Excerpt from chapter 3

Orin: Orphan of the Cobweb

The first thing Orin remembered, other than his name, was getting out of the way. There were some earlier images: a woman giving him bread, a large man standing over him, and insects, lots of images of insects, small ones, and of course, the bees. Other than that, his first true memories were of evasion. And he was good at it too. He had to be. In the lower levels of Gremselash, one either got out of the way or perished.

The city of Gremselash was located near the middle of the canyons that were the border between the Endless Plains in the north, the Dunad to the west, and the Red Desert in the south. The seasonal rains that fed the grasses and flowers of the plains ran off in hundreds of small streams and creeks that carved out the dull yellow and brown canyons. These waterways, turbulent and full at the start of the canyons, reached the red stone and sand dunes of the desert in the south as a mere trickle or breath of moisture, a shadow of the roiling torrent they were at the headwaters. Those same waterways made the floors of the canyons uninhabitable as they rose and fell randomly and pulled loose boulders off the cliff sides. So the city of Gremselash, like any inhabitant of this harsh in-between land, made its home where it could, for it hung from the canyon walls.

The city was a maze of bridges and platforms. Ropes hung from spikes drilled into the rock, or lashed around narrow stone formations, and from these ropes hung the houses, walkways, temples, and markets. The city seemed an enormous spider web, and the larger the building, the more complex and intricate the system of ropes had to be to support it. Some of the rope supports were so elaborate that they looked from a distance like solid walls carved with geometric designs. The central market was the largest platform in the city, and from it all the city sprawled, up, down, and on every side. Gremselash was a crossroads, the last haven from north to south before the desert, and the first fresh water for travelers coming out of the desert heading north. The canyons were many day’s journey to go around on either side and impassible except where the city of Gremselash had made a suspended highway that passed by design right through the market itself. The only structure more impressive than the market was the temple to the goddess Commerce, and it rose above the market like a beacon to caravans weary from the perilous desert crossings. It hung from very few ropes, so few that it seemed to float above the market, and it was rumored that Commerce herself had woven the support structure when the city was founded.

Orin lived far below the Central Market. Later in his life, he would notice how other cities had neighborhoods that changed as one traveled horizontally, with perhaps a hidden underground community of sewer dwellers or ditch layers. The Gremselash of his childhood was far more complex, with neighborhoods changing both vertically and horizontally. The higher and more centrally located the area, the more wealthy the inhabitants, and the better the temple constabulary patrolled. Orin was keenly aware of this stratification through engineering, for the first home he could remember was on the lowest level.

Over the nearly seven hundred years of the city’s existence, when improvements were made to existing buildings and walkways, lazy carpenters and rope-smiths would cut major support ropes and let them swing down below without thought of retrieving the materials that might be attached. As a result, the lowest level of Gremselash was formed of a chaotic and accidental collection of rotting ropes and wooden planks, the decaying leftovers of the centuries of a thriving city. One had to be agile to navigate this area known as the Cobweb, and one had to be small. The inhabitants were almost exclusively runaway or orphaned children who nested in the tangled mess of ropes and fallen platforms and fought each other for scraps from above. Orin was both small and agile, spending much of his time stealing food and getting out of the way of the bigger boys and girls he stole from. He got caught from time to time and took a beating, but it was all part of the game as far as Orin was concerned. Food, water, and warmth were all hard to come by. Most residences in Gremselash had chutes that dropped refuse and detritus into the waterways below; the location of these chutes were battleground territory for the larger children, and the smaller ones lingered at a safe distance away from the fights, hoping to sneak in and out without notice and steal some food. Clean water was harder to come by. The canyons where Gremselash was located owed more to the desert for its climate than the fields to the north, and the heat of the dry season was oppressive even in the Cobweb that hung hundreds of feet below the Temple of Commerce. There were many places where the children could count on the flow of water, but most often it was filthy water used to rinse this or that object, floor, or person after a cleaning, or it might just be piss. Orin was one of many children who resorted to drinking the hot streams of the latter. Most children died of disease after drinking rancid water before they died of starvation. The third challenge of life was heat—not the heat of the brutal days, but the need for it in the frigid nights. Scraps of clothing were prized by the children, and small groups of two or three children, though no larger, would sleep together for warmth, a confederacy that might last a single night or many, depending on the children. The final danger the children faced, aside from each other, was the fire chutes. Most of the cooking braziers simple iron grates built over holes in the floors of the homes. At the beginning or the end of the day, depending, each home, tavern, or teahouse would dump the coal left over from the day’s or night’s fire into the water of the canyons below. Sometimes, the coal slid into the Cobweb, igniting entire sections of aged and dried wood and ropes. It was an infrequent occurrence, but one the children of the Cobweb were always wary of, and not simply for fear of burning. Orin had only seen this a few times, but the worst was when the dwellers above their heads cut loose a large section of the Cobweb hoping it would fall into the rushing water hundreds of feet below. However, the cluster of timber and hemp-rope was so large it got wedged in the canyon wall halfway down. There were seven children caught in the fallen section who, already burning, jumped the rest of the way. They had been trapped by the fire, and Orin had watched them fall, their little burning bodies disappearing into the black, sacrificed by the city to save it from conflagration.

