Quyloc was nine the year that Dirty Henry finally caught him. Or at least, he thought he was. Growing up without parents, with only the other street urchins for family, made it hard to be sure of such things. But Quyloc needed more than anything to be sure of things and so he maintained that he was nine, even when the other kids teased him and said he was too small for that age.
One thing he’d been sure of for a long time was that sooner or later Dirty Henry would catch him.
He was a leper and Dirty Henry was his name. At least, it was what they called him. No one knew his real name or even if he had one. He lived in the remains of a sprawling, rundown structure down at the extreme southeast corner of the city. Dirty Henry’s abode stood hard by the offal pits, a stinking, filthy hole in the ground where the city’s butchers dumped the remains of their livelihood, those parts too diseased or useless to grind into anything. Each day a team of men shoveled dirt over the day’s deposits, but it was never enough. Flies and stink pervaded the air, and carrion birds gathered in great clouds. It was a wasteland. No one went there who didn’t have to. Disease was in the air, carried on a stink so bad it made the eyes hurt just to be near it. It was the perfect place for Dirty Henry.
By day he leaned or lay against the wall just off Piper Square–hard-packed dirt that doubled as an open-air market for the city’s poorest–always wearing his black greatcoat, no matter how hot it was. At night he wandered the streets looking for children. Specifically, the street children. He was smart enough to know that his time was numbered if he went after the children of the decent folk of Qarath. But the street children, the unwanted, the pests, thieves and runners, they were a different matter. They were less than vermin in the eyes of the city watch and what was the harm of a few less of them anyway?
These were the children that Quyloc and Rome called family. They lived among a jumbled maze of fallen-down warehouses and abandoned homes, not far from the offal pits. Back then, Quyloc and Rome weren’t friends. They knew each other, of course, all the street kids did, but no more of each other than names, and names were something that each child gave himself. Each child made his own name, his own identity, in the Warrens. It was a rough life and they died regularly, their names quickly forgotten.
As long as Quyloc could remember he had lived in fear. Very vague and distant was the fear of his father, a mean drunk with a heavy hand. Back in the shadows was a mother, also a drunk, but kind in her own weak way. When she died it was only his father and then there wasn’t even that, as the old man threw him out to make it or die on his own.
Quyloc was always smaller than the other kids, skinny and afraid of his own shadow. He always stayed back, out of the light, trying not to be noticed. Because if you were noticed inevitably someone was going to try and hurt you. He never questioned it. It was simply the way the world was. He could either try to survive it or be swept away by it. He couldn’t hope to change it.
Fear was the great equalizer. All of them had it but none could admit it. Fear was weakness and weakness killed. That was the one iron rule of life on the streets.
There were lots of things to be afraid of. The city watch was one. They beat savagely any street kid they caught stealing, even throwing the bigger ones into the stocks or the city jail for a time. Some of the watch were sadists, plain and pure, and street kids were good for venting on.
There was the fear of starvation, always a reality. The fear of disease that came so suddenly and killed so surely. Fear of the packs of wild dogs that roamed the same hovels they lived in and wouldn’t turn away from bringing down a child on his own.
And there was the fear of Dirty Henry.
Kids he caught were never seen again. He wrapped them up in his black greatcoat and hauled them off to the Pits and what he did with them no one ever knew, though they spent many nights huddled around their little fires talking about it, scaring themselves and each other with every shadow thrown by the flames.
Once Quyloc and two other boys–he couldn’t remember their names now–ventured down to the Pits in the daytime and saw one of Dirty Henry’s victims. It was Spit, a tough, wiry kid who talked constantly and was quick with his fists. What was left of him didn’t look so tough. His own mother, had she still been alive, wouldn’t have recognized him. Wouldn’t have taken his body into her arms, that was for sure.
Then came the night Quyloc got caught out late. He’d gotten some legitimate work, helping a man unload manure for his gardens. As the sun dipped down he’d begged the man to let him go, but the man told him he wouldn’t pay for less than a full day’s work and Quyloc badly wanted that copper.
Free at last, he ran down dark alleys, empty except for snarling dogs and the occasional slumped shape of a passed-out drunk. He was small, but he was quick, and he was smart. He knew how to stay to the shadows and he knew how to squirm away from reaching hands. He could make it back to the dubious shelter of the Warrens if he was lucky.
He almost did.
It was the fireworks that betrayed him. A celebration was going on up on the hill, where the nobles lived. The first shell went up and he stopped to watch, enraptured as always by the colorful lights. He was almost home, only a few blocks from the Warrens. Surely he was safe, just for the moment. With one hand on the corner of the wall he turned back to watch the colored lights explode and slowly fade away. He wondered about the children up there who watched the same lights he did. He wondered if they went to bed afraid every night. If it was even possible to not be afraid. It was something he could not even imagine.
