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art by ShotHot Design

Cloaks and Gloves

Patricia Russo's stories has been published at Fantasy and Chizine, and in many other zines and anthologies, including Corpse Blossoms, The Best of Not One of Us, and The Best of Talebones.
As far as cloaks went, Rall had to admit that Verenisse's were good ones. She had fooled him more than once, and he expected her to walk abroad under guises. One time she'd crept up to him as a barely adolescent boy, all shaggy dark hair and bright curious eyes, and he'd talked with the child for half an hour before realizing that it was her. Verenisse had the talent of bending her voice and her words and her manner to the role she took on. Cloaks tricked the eyes, but there was more to concealment than what people could see or could not see.
And that was the problem right there in a spoonful of words: a cloak did nothing to change a user's smell, or taste. Neither did practice in altering one's voice or stance. She was human, and anything that was not human would be able to smell that, and the Rat Folk in particular had very keen noses. "Don't go," he said. "Please. I'm afraid."
"I said I would go, and I will go," she said. "Anyway, you're always afraid."
"And you're not afraid enough."
She laughed. "Maybe not. But I'm not going anywhere near the Rat Folks' warrens. You don't have to worry about that. I'm only going to see the glove maker and do a spot of trading. I'll be there and back by tonight."
"The Rat Folks are everywhere," Rall said. They were. They traveled underground and above it and overhead. They could climb as well as dig. They watched humans from the roofs, and lay in ambush in broken buildings. "I can't protect you. I can't--" He spread his hands, his naked hands, then angrily, disgusted at himself, closed them tight.
Everybody knew him in the settlement; all came to him for charms against the Rat Folk. But the magic lasted only as long as the small bodies did, a week at most even in wintertime, before the decay eroded the power of the spell and the charms became merely symbols. He guaranteed his work, but was always careful to remind his customers that their strength waned as decomposition waxed.
They were in Rall's room, and he sat within a circle of his own charms. The freshest were five days old. He burned sweetroot in the brazier in the corner to mask the odor, but that was mostly for his customers. He'd long ago become accustomed to the smells of his work.
He made his charms with rats. There were plenty of them in the settlement, in every settlement. They were not very difficult to catch. They were smart, as far as scavengers went, but they were not Folk. They were merely animals. He trapped them, others trapped them and brought them to him, to trade, or as part of their fee for charms, or simply to maintain a friendly connection with him. He took each rat and slit its throat, cut out its eyes, bound its forelegs together, bound its back legs together, then laid it on its back and opened its belly. Then he said the words that the Rat Folk could hear a week after they had been spoken. As like is to like, as small is to large. The Rat Folk stayed away from a dwelling protected by Rall's charms.
"I can protect myself," Verenisse said. "I promised you I'd go to the glove maker. Try to be calm."
"I'm fine."
"You're shaking," she said.
She was standing; she never sat when she came to his room. That time when she was cloaked as a boy, she'd squatted next to him in his spot at the market, at first shyly, and then when he'd smiled, began questioning him about the work of charming with a child's eagerness. That was why it had taken him so long to recognize her. He'd tried not to be angry; he imagined she did such things to challenge herself, to keep her skills sharp.
Yes, he was shaking. He was angry that he was shaking, and angry that she had said it. "And you're reckless," he shot back. "That cloak? Why that one? A full day's travel, across the city and back, like that? You should go as a man, a tall man, a big man with scars on his hands and dead eyes."
Verenisse laughed. "And that would keep me safe?"
"Not from the Rat Folks, no. But from other people."
"You're wrong. A big man with a mean look? That would only draw attention."
"You use that cloak too much. You know it's risky. If you put on the same one too often, keep it on too long, you could get stuck like that."
"Stop it," Verenisse said. "I said I would get you a new pair of gloves. I keep my promises."
"I didn't ask you," he muttered.
She stood in his room, in the cloak she had been using more and more frequently lately, that of an old woman, a terribly old woman with a shaven head and stooped shoulders, her spindly limbs marked by dark lesions, her clothing layers of rags. Rall couldn't understand why she liked this guise so much. It frightened him to think of her walking abroad like that, prey to any child with a length of pipe or half a brick stuffed into an old sock.
"Tell me," she said, in her own voice, not the old woman's hoarse whisper, "without new gloves, can you do this?" She flicked a hand at the circle of charms, the dead, blinded, bound rats.
"No." Not with his naked hands, no, never.
"So, then. Can you make the gloves you need? Can you trade for them?"
