then the shaven man re-appeared and scuttled back to his post, shutting the chamber door.

“I ‘ope you will excuse my son Mistress Gallow,” announced a middle aged man as he walked through the doorway. His hair was black, combed, and he wore an immaculate moustache. He was smartly attired in light grey trousers, waistcoat and red scarf over a pure white shirt. His clothes belied a body conditioned for labour.

“I hope you will forgive my assaulting said son. Your eldest?”

“The eldest now.” He took his seat behind the desk, presenting the idea of an elegant barbarian to Artemis’ mind. His clan mark covered three quarters of his face, all but his right cheek which bore a different mark, that of an old and ugly scar.

From a drawer he took a case and removed a pair of spectacles from its interior, polishing them with a silk handkerchief before putting them on.

Artemis waited patiently, her hand on Saber’s neck.

“Artemis Gallow.” He mused on her name, and on her person, his gaze lingering on the scars that spidered out from beneath her skull plate. “I once ‘ad the pleasure ov bein’ acquainted wiv your muvver. It pained me greatly t’ read ov ‘er deaf, an’ your farver’s too. I ‘ope you will accept me deepest sympafies.” There was genuine regret in his dark green eyes.

“Its been five years Mister Dogg, but I thank you.” On a reflex her hand wandered from the tiger’s soft stripped fur to a ragged periwinkle patterned scarf knotted about her waist, at odds with the rest of her dull coloured attire.

“Athenae’s girl must call me Cerberus,” he said with a rogue’s smile.

Artemis nodded, a small smile on her lips. “Cerberus. My mother told me of you, that you were the worst scoundrel she had ever had the misfortune to command.”

Cerberus laughed heartily, a loud brash thing. “Ah, I see your advantage now. Yer must know all about me’n my ways eh?”

“Yes, I do, and I know my mother trusted you with her life in spite of them.”

Cerberus reflected on her words. “I respected ‘er Artemis, an’ um glad I earned that off ‘er. She was a great lady.”

“She was at that.” No emotion touched her eyes, or lifted her tone of voice. Saber butted her elbow with his nose, concerned at the void in her voice. Artemis resumed stroking his fur, absent-minded again.

Cerberus leaned back in his chair. Illuminated Ares shone red over his shoulder.

“Now don’ go believin’ you ‘ave the ‘igh ground over me. I know wot you’ve been up t’ these past five years. I know the name you’ve made fer yourself, an’ it ain’t the one you go by.” He paused to remove his eyeglasses and commenced with cleaning them a second time.

“An’ don’ believe I’ve taken yer story ‘ook line an’ sinker eivver. You may ‘ave me boys believin’ you’re just after work, but you an’ me know that’s just your excuse,” saying so as he brandished his spectacles at her, admonishing his dead comrade’s daughter.

“On the contrary Cerberus, your sharp wits make things a lot easier for me. Working for you will be my cover story, as it were.”

Replacing his spectacles, Cerberus asked. “An’ do I get t’ know why it is you’re castin’ your shadow at my door?”

“If I told you Cerberus, you would try to dissuade me.” Artemis stood.

“You’re as obtuse as yer muvver was.” He left his chair and came round the desk. “An’ if she’d a said that, I’d’ve known t’ run fer cover.” He offered his hand and Artemis took it.

“I don’t give warning. That your son knows intimately.” Their hands parted.

“An’ at least you were courteous enuff t’ use words, fer which I fank you. An’ now I suppose you want t’ talk business?”

“Yes, that would be an excellent idea.”

Cerberus motioned for her to follow him, and headed for the small doorway he had entered through. Artemis bade Saber wait, to which the great cat yawned and went to make himself comfortable on the rug he had had his blue eyes on.

Through the partition doorway Cerberus took Artemis down an elegant wood panelled corridor. Its walls displayed works of art by those of fame, Turnbells, Stables, Bakers, even a Di Sinci.

Cerberus stopped by the second door on the right hand side and produced a key from his waistcoat pocket.

“You keep prisoners Cerberus?”

“Only when ‘ee won’t bloody well be’ave.” He opened the door and presented to Artemis a boy of ten, equipped with his own black hair. Though he sat on the carpeted floor surrounded by opulence, his clothes were filthy rags.

“This ‘ere is my youngest, Jackal.” The boy looked up from his lap, and Artemis saw that he also owned his father’s viridian eyes.

