Content Warning: Yes, both sexual assault and rape occur in this story. I do not glorify these acts, though I hope to show that women (or anyone) "tarnished" are, in fact, not at fault and should not be defined by such events. Those who carry out such attacks, however...
Ultimately, this is a story of hope and determination.
Llew didn’t break stride as she kicked the empty glass bottle aside, barely giving it a thought. Litter was the least of the hazards in Cheer’s streets at night. She walked with her head down, hands thrust deep in the pockets of her coarse brown trousers, blending in with the evening’s wildlife. With hair in dire need of a trim, there was always a risk that the disguise wouldn’t hold – but it only had to hold until she got home. She would cut the offending locks in the morning.
A commotion broke out up ahead at Camille’s Cathouse. Some john lacking the financial means to sate his desires by the looks and sounds of it. Perhaps he should have thought about that before buying such a large bottle of whisky. The town’s men hunted gold by day, oblivion and pussy by night, and sometimes the two nocturnal aims conflicted. Both could spell danger for Llew.
She approached the still cussing man, stepping into the road to give him a wide berth. At this time of night at least one didn’t need to be so cautious about steaming piles in the middle of the dusty streets; all the horses were asleep in their stables or paddocks or waiting lazily outside a bar or brothel.
‘Out for a good time, boy?’ The old coot stepped in front of Llew, stopping her in her tracks. ‘I’ll share one wi’ yer.’
Llew tried to side-step him, but he shadowed her movement.
‘It’s still five miras each. Two men, ten miras.’ The half-dressed madam on the porch folded her arms across her chest and stared down at them.
‘You said five miras per girl. We only need the one.’ His arm snaked across Llew’s shoulders drawing her in to him. If she hadn’t already been cursing staying out late with Kynas, she sure would have started now. ‘What d’you say? I’ll let you go first. I won’t even watch. Sure you won’t mind me listenin’, though.’
Llew struggled to find her voice – her deeper, more boyish voice. She shook her head.
‘Five miras per . . . service.’ The woman’s eyes narrowed. ‘You want cheap, Renny, you go down see Hedy’s girls. They’ll look after you real nice.’
‘Aw, but Hedy don’t have your wee Tamra.’ Renny pulled Llew closer to his mouth. His breath reeked like it was coming from the other end of his body. ‘Wee Tamra’s my favorite,’ he confided in a loud whisper.
‘Tamra’s busy, anyway. Now scoot.’ Camille waved the back of her hand in a brushing motion at Renny, dismissing him. ‘And don’t come back till you’ve got some cash.’
Still clutching Llew, Renny waved his bottle, miraculously not spilling any liquor.
‘Oh, you’re a hard woman, Cammy.’
‘Better a hard woman than a limp dick any day, Renny.’ The woman flashed a gleaming white grin at them. ‘Maybe next time you’ll rethink the whisky. Or at least buy it here. Then we can talk discounts. Loyalty is rewarded at Camille’s.’
‘Oh, aye.’ Renny turned Llew with him to dawdle back the way she’d just come. ‘Women, eh? Never give nothin’ for free.’
Llew didn’t know anyone who gave anything for free and didn’t see why the brothel girls should be any different.
‘Well lad, shall we try Hedy’s?’ Renny squeezed again.
Llew tensed the second his step faltered.
He regained his composure almost instantly and squeezed her shoulders once more, this time looking down at the way her shirt bunched across her chest. Two small but distinct peaks appeared as her shoulders rounded under the pressure.
‘Well, well. Looks like my luck’s on the up ‘n up.’ His arm reached around her shoulders so his hand could feel the soft flesh beneath Llew’s shirt. He sucked back a glob of spit, took a swig from his bottle, and tried to bring her around in front of him. Llew pushed back and ducked under his arm. But he was quick and grabbed the loose waist of her shirt.
‘Hey! We was just gettin’ to know each other.’ He tugged and Llew bounced against his chest.