"You know what sort of gloves they have to be."
"Yes. And I know where to get a new pair."
"The Rat Folk stole mine. They know what I've been doing. They'll smell me on you, Verenisse."
"You don't know who stole your gloves. If I were to guess, I'd suspect that charm caster in Underpass Settlement. You are competition."
Rall shook his head in despair. "It was the Rat Folk. I know it."
"Then why didn't they kill you?"
"Because of these."
Verenisse said nothing. Rall stared at his circle of rotting charms. Soon there would be no power left in them at all, and the Rat Folk would come for him, tear out his throat, disembowel him, eat his eyes. That was what they did. That was what the Rat Folk did to the unprotected. She wouldn't even take a charm with her, and he'd offered her his best one, the one with the most strength left. She was going to walk across the city in her old woman's cloak, with nothing to keep her safe from either people or Rat Folk.
He didn't want her to get hurt. He didn't want her to die. She was the only person in the settlement who came and talked to him of ordinary things, who did not visit only to trade or place an order or complain that his warding charms were too expensive. She teased him, and he scolded her, and they disagreed about many things, but they were friends.
"Will you please try not to be so afraid? I'll be back by nightfall."
You won't, Rall thought. You'll be killed and I'll be alone, and the Rat Folk will come, and end me, too. He lowered his head, but she must have seen his expression, because she started to laugh again. She turned the laugh into a hoarse wheeze, and in the manner of a feeble, terribly old woman, moved slowly out of the room and into the day.
The glove maker was not a glove maker. They both knew that. The glove maker made many things; most of the things she made frightened Rall. But then most things in the world frightened Rall.
Verenisse could understand fear. Fear was necessary. Fear was useful. A person should be scared of dog packs, for instance. A person should be scared of climbing over unstable rubble, or scavenging in a structure that was already three-quarters collapsed. A person should be scared of drunken men, especially in pairs or groups, and a person should be scared of getting between a grannie and the object of that grannie's wrath. That kind of fear helped keep folks from dying young.
Lots of people were afraid of the Rat Folk, and Verenisse could understand that, too. They weren't very pleasant to look at, with their pointed faces and rodent-like teeth and thick gray hair, almost like fur, over most of their bodies. Their ears were mobile, constantly twitching, and their eyes were black and shiny. They walked on two legs, most of the time, and none of them were very tall, in human terms. When Verenisse was young, a grannie in her neighborhood had told her that the Rat Folk's size made people even more frightened of them. They had the height of children, but the faces of animals, the teeth and claws of animals, and there was nothing more frightening than the thought of your own children leaping on you and tearing your throat out. "And they are our children, never doubt that," the grannie had said. "They did not grow from rats. Only the ignorant believe that, but then the world is full of ignorance. They came from us." This was a grannie who had many books, and Verenisse visited her often.
"But they attack us," she pointed out.
"We attacked them first. When they first came into the world, we hunted them, tried to kill them all. Of course they hate us, and fear us."
"They're afraid of us?"
"Naturally. They make magic against us, didn't you know that?" And the grannie smiled, as if she did not believe in magic, even though she wore a blue string around her neck to ward off the summer flu, and a charm against shadow-stealers hung above the entrance of her dwelling.
Verenisse walked across the city in her old woman's cloak, and wondered at the grannie she used to know. Guising magic was real enough; expensive enough, too, for the best workings. Perhaps the grannie had thought it was funny that people and Rat Folk worked magic against each other. That grannie had had an odd sense of humor; Verenisse remembered how she used to laugh when the clouds clotted in the sky and the rain that came from them was yellow and smelled of burned plastic.
The old woman guise was the best for a long journey. No one looked at her twice; no one cared enough to either help or hinder. To make the guise believable, she had to walk slowly, and stop frequently, and that lengthened her journey, but then that gave her time to look around, to observe, to note the new, to mark the interesting for later. Verenisse liked to learn about things, and people. People were interesting. She liked to figure out people.
She'd understood Rall long ago. He was afraid, and he would always be afraid. The charms he made might have power in them--certainly he had enough regular customers who believed so--but there was no need to use dead rats as their containers. And there was no need for hero-gloves, except that Rall was so afraid of rats that he couldn't bring himself to touch them with his bare hands, or with any sort of glove made of skin, since skin had pores, and pores were openings, and anything might slip through an opening. And skin, however tough and well-tanned, could tear, could be pierced by metal or a sharp fragment of bone.