Many caves in Gremselash served as dwellings, and though Orin was hardly aware of it, the cave he found probably saved his life in those early days. As far as he knew, he was the only resident of the Cobweb who had found the little nook, and he was sure he was the only one who could reach it. Orin had been running, or rather swinging and climbing, away from a particularly brutal older girl from whom he had just stolen some flat bread. Her name was Donna, and she was known for the beatings she administered. When she was in a really bad humor, she was known to throw thieves free of the ropes. A few days before, she had done so to a small boy of about Orin’s size. The boy hit an outcropping on the canyon wall about 30 feet down. The fall broke his legs, but he had survived, he was alive. Alive, but broken. He couldn’t climb back to the Cobweb and had screamed all through the night for water before growing quiet as the sun rose.

Orin had targeted Donna since then, because he had dreamed of those screams long after they had stopped. He couldn’t fight her, she was too big, but if he was quick enough, he could starve her. So there he was, running along the ropes and jumping from rotten plank to canyon wall and back, being chased by a mottle-haired snarling beast. He was distinctly concerned by her ability to keep up with him, and the fact that the longer the chase lasted, the angrier she would become, and the more likely she would be to forego a beating and just throw him beyond the Cobweb. There were a number of paths he was used to taking, escapes through tiny spaces, leaps beyond the capacity of most of the other children, and most of the older children would have given up. But this was the fifth time in two days that Orin had stolen from Donna, and it was the third time she had given chase, so far unsuccessfully. She was desperate and enraged and gaining on him, which wasn’t fun at all.

A large leaning plank formed a ramp against the canyon’s eastern wall. Only the bottom of the ramp had ropes holding it in place; the top would swing out if pushed from the rocks that held it. Orin scampered up the ramp, dug his bare feet into the wood, and pushed against the cold stone. He was very small, and it only moved enough to scrape down about a foot. He heard Donna coming from behind, relentless as ever, and truly desperate, he pushed with all his might. The wood scraped down another two feet with a crack, snapping in half. He smacked his face against the rock, splitting his cheek open. Blood spurted against the canyon wall and his head swam. He didn’t know if he could push again, but then he felt her hands on his leg. The touch of her hands jolted the pain away, and he forced himself to thrust with all of his remaining strength. This time the platform swung free completely, and he grabbed at the wall, hoping for a hold. He found one and slammed against the wall with his chest. A rock jabbed into his side, but he held tight. Orin looked down and saw Donna also holding onto the wall. She was not focusing on him anymore but on the rock, trying to hang on. He spat in her face to get her attention. She looked up, and he saw that she had smacked her own head against the wall in the fall, and that one of her eyes was swollen shut. She bared her teeth and shrieked up at him. He mocked her with a screech of his own. To get away from the larger children, he often made them so angry that they became careless, though he thought it was just part of the fun. He laughed at her, his strength returning, and the motion dripped some of his blood onto her face. He turned to the wall and started off to his right where the rock curved around like a pillar.

There, around the corner was what looked like a small crack in the stone, but as he got closer to it, the crack revealed a small opening that turned into a slightly larger opening. Donna was coming around fast: on the ropes and planks, Orin’s size and skill gave him the advantage; on the rock face, however, Donna’s size and strength made her the faster. So he scrambled towards the crack opening and pulled himself up over the edge. The opening was much larger than it had first appeared, and he lowered himself down into a widening crevice in the rock, hoping to hit a foothold. He didn’t find one. Hanging by his hands, he saw Donna’s fingers creep over the top of the rock right between his own hands. For the first time in his short life, he was truly frightened. There had always been somewhere to run and hide, but at that moment, he saw none. He pulled himself up, bringing his head to his hands and bit down with all his fear and frustration onto Donna’s fingers. The force of the bite ripped his canine baby tooth out. She screamed out in pain and fear, her hand released, and her scream died away. She was gone, and his mouth tasted of blood as he tongued the new gap where his tooth had been. The taste of sweat and dirt from her filthy hand mixed with the taste of his own blood was the last sensation anyone would have of her.

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