Flash Fiction: Stronger than the Ground (1417 words)

Jaera looked smaller than usual, hidden underneath Galen’s arm, her head, shoulders and knees tucked against him. She breathed, steady and slow, but the most movement Connell saw from her as he came down the alley was the breeze playing with the ends of her hair.

“Is she asleep?” Connell asked, leaning back against the crate they were sitting on.

Galen shook his head. Jaera pulled Galen’s arm down under her chin so that she could glare at Connell. She told Connell months ago that she was six now and six-year-olds didn’t need naps. Lately, though, he kept catching her with her eyes shut and her head on Galen’s knee.

“So,” Galen said, slow. “Do we need to run from the city guard now, or…”

“I was perfectly polite,” Connell told him.

Galen looked doubtful.

“He’s coming,” Connell promised.

Galen’s expression shifted quickly, back to the blank lines he’d been cultivating for days.

Jaera looked up at him, then over at Connell, suspicious and questioning, but she didn’t say a word.

They waited less than ten minutes. Connell was counting the seconds, even though he’d known it wouldn’t take long. Then the back door of the taproom slammed open. Two men started down the stairs to the alley, both tall, both blonde, and both arguing like a pair of jays. Rabin and his cousin, Toar ShatterIron, on time and exactly as Connell had expected them to come.

Connell flashed a smile at Galen. Galen looked at him in disbelief and jumped down from the crate.

Gathering Jaera up, Galen dropped her onto her feet in front of him. She twisted back to look at him and Galen gently put his hands on her shoulders as Rabin and Toar approached, and faced her forward. Connell winked when she looked to him.

Rabin and Toar stopped a few feet away in the alley.

“This is my friend, Connell,” Rabin said.

Toar raised his eyebrows at his cousin in disbelief. Rabin shrugged a perfunctory apology.

“Well,” Toar half laughed. He faced Connell. “This is a new way to be mugged. Usually, you leave the children at home.” He waved a hand at Jaera. Then he stopped, looking at her.

Connell grinned at the back of his head.

Jaera fidgeted, holding onto Galen’s fingers on her shoulders and dragging his hands in front of her.

“We came for your help, sir,” Galen said.

Toar shifted his attention to him immediately, as if the respectful tone surprised him, but he didn’t relax.

“I think I’d prefer the mugging,” Toar said. Beside him, Rabin snorted.

Grinning, Connell glanced at Galen, halfway to telling Toar that could be accomplished. The look on Galen’s face stopped him fast. Connell folded his hands behind his back like he was on deck inspection, just to remind himself to keep quiet.

“I’m not asking much, sir,” Galen continued carefully. Gently, he caught one of Jaera’s hands. She had her sleeve dragged all the way down to her fingers and her thumb hooked through a hole she’d torn near the seam. She stopped him when he tried pull her thumb out of the hole, and Galen held still.

“Please,” he murmured.

Jaera stared up at him, then pulled her sleeve back herself. There was a line of red burn scars crawling up her arm, some round, some jagged, some old enough to have faded to pink, all of them flat against the rest of her skin. Connell had seen them so rarely, it took him a moment to mark them out, and move his eyes away. Toar catalogued them in an instant, then looked at Galen again.

“She’s hurting herself,” Galen said evenly, his plea buried so deep it was hard to catch.

“And you,” Toar said. He nodded toward the jagged scars visible above Galen’s collar. “And setting fires to things that you’d rather she didn’t, I’d wager.”

Jaera twisted to look at Galen.

Galen looked to her first, steady, then nodded once at Toar. “But it always burns her first, and I don’t think she even means to start. I know keimon have scars like that, but she doesn’t sleep easy on them, and they don’t heal quick. I’ve asked others for ways to help her stop lighting herself up when she doesn’t mean to, and they tell me she’s too young to teach. But they say you were young when you started, and I don’t know if that’s bragging or story, but if you know a way to help her stop…”

Toar raised his eyebrows, all dramatic surprise. “She already knows how to stop it up.”

Galen straightened, uncertain.

“It’s easy, isn’t it?” Toar asked Jaera. “You just don’t.”

She didn’t say anything, but she hooked her thumb back through her sleeve.

“She probably learned it from you,” Toar said, turning right back to Galen. “You should be asking me why she’s sick.”

Connell straightened up too, arms dropping back to his sides. Galen’s hand fell back to Jaera’s shoulder.

“What?” Galen asked.

“She sleeps too much?” Toar asked. “She doesn’t eat? She generally acts like you’ve just pulled her out of a nap? She doesn’t like anything touching her back?”

Jaera stopped, right in the middle of pulling Galen’s hand in front of her again.

“Oh, and every once in a while, she starts working without even meaning to, and can’t stop,” Toar finished.

Galen looked down at her, quick, tallying up the last few days, then the last few months. Then he looked at Connell. Connell had already done the same counts. It had been almost two months since she started dozing off in daylight.

Toar bent down, to meet Jaera’s eyes. “Did you give him those scars on purpose?”

Jaera’s eyes went wide. One handed, Galen picked her up and put her down behind him.

“Don’t you talk to her like that,” Galen said.

Toar smiled at him, every angle of it sharp and fake. “I wouldn’t blame her. Do you know you can kill her, keeping her from working?”

“Whoa.” Connell took a quick step forward. “What?”

Rabin rocked back, like something had just turned his stomach.

“We’re not very sturdy things,” Toar said. “We get exhausted when we work too much, and if you keep us from working at all, we get sick.” Toar’s smile was sliding off his face, bending into a glare that kept deepening and sharpening. It wasn’t even aimed at Connell, and he pulled back.

“So tell me,” Toar snapped. “How many times a day do you tell her to stop it up?” He took a sharp step forward.

And Galen stayed exactly where he was.

Solid as he ever was, he didn’t flinch, didn’t move, didn’t blink. Toar looked surprised, but he stayed where he was as well, eye to eye with him in the dark alley. Neither moved.

Connell shifted. Rabin glanced back and forth between the two, as if he wasn’t sure whether time had frozen. Toar tilted his head, just a fraction of an inch. Galen was still, one breath after another, unmovable.

“She gets scared,” Galen said, voice low, and the words seemed to fade in from the silence without breaking it. “Of normal kid things,” Galen continued. “Like kraken under the ship and monsters in the cargo hold, and sneaking things in the dark, but also of herself. She gets that glow around her hands, and she looks terrified. And I figure it isn’t any way to live, being scared of a thing you’ll always carry on your back.

“But about a month ago, she lit the rigging up, while she was sitting watch with me. It was a blaze, and she started right at the middle of it, and it took a long time to put out, and Cap’n did some yelling he took back later, but she was scared and she got more than that. I haven’t seen her glowing since. Not even a little.”

Galen looked Toar straight in the eye, for one flashing instant sharper than every word that Toar had fired at him. “But I have never told her not to.”

Jaera was shaking behind him, clinging onto his hands like they were stronger than the ground her feet rested on. He moved for the first time, not away from Toar, but toward her, straightening her back onto her own two feet and holding her while she settled herself again.

“Now can you help her or not?” Galen asked Toar.

And Toar took one step back.

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