She went to talk to him sometimes, because he was alone, and because he had grown up in a different settlement than she had, and sometimes he told stories that she had not heard before. Often he scolded her for what he took as recklessness, disregard for her own safety, but she knew he did so out of worry for her. There was no one left in the world who worried about her; she had had two brothers but they had died in childhood, and she rarely visited the neighborhood where she'd grown up. The people there were all new to her. Even if she went unguised, no one greeted her. She was alone as well, but the difference between her and Rall was that she didn't mind it very much. People thought there was safety in groups, safety in families, safety in companionship, but Verenisse felt safer on her own.
Despite what Rall thought, she did think about safety. Of course she wanted to be safe. She acquired the best cloaks in the city, and kept them all in good order. She avoided the heavily barricaded settlements, and kept a sharp eye out for dogs. Kept a sharp eye out for people, too, as people were the most dangerous thing in the world. Always had been, always would be.
Rat Folk didn't scare her. They had when she'd been a child, but that had been because of the tales people told. The raids, the killings, the armies of them rushing down on a settlement to tear and rend with their nails and teeth. But every time she'd seen a clutch of them--and they always walked abroad in fours or eights--they'd run from her, disappearing into the ruins, heading for cellars and tunnels, for they traveled easily underground, or sometimes scrambling up to the top of the highest structure in sight. They used all four limbs, then, and climbed with the alacrity of true rats.
Scouting parties, people said. Searching out our weaknesses, in order to prepare a great assault, to slaughter us all, as they did in the county to the north.
Perhaps, Verenisse thought. Anything was possible. There were many tales about the county to the north, and the monsters that walked there. But she had never met anyone who had crossed the border and returned to tell what he or she had seen. One day, she might go look for herself.
Today, though, she was going to the glove maker, who did make gloves, but made many other things as well.
Hero maker, they called her. Those who called her anything. She kept her true name private. The people who went to her did so because they wished to be great. They wished to be great because they feared they were small. So much fear, driving people, Verenisse thought. The glove maker sold weapons, but the majority of her trade was in instruction and direction: To be a hero, do this. To be a hero, go there. To be a hero, stand guard at the border and slay the first monster that approaches. To be a hero, seek the descendant of the last Keeper of the Fountain, the great-great-great-grandchild of the baby stolen from us by our enemies across the river, and restore her or him to us. Never mind that such a person might not exist, that the stolen baby might have died, or have had no issue, or that her issue might have had no issue. It was a popular quest.
Another way to die young, Verenisse thought. Trying to make yourself great. Well. Everyone to his or her own path. Everyone to his or her own fears. She had no love for the glove maker, but everybody had to make a living.
Verenisse walked, and looked, and noted. No one paid any attention to her. The air was tolerable, the clouds only slightly tinged with yellow. Rall and his worries, Rall and his fears. Most of the time, what people feared did not come to pass.
Less than an hour from the glove maker's dwelling. Verenisse found her way blocked by a band of Breakers, twenty at least, lounging across the clear path, laughing loudly at nothing. She stopped, and leaned against the crumbling wall of what once had been some place of business--none of the structures, standing or fallen, in this part of the city looked like ones constructed as dwellings, all of them too big, too tall, too angular, too open--and let her lean slide into a slow crouch. She could backtrack, go around by the western route, but that way was more hilly and more populated. A couple of settlements had set up toll roads. She wondered if these Breakers had heard of that and decided to exact fees from travelers also. Pay us or clamber through the rubble. Pay us or go around. Pay us, or we'll have some fun with you. Perhaps the fun would be the fee, in any case.
No, Breakers hadn't the mind for that sort of thing, Verenisse thought. They were just here to block the path today, kick down some of the walls still standing, drink, if they had anything to drink, burn something if they could, frighten the dwellers, who all seem to have decided that today was a fine day to remain indoors, and fight among themselves. Tomorrow, they'd move on to do the same somewhere else.
They were only children. Kiddies with nothing to do, no olders or elders or grannies to set them lessons or give them chores or keep them in order. They grouped together like this because they thought it was safer than being alone. They broke things because bored kiddies broke things. And they scared others so that others would walk clear of them.
There was nothing so frightening as your own children leaping on you and tearing out your throat.
If she retreated, took the western way, she would lose at least two hours. She would have to find accommodation overnight, and return in the morning. She'd told Rall she'd be back by nightfall. He would be waiting, worrying, frightening himself with thoughts of every likely or unlikely thing that might have happened to her. I'll be back by night, she'd promised. I wish you'd stop being so afraid, she'd said.