At seeing her visage the boy yelled and scrambled backwards into the shelter of a loose curtain hanging from the frame of his bed.

“She won’ eat yer boy!” Cerberus growled and went to haul his son up by the collar.

“C’mere you tyke an’ mind yer manners. ‘Ees soft Artemis, I do apologise. Never even seen so much as a false leg ‘ave you.” And he shook his son by the shoulder.

“I hope this isn’t what you’re hiring for Cerberus, because nannying your whelp will not make a very convincing cover story for me,” she said as she crossed her arms, staring hard in immediate dislike at the boy, red eyes to green. Which made the lad shake with nerves.

“Not’a nanny, but’a bodyguard is wot ‘ee needs.” And he tousled the boy’s hair in affection.

“You’ve met me ovver sons, Wolf an’ Grey’ound. The first you assaulted, wiv all due right, the second brought you t’ me. It’s them I need you t’ guard ‘im from Artemis.” He put his arm round the boy’s shoulder. “From them an’ ‘imself, as ‘ee keeps runnin’ away from ‘ome, an’ there’s worse’n my progeny creepin’ round this station. They’d make a clip round ‘is ear seem like ‘eaven.”

He let Jackal go, and the boy resumed his previous position, warily watching the unknown intruder on his solitude until his father quitted the chamber and locked the door behind him.

Artemis followed Cerberus back to the main room.

“Family feud?” she queried.

“Somethin’ like that. You recall I ‘inted at a fourf son?”

“Rather imperceptibly, but yes.” They re-entered the main room, and Artemis sighed to see Saber with eyes closed, on his back with his grey blue paws in the air.

Cerberus took again his chair behind the beautiful desk.

“Bulldog I named ‘im. Day after ‘is twenny-fiff ‘is body was found down in the levels below wiv ‘is skull smashed open an’ a pipe nearby painted wiv ‘is brains.”

“The work of your other sons?”

Cerberus was clenching the arms of his chair so that his knuckles were drained of colour.

“’Onestly, I don’ know fer sure, but me gut tells me Wolf killed ‘im wiv ‘is own ‘ands.”

“Why would he do that Cerberus?”

“Besides pissin’ me off?” Suddenly the man before her seemed to age a decade, the lines of his face grown deeper with fatigue. “’Ee wants the clan Artemis, an’ me dead’n buried in space. An’ that’ll depend on ‘ow patient ‘ee is, which ain’t very.”

Artemis sat as she took in the information.

“Why not hire someone to dispose of him for you Cerberus, instead of playing what is obviously a very dangerous game.”

He looked at her in disgust.

“’Ee’s my son Artemis.” But his words were not explanation enough for her.

“As long as you’re prepared for him to be the death of you then,” she answered back. “And Jackal as well if his lust for fratricide re-surfaces.”

“I don’ need you t’ sit on me shoulder an’ play devils advocate Artemis, you look too ‘eavy by ‘alf,” he said with an angry wave of his hand. “I just need t’ know that Jackal will stay safe, an’ never mind wot ‘appens t’ me.”

Artemis sighed. “It would seem you’ve grown into a big softie in your advanced years.”

Cerberus chuckled. “Will you take the work Artemis?”

A pause for thought and then she nodded and stood. “I will.” She clicked her fingers to wake Saber from his slumber. The blue tiger opened his eyes and rolled over to stand at the ready.

“I have a few effects to gather from my ship, but I will return promptly.”

Cerberus’ face lifted in gratification.

“My fanks Artemis. I’ll ask you t’ room next t’ Jackal’s, there’s a connectin’ door ‘tween the two.”

“That’ll make keeping an eye on him easier I’m sure.”

Cerberus chuckled again. “Don’ believe that m’dear, ‘ees a sneaky li’l bastard my Jackal.”

As Artemis turned to leave, Cerberus voiced a thought he had entertained since meeting her.

“If Wolf gives you cause Artemis, kill ‘im.”

She turned back to look him squarely in the eye. “Are you sure?”

It was a long time before he replied, the pain in his eyes aging his face yet again.

“Yes. Better by your ‘ands Artemis.”

“Very well Cerberus.” And before he could retract the death sentence he had passed on his son, woman and tiger were through the door and away.

Copyright © 2010 LKG Frendo, All Rights Reserved

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