Then the hand clamped down on his wrist and he remembered his own fear. He knew instantly who it was, but no matter how he twisted or fought, it would not let go. He was pulled in to the stinking, rotting face, staring in horror at the one remaining eye of Dirty Henry.
“Looks like we caught ourselves a little fish tonight,” Henry rasped. His teeth were gone, his mouth stank of corruption. “We’ll eat good now.”
Quyloc did the only thing he could, did the thing that would bring him out of sleep for nights to come, sweating with shame and self-disgust: he pissed himself. His bladder let go and soaked his ragged trousers.
That made Henry grin bigger. “You’ll be good company, I promise.”
Quyloc screamed. He screamed like a girl. Like a rabbit caught by the wolf, without even the courage to admit when he’s lost and the fight is over. He screamed and he struggled but it did no good.
Dirty Henry began to drag him away. He jerked him close and wrapped him up in his black greatcoat, stifling Quyloc’s screams and threatening to suffocate him. Down the dirty alley they went, staying out of the light, Henry giggling and Quyloc screaming.
Quyloc screamed for the other boys to come save him. He screamed for his mother to come back from the dead. He screamed even for his father, whose beatings were gentle compared to the fate that awaited him. None of them came to help him. The Pits drew closer.
He never knew what happened. Maybe Dirty Henry slipped in a patch of mud, or maybe he tripped in a hole. But suddenly he fell, dropping his wriggling parcel. The greatcoat opened and spilled Quyloc onto the cobblestones. In a heartbeat he was on his feet and running, tears blinding him, not knowing or caring where he was going, as long as it was away.
He stayed outside all night that night, unable to go back to the Warren, sure that they would see his shame on his face, smell it in the urine that slowly dried on his pants. He spent the night cursing his helplessness, cursing himself for his cowardice. He could have fought, done something, anything, but all he did was piss himself and scream like a baby. He hated Dirty Henry and he hated himself.
The other kids were surprised to see him the next day, sure that Dirty Henry had gotten him. But he offered no explanations and ignored all their questions. The only thing he could do now was hide. Every night after that he awakened from nightmares and every shadow he passed held the diseased man in the black greatcoat, waiting to grab him and finish what he had started. It was only a matter of time. He knew that. Dirty Henry had marked him and eventually he would come for him. There was nothing he could do. Nowhere he could run. No place to hide.
Time passed and Rome made his inevitable way to the leadership of the street kids. He was bigger than kids several years his senior, already with a shadow of mustache and thick arms when those his age were still clearly boys, with slim, smooth bodies and high voices. But it was not just his size and fighting skills that took him to leadership. It was his charisma. Even as a boy Quyloc recognized that in him. When he spoke, other children listened to him. Where he went, other children followed. True, Rome fought his way to the leadership of the Warren rats, but even the boy he defeated for that place held no grudge afterwards. It was after that fight that Rome added the Wulf to his name.
A few weeks after Rome took what was clearly his rightful spot as leader, Dirty Henry struck again. This time it was a curly, blonde-haired boy who called himself Piper, a joker, well-liked by all. The next day Rome decided it was time to do something about Dirty Henry.
“Tonight, I’m going down to the Pits,” he said, holding up the knife he had fashioned only recently. It was made of a discarded blade, broken off at the tip, that he’d found in a refuse pile and lashed to a makeshift handle. “I’m going to finish Dirty Henry for good. So he never bothers us again.” He must have been twelve at the time, his shoulders already taking on the width that would make him a powerful man. And though what he said seemed unbelievable to them he had a way of saying things, as if they were already done and all that was required was for the proper time to pass. “I’m going in right before dawn, when he’s sure to be asleep.”
The other kids looked up at him in awe, Quyloc included. Dirty Henry was the nightmare that had ruled their nightmares forever and Rome stood before them and calmly announced that he was going to go at night–at night!–and slay the monster. Had he said he would pin the dread god Gorim’s tail to his back they couldn’t have been more impressed. It was at that moment that Quyloc knew all he wanted in life was to be like Rome. And felt the sudden bitter bite of the knowledge that he never would be, no matter how hard he tried. The most he could ever hope for was to be close to this boy and hope some would rub off on him. Love and hate sprang forth within him at the same time.
“Who will come with me?” Rome said it casually, not the frightened child who needs others to come with him to bolster his courage, but a man turning before he goes to see if others wish to come and share in what he does.
No one spoke. There must have been two dozen of them and Jef was probably fifteen, but none of them could meet his eye. Rome merely said, “Okay,” and let it go. He didn’t harangue them or lash out at them, he just said, “Okay,” and went about getting ready for the thing he was going to do. Quyloc watched, ashamed because he could not stand up and go too, his heart and lungs so full of terror he could barely breathe, and felt another surge of the same confusing mix of love and hatred. How could Rome do this thing that none of the rest of them could even dream of? How could they stand by and let him go alone?