The old woman's guise she wore would not make her invisible to Breakers, but then none of the others she owned would have served any better. The bright-eyed boy, they would have tried to capture. The young pregnant woman? In a civilized settlement, among civilized people, such a guise invited smiles; people called out "Good luck!" and offered her cups of water. That would not happen here.
So many of them.
She knew they had seen her. She had crouched strategically, into a pool of shadow, but she had noticed glances cast in her direction.
There was still time to retreat. None of the Breakers had started to move toward her. But it only took one to begin it. Then the rest would follow, the way a dog pack chased together after prey.
Verenisse was not as unprotected as Rall had imagined. Under her cloak she still had her own body, and that body was strong. She could not fight twenty, but she could run. If she was caught she carried two knives. But some of the Breakers would have knives as well, and all of them would have something, if only an improvised club.
She was afraid. She admitted this to herself, for to lie to yourself was the greatest foolishness.
Slowly, Verenisse stood up, using the wall as a support, maintaining her guise of a terribly old woman. Heads turned toward her. Breakers called to each other, and a wave of laughter rose.
She walked toward them, slowly, unsteadily, as a terribly old woman would walk. "Grandchildren," she said, in her hoarse voice. "I hope you have eaten today."
"Maybe we'll eat you," a girl called.
"Nah, no meat on that."
"Might be marrow in the bones."
"Grandchildren," she said. "If I had a table, I would spread it for you."
"And why would you do that?" a boy shouted. They were all grinning now, all standing, all facing her.
Verenisse kept tottering toward them. They didn't move. "The young should be fed. I would feed you if I could."
"We're not giving you anything."
"That's not what she's saying," one of the boys said. Verenisse was careful not to look at him.
"She's useless," one of the girls said. "Talking kak."
"I don't want anything," Verenisse said. "I have nothing to want."
"A kick in the head is what you want."
Children. Only children. Twenty of them, with frozen hearts. She kept walking.
"Wait," said a boy, perhaps the boy who'd said, that's not what she's saying.
"We can play with her," a girl said.
"Yah, for a minute. She's dead already. Come on, this is boring."
Verenisse kept walking. She was past the first three or four now; they had not reached out to stop her. "Grandchildren," she said. "When I return, I will bring you a gift."
They laughed then, all of them, short, sharp laughs, like dogs' barks.
"We don't want anything," a boy, definitely a different boy, said. "We have everything we need. Don't we, you fuckers?"
"Yah!" the Breakers shouted.
"Then I give you my good wishes," Verenisse said. She kept walking.
"We don't want that, either."
"You have them, in any case." By this time, even as slowly as she had to move, she was midway down the path.
"Where are you going?" a boy asked.
"I'm looking for a pair of gloves," she answered, and that struck them as funny, as so funny that the boys slapped each other and the girls hooted.
"Happy traveling, grannie," a boy said, when he finally stopped laughing.
"There are gloves all over the place, lying around, just over that barricade, you know."
She kept walking.
"Maybe you'll find a hat, too."
"And some socks. Don't you need some socks, grannie?"
"She looks like she needs socks."
"She looks like she needs a shroud."
"Kak-brain."
"Walking corpse."
And she was past them, and down the slope of the path, and they did not follow, did not chase after her. A few kept shouting until she was out of sight.
The glove maker was not pleased.
"My goods are for heroes. They are not meant for scrabblers in muck and blood, for feeble charmers who will never accomplish any deed more powerful than knotting a string."
"Everybody has to make a living," Verenisse said. She used her own voice; she stood in her own stance. The glove maker could see through the cloak, anyway. The woman's eyes were as blue as poison.
"I care only for the worthy."
"But you have to live, too, don't you?" From the pouch she had secured under her true clothes, Verenisse brought forth her trade goods: eight twists of pain-weed, impossible to grow in the city. The plant came from far to the south, over land and by water. She set them on the counter behind which the glove maker sat. "You know what you could get for these." What she had laid out was enough to buy a spouse, or a slave.
The glove maker's eyes did not blink. "These are not true product."
"They are. You may test one. You may test them all."
"How did you acquire such wealth?" The glove maker's eyes burned.
"I stole them."
"Heroes may steal, if their goal is worthy."
Verenisse let that pass. This one feared that if heroes did not exist, then the world would end. She could smell that fear, underneath the layers of scorn and pride.
Everyone to his or her own fears.
