Mercy sat at the gates.
She was taking a break from the chaos that was the Good Man's Rest. She watched Domus welcome people in and out of the city. Why the village of Crope employed the Arctodus to watch it's gates was a mystery. They were so far north that there was no threat here of dragons (not that Mercy believed in dragons, she didn't) or other pre-history beasts. She wasn't sure she believed in pre-history beasts either. Ruby told her that Domus was a pre-history beast, but to Mercy he just looked like an ordinary grizzly bear, if a little on the gigantic size.
The major difference was speech.
When she first came to Crope and people told her about the dragons and beasts that could talk, she thought they were all crazy. This is before the town hired Domus.
Then, one day, as she was sitting on the stoop of the inn, a cat came up to her. It meowed gently and she stroked it's fur.
"I'm sorry. I don't have any food to give you right now, but I'll sneak some later, if you're still around."
"What time?" the cat said.
Mercy jumped off the stoop and nearly choked on her tongue. From that time on, she encountered many domestic animals that could speak and some that could not. She asked Lovely Lucy about it one day when they were in the kitchen preparing meals for the evening crowd. Mercy paused in the midst of her corn-shucking.
"Why can some animals talk and some can't?"
Lucy scoffed at her. "How the 'ell do I know? Get your ass back to work!"
Clem, one of the regular patrons of the Good Man's, leered at Mercy and grinned. Mercy shivered. She hated being around the man. He was always making passes, or trying to grab her in places on her anatomy where she preferred not to be grabbed. He winked at her. "Some animals were created smart, by the mages, like. Such as dragons and some domesticated animals. And some weren't. Like chickens. I mean, who wants to hear a chicken bitchin' at yeh when yeh go to chop it's head off!"
Mercy shook her head. "But I've seen some cats and dogs that can talk in Crope and some that can't. Why is that?"
"Cherry-girl, you got more questions than a constable!" Clem turned and stumbled off in the direction of the tavern.
Lucy looked angrily at Mercy, her thin, aging lips pressed tightly together. Sensing a beating coming, Mercy quickly continued shucking. After awhile she decided to try her luck with Lucy again.
"Lucy? Why can some tame animals talk and some can't?"
Lucy looked up, glaring. "You stupid thing. Don't you know anything about the world?"
Mercy wanted to say that, No, since she was not originally from this world, she didn't know. But Lucy had never believed that she was not from some far off village to the north of Crope and got violently angry when Mercy tried to explain, so she kept her mouth shut.
Silence proved to be golden, because Lucy seemed to soften a bit. "Well, it's like Clem said. Some were created to talk by the mages."
"But what about the ones that can't talk?" Mercy asked.
Lucy looked away as she replied, "They be the crossovers, like."
Like me, Mercy thought. But she knew better to say this to Lovely Lucy, who was really not as lovely as her nickname suggested.
Mercy jerked her head up, her reverie interrupted. Domus looked down from his stool, a very large stool considering his gargantuan size. His muzzle was a grizzled gray, indicating that he was no longer in the prime of his life...still, he had enough pep left to guard the gates of Crope during the daylight hours. He retired to a hut beside the gates after his shift. Why he was kept so close to the gates after dark Mercy could not understand. The gates were never closed and the giant Arctodus slept like a....well, like a bear. Regardless of his size, Mercy found the bear to be nicer than most of the humans she'd met in Crope. She took care not to get too close to him, however. The two-inch talons on his forepaws could slice your face off as neat as a paring knife. He wouldn't mean it, of course. But he was, like all his kind, as dumb as a door-pull.
She looked at him questioningly.
"Shouldn't ye be gettin' back to yonder inn? Yeh don't want ol' Lucy to come lookin' fer ye."
Mercy realized that she had spent more than her allotted break time out by the gates, head drenched in thoughts and memories that did nothing but depress her even more than she already was. She jumped up from the step outside Domus' hut (a step tall enough to be a seat for an average human girl) and hightailed down the street toward the inn, just a few feet away.
She entered the bar, gave her eyes a few moments to adjust to the dim light (it was always dark in the bar) and made her way toward the kitchen. She held her breath and hoped the kitchen was unoccupied. She'd been able to work in relative peace during the morning as Lucy had slept in, nursing a hangover.