She used the momentum to break free of his grasp, turned and ran. The whisky hadn’t kicked in as much as she thought, because he was soon on her heels. She focused on keeping her line straight down the middle of the road. A straggling group of men leaving Polly’s Bar farther down the road made no moves to let her pass, seeming to find the spectacle of a young boy running from an older man interesting verging on downright hilarious. Some of them reached out to slow Llew, but they didn’t go so far as to stop her. Fearing that the men would turn on her, Llew didn’t plead for their help but pumped her limbs even harder, and a few moments later she was past them. Unhindered by the group, Renny caught up to her, knocking her into a narrow alleyway between McNulty’s Bar and Barber Pierson’s.
The crash of the half-full bottle against the wall rang out as Llew fell to the ground. Quickly regaining her feet, she found herself facing jagged glass and Renny looking pissed off.
‘That bottle cost me a night with wee Tamra. Come ‘ere,’ he said, flinging both arms out in some sort of drunken embrace. He missed, but the bottle swung dangerously close and Llew hopped back deeper into the alley. ‘You owe me the price of a bottle o’ whisky, girlie. And maybe a bit more.’
‘You broke it, you drunk bastard.’ Llew dodged the man’s next lunge and made a pass for the alleyway’s entrance.
He brandished the bottle at her. ‘That ain’t the language of no young lady.’
‘Who said anything about being a lady?’
They danced side to side, Llew looking for a gap, Renny blocking.
‘Oh, you like playin’ at it like a boy, eh? Well, I ain’t picky. Turn around, we won’t even have to take them pants right off.’ He paused to grab his crotch.
Llew lunged and Renny blocked her path again, grabbing her and throwing her to the ground. He scrabbled at her feverishly, trying to get her trousers undone. Llew kicked wildly, she punched, she clawed, and when he hit her back, she grabbed his face, digging her fingers close to his eyes and returning the pain. Renny slashed at her with the bottle, slicing her shoulder. Llew pressed her hand against his chin, pushing him up and closing her wound. He screamed and slashed again, cutting into her arm. Llew grabbed his wrist, healing this new scratch.
Renny cried out again and now swung the bottle blindly, hysterically, cutting Llew’s cheek, neck, chest, forehead, shoulder, ear, nose, eye, throat . . .
Somewhere in all the chaos, a strange peace overcame her. She relaxed and let it take her.
Llew woke to the scent of blood, the jaunty tinkle of a piano being played nearby, light spilling across a wood-plank wall, and a heavy feeling in her chest. No. Not in her chest. It was on her chest, and it was sticky and damp.
Smell of blood. Heavy thing. Sticky and damp.
She pushed up. The corpse – she couldn’t feel any breathing other than her own – lifted, teetered, and then the strength in Llew’s arms failed. She fell back and the body dropped down with her. A shudder ran through her body. A glass bottle smacked to the ground and rolled across the ground, scraping the stones. Dim candlelight from the uncovered window above reflected from its shattered edge.
A broken bottle. The dead man.
Remembered pain flitted through Llew’s mind. He had attacked her and now he was dead. The events between those two points were a blank. Her shirt was wet, almost certainly with blood.
Mustering all her strength, she wedged her hands under the man’s shoulders and heaved again, pushing higher on one side. His shoulder slid to the ground, easing the weight off her. Bracing herself on her elbows, she kicked and slid, freeing her legs. Clambering to her feet, Llew shook herself, trying to rid herself of the dead man’s touch. Her near-white shirt looked black in the low light. Foul. Only slightly less so with the knowledge that it was her own blood. She could just make out his face, frozen in an expression of horror, in the flickering candlelight from the window above. There was no outward sign of injury Llew could see – apart from all the blood, of course.
She couldn’t be found there with the body. The Farries would hang her without question. She turned and ran deeper into the alley, emerging alongside the front entrance of The Diamond Duster, the last of Cheer’s bars to close for the night, and even then, usually only at the Farries’ specific request.
‘Bit of a rough one, there, lad?’ someone called after her.
Llew kept to the shadows; not that there were many Cheer locals out this late in the dark folds of night, but she had no way to explain her blood-soaked state if she did run into anyone.