True to his word, Rome left an hour or so before dawn. He looked grim and resolute in the light of their fire as he stuck the knife in his belt and bid them goodbye. They followed, of course. All of them in a tight knot. They couldn’t help themselves. They were drawn after him like iron filings in the wake of a magnet.
They followed him through the maze of the Warrens until the protective walls ended and the bulk of the city wall loomed in the distance. To the east the sky was just growing light. Between the edge of the Warrens and the Pits was an open space, a stone’s throw across, a no-man’s land. Broken timbers stuck up from the earth like shards of bone, pieces of brick and broken wheels were mixed in with fluttering bits of rag. Rome paused there. Just beyond the open space lurked the wreckage that was Dirty Henry’s home. Maybe a dozen rooms, two stories. All the windows were long since broken out. The doors were gone or hung crookedly. One whole corner had simply fallen down and from the way the thing swayed in the wind that had sprung up, soon the rest would follow suit.
Rome set his shoulders, drew his knife and started across. But no further did the rest of them follow. Here they were still offered some measure of safety. Out there was none.
Quyloc watched him go, hating himself for not going too. Hating Rome for going and exposing him for the coward that he was. Afraid suddenly that Henry would get Rome and take away Quyloc’s only chance, his only hope. Rome was nearly across the open stretch when Quyloc suddenly jerked out from the safety of the pack and lurched after him.
The ground seemed to rise up and try to stop him. He tripped over unseen things in the dark pools that resisted the coming morning. Sharp points jabbed his legs and the air was thick with the foul odor of the Pits. He fell several times and came up from the last clutching a heavy chunk of wood, full of splinters. Gripping it in both hands he ran on.
When he reached the doorway to the place, Rome was nowhere to be seen. He stood there, framed by the darkness, unable to move his legs. His breathing was harsh and loud, too loud. He couldn’t go in, couldn’t go back. Even now Dirty Henry was circling around behind him, waiting to grab him from behind. Rome was already dead.
Quyloc lurched forward, moving his legs blindly. He gripped the club tightly, felt the splinters dig into his hands. His heart had stopped. He couldn’t feel his legs at all. Dirty Henry was reaching for him. He wanted to scream but there was no air in his lungs.
After an eternity he came to a doorway framed by a slight glow. He crept up and peered around the edge. Dirty Henry was in there, the shape of his body curled up in his greatcoat by the embers of a dying fire. Rome was there too, not sneaking like Quyloc, but striding across the room until he stood over the sleeping man. He could have done it the easy way. He could have stabbed Dirty Henry in the back right there while he was asleep. It was what Quyloc would have done if he could have summoned the courage. But even then Rome’s sense of fairness would not allow him to attack another unsuspecting.
Rome kicked him in the back and yelled at him to get up. With a groan Dirty Henry rolled away from him and sat up, mumbling incoherently. “I said, ‘Get up!'” Rome yelled again.
Now Dirty Henry’s mumbling was thick with threats of pain and violence. He pushed himself to his knees and slowly came to his feet. As he straightened, Rome dashed in and sank the knife in his belly, then darted back, still gripping the blade, even then his instincts telling him not to let go of his weapon.
Dirty Henry’s hand went to the hole in his gut and his face turned up disbelievingly. He screamed and staggered forward and Rome stabbed him again, a high slash across the throat. Dirty Henry fell to his knees, holding his throat, and the paralysis gripping Quyloc finally broke.
Screaming his hatred and fear he burst across the room and swung the club with all his might. He hit Dirty Henry square on the side of the head and dropped him like a stone.
Quyloc stood over the fallen man. Dirty Henry didn’t even move. Something in the way he lay there said his neck was broken. Rome looked at Quyloc, still calm, and said merely, “I knew you would come, Quyloc. I knew I could count on you to watch my back.” And stuck out his hand.
Numbly, Quyloc stared at him, then slowly extended his own to grip it. Rome let go and bent over Henry, rolling his head back. “He’s dead, all right. He won’t trouble us anymore.”
And Quyloc almost told him, right then and there. Almost blurted out his shame and fear, how Henry had grabbed him and all he’d done was piss himself. But if he did he knew he’d lose Rome forever. Rome would turn away in disgust and there would be nothing left for him. So he kept his mouth shut and dropped his club and followed Rome back out into the dawn.
Rome was a hero after that. Surprisingly to Quyloc, he was too. Even more surprising was that Rome let him share in the glory, not once telling the other kids that after all, he alone had killed Dirty Henry, and all Quyloc had done was hit him with a stick when he was nearly dead anyway. From then on Quyloc stuck close to Rome, always right behind him, and for his part, Rome began to listen to him, to ask him for advice on things. Thus was a friendship born.
PS I am going camping for 10 days and won’t be back until Mother’s Day. See you all then. Peace, Eric