As she stepped into the kitchen, a pair of strong arms reached out and grabbed her.
Clem had been hiding behind the door.
He pulled her close and ran his hand up her waist to pinch one of her nipples. She tried not to show how much it hurt, because pain only made Clem more excited. She felt his breath on the back of her neck and smelled the reek of Burr whiskey, which was stronger than any made back home. In the corner of the kitchen, Lucy laughed menacingly.
"Is today the day, Little Cherry?" Clem breathed. Mercy stifled the urge to vomit.
She looked at Lucy, hoping the woman would intervene for once. She didn't.
Instead, Lucy reached into her dress pocket and pulled out a long, thin needle.
Mercy jerked out of Clem's grasp and scrambled to the center of the kitchen.
"This past week was not my birthday," Mercy sighed, although she knew she was wasting her breath. She had made the same statement every time since she arrived here, but Lucy wouldn't believe her. And rightly so, for Mercy had no intention of telling anyone in Crope when her birthday was. It was bad enough that she had told them she was sixteen, when she first arrived, so many months ago.
"Well, damnit girl," Lucy replied, her voice rough as rocks. "You gotta have a birthday soon. Year's almost up. Soon it'll be the Harvester Moon, then the Cold Time. After that is Year's End."
Clem grinned from the doorway. "A man can't wait forever."
Lucy swung around to confront him. "You will damn well wait! Or be hanged. And won't nobody be able to he'p it. You know the law."
"Curses to the Lars-damned law!" Clem spat.
"You'll obey the law or I'll be th' one throws the lever on yer gallows! The girl is my property."
"I'm nobody's property. I'm a free person!" Mercy shouted. Some days she just could not hold her temper, especially on Finger-Pricking days when she had to endure Lucy referring to her as 'property.' She now knew how the slaves in the early days back in her world felt. She felt angry, and when she felt angry she got rebellious, and that was not a good state to be in when Lucy was around. Lucy rushed forward and Mercy felt the sting of a slap on her face. But she did not cry. She learned the hard way a long time ago not to give Lucy and Clem that satisfaction. It only made things worse. Instead, she did the second worse thing. She stared defiantly into Lucy's face. Lucy grabbed Mercy's hand and stabbed the needle in her middle finger hard.
Finally, the tears began to flow as Lucy pulled out the needle and squeezed Mercy's fingertip ruthlessly. The blood pooled and began to slide down her finger.
Lucy grabbed a small, thimble-like glass containing a measure of clear liquid from the counter. She held Mercy's throbbing finger over the vial until one drop of blood splashed down into the liquid, which immediately turned blue. The first time she'd underwent the Finger-Pricking test she'd been reminded of a pregnancy test. Except this was not a pregnancy test. It was an age test. How the substance in the thimble could tell Mercy was not seventeen, she did not know. It apparently involved magick, because Lucy purchased the potion from a local Sage. What she was told was that on the day when her blood caused the liquid to turn green would be the day she would be turned over to Clem for "training" in the Good Man's Inn main business: prostitution.
Mercy breathed a sigh of relief and Lucy slapped her again. "Damn you, girl! Name the day!"
Mercy cast her eyes downward, not wanting to be hit again. She was afraid she would have a bruise already. She was silent, however.
Lucy roughly shoved her toward the back staircase. "Go clean rooms, worthless virgin!"
Mercy bounded up the stairway, giving full sway to her tears, the cackling laughter of Lucy and Clem in her ears.
What she wouldn't tell them...she couldn't tell them.
She had forgotten her birthday.
Mercy at the gates. Waiting. Looking for a way out. She attempted to catalogue in her memory the faces of all the Spinners she saw, so that if she saw them again, she could ask them—no, beg them—to take her out. To take her anywhere but here. She put the foolish fantasy of home to rest a long time ago. She knew in her heart she would never go home again. At night, in her room, she dreamed of Santa Claus and Jell-o pudding. She sang in her sleep:
"I'm a Pepper, You're a Pepper, He's a Pepper, She's a Pepper..."
And sometimes she cried in her sleep, too.