The distance back to her hovel by Big River seemed greater than normal, but finally dusty dirt road gave way to swathes of tussock punctuated by the occasional matagouri or lancewood. She pushed her way through long grasses and past branches heavy with yellow bell-shaped flowers, now gray in the early morning light, past her thatched, thigh-high hovel, before pulling off her shoes at the stony bank and wading straight into the water, not bothering to remove her clothing. To have any chance of washing the blood from them, she would have to soak them now.
The swift current carried away the sensation of the man’s weight lying over her even as it lifted the blood from her skin and washed it away. It was her blood. It was all hers. He had killed her, and now he was dead.
She had never killed before. Probably because she had never died before. Healing, yes, she’d done that. She knew what must have happened, and yet couldn’t bring herself to admit it. Surely, she couldn’t do that: she couldn’t come back from the dead. No one came back from death.
She pulled the shirt over her head, then squeezed it under the water, rubbing it and rinsing it and rubbing again. The cold glow of dawn crept across the sky. And the browned blood could not be washed from the garment. She had left Kynas’s late, but not that late. How long had she lain unconscious – or dead?
Llew cursed and threw the shirt to shore. She only had one other shirt, and she was almost certain it was getting too small. She would have to spend a good deal of her earnings on a new one or take the risk of stealing more than her usual quota. But she maintained a quota for a reason. After all, she only needed what she needed, and being greedy got you caught.
Already half undressed, she fought with her trousers until they jerked free of her body. They, too, were stained with her blood. Damn it! Clothing wasn’t cheap. She could feed herself for free but, if she wanted to mingle with the general public, she had to buy clothes. While she knew how to use a needle and thread, her skills in that department only went as far as basic repairs.
She dug her hands into the riverbed and then, with handfuls of sediment, scrubbed the last of the blood from her chest, her face and her arms. Now acclimatized to the water’s chill, she waded in a little farther and dunked herself under, emerging a few seconds later to wipe her eyes clear of water and slightly-too-long hair trailing over her face. She pressed her feet through the muddy sediment, feeling it erupt between her toes, and took the time to appreciate the warmth beneath its surface. Strange how that little bit of heat always remained, somehow not leached by the rushing water above. Like her own sense of worth, somehow not drained by living beneath the flow of Cheer’s society.
Cheer. Named for the happiness the first settlers experienced when they started digging gold. The gold was gone. As was the cheer. But Cheer remained.
She peered at her hands in the rippling water. A man had died at her hands. But she had died at his hands first. It was little consolation, but it made forgiving herself easier.
Her fingers began to tingle and sting from the cold and she made her way back to shore, wiped herself down with handfuls of grass, returned to her little hovel and wrapped her woolen blanket about her. Despite having spent however many hours unconscious, she needed sleep. There were only a couple of hours before the market started. She drifted off, reveling in the aromas of dew-soaked grasses, damp stones, and thyme.
Llew has a gift. Her body heals itself from any injury, at a cost to anyone nearby.
Llew’s father disappeared when she was eleven, leaving her orphaned, as far as she knew.
Since then, Llew has learned to survive the streets of the gold-mining town of Cheer – full of opportunistic men and desperation. It’s a hard existence made tougher when her so-called friend accuses Llew of murder, sending her to the gallows.
Llew’s Aenuk ability to absorb life means she doesn’t stay dead for long, but she does leave a trail of death behind her.
Escaping the hangman’s noose sees Llew fall into the hands of Jonas: the man with the knife and the Karan power to kill Llew’s kind. If Llew can nurture the attraction he has to her, maybe she can keep that knife from her heart.
But lurking in the shadows is Jonas’s half-brother, Braph: the man who has learned to combine Aenuk and Karan powers into infinite and addictive magical potential.
The Young Riders meet The Vampire Diaries in this tale of brother versus brother and blood-magic set in a gaslamp fantasy world. Book 1 in the Deadly Touch Trilogy.
Healer's Touch is a fantasy novel flavored with a wild west setting, steampunk-like technology, enough romance to draw you in, horror to keep you hooked, and just enough sex to keep things spicy.
For those eager for more, Healer's Touch was originally published in 2013 and is available wherever good ebooks are sold. From March 2021, I have entered a non-exclusive hand-over from my previous publisher until June 2021, when I take over exclusive control as a self-publisher.