The glove maker's hands were bare. There were no charms about her dwelling, or on her person, that Verenisse could see. The dwelling was full of weapons, daggers and swords, crossbows, armor--a hoard of metal. The glove maker was wealthy herself, but the more wealth one had, the more one tended to desire. Greed motivated the rich even more than the poor.
"Four twists for the hero-gloves, and four for that corselet there, the one charmed against dogs."
"You are presumptuous."
"I am overpaying, and we both know it."
"I could kill you and take your twists of medicine. No one would come looking for you, if the greatest quest you can manage is for the sake of a rat binder. You are no significant person."
"And here I always heard that heroes were meant to be honorable."
"I am not a hero," the glove maker said. "I am a hero maker."
"I understand. You make them because you cannot be one yourself." Those words would anger the woman, Verenisse knew, and part of her was glad. She had had enough fear for one day. And by the way the glove maker was eyeing the pain-weed, Verenisse knew that she had already gained half of what she had asked for.
There was no one else in the dwelling. No guards, no servants, though servants she probably had, off on errands, if not concealed in a back room, holding their breaths and hoping they would not be summoned out. The Hero-maker relied on her reputation to protect her.
"You have no idea what I can do."
"I can say the same to you." I can pass through twenty Breakers with kindness and good wishes, Verenisse thought. That was a power she hadn't known she possessed, until that day.
"The gloves. These." The woman took a pair from a shelf under the counter. "Good quality. Long-lasting."
Good quality, but not the best. They would be enough to satisfy Rall, however.
"And the corselet."
The glove maker shook her head. "That item is pledged to another."
That was likely a lie. Verenisse tilted her head. "Offer me a different item, then."
"This belt." She pointed to it, hanging from a hook in the wall. "The wearer gains twice his natural strength."
"No use to me."
"You could trade it."
"Those candles," Verenisse said. "Those candles, of silver wax, the light of which reveals monsters."
"Those are for children," the glove maker said. "Children and those with the fears of children. I keep them in stock merely for amusement."
"Ten of them," Verenisse said.
"You walk abroad cloaked as a woman on the edge of her grave. Can it be that you are afraid of the dark?"
"What I fear is my business. Our business is this trade."
"This is not how to make a hero."
"But I have not come here to make a hero."
"Obviously." The woman gazed long at the medicine, then gave a little nod. "Presumptuous, insolent, and bold. Take the gloves. Take the candles. And do not return."
Verenisse did not make it back to Rall's dwelling by nightfall. She skirted the clear path where the Breakers had been, even though they might have already moved on. It was better to be prudent, and she thought to walk abroad in the dark for an hour--she moved faster now, not keeping to the gait that matched her guise--preferable to encountering the children again. There were dogs, of course, to watch out for, and men who walked abroad at night to watch out for, and rats--the ordinary type of rat--to be wary of. And the rubble that had not been there the last time she had taken the western path to the end of the city, and the torches that marked the toll roads. She walked with care, but she walked swiftly.
Rall was sitting in the dark, inside his circle of rotting charms. He cried out when she entered.
"It's all right," she said. "It's me. Have you no fire?"
"Verenisse?"
He was trembling; she could tell even in the dark. "It's all right," she said again. "Why did you let your fire go out?"
"I couldn't leave the circle."
Of course not. "Wait," she said, and went next door, where the dwellers were not particularly friendly but rather easy to intimidate, especially when confronted by a terribly old woman with a very erect stance, fast hands, and a loud voice. She returned with a pair of embers in a chipped clay cup.
"Verenisse?"
"Yes. It's me. I told you I'd be back."
She knelt, because it was necessary, and lit one of the silver candles. She set it on the floor, and waited for Rall to take a good look at it. "Do you know what this is?"
"Yes," he said. "It shows monsters."
"Right. So, do you see any monsters?"
He took his time, but at last answered, "No."
"Light your fire." She handed him the cup with the embers. For a moment she thought that even with the candle to reassure him, Rall would be too fearful to leave his circle, but after a moment, he stood and stepped out of it, went to the brazier in the corner, and busied himself with twigs and dried sweetroot.
Before he turned around, she had laid the pair of hero-gloves on the floor, next to the silver candle.
"You--" Rall's voice died.
"I said I would. Take them, they're yours. Good quality, long-lasting."
"You've saved my life."
"No."
"You're a hero."
"No," Verenisse said. "Not at all. Not ever."
Rall picked up the gloves. Head bent, he stroked them. She thought he might start to cry.
"Stop it," she said. "There's nothing to be afraid of, all right?"
"There are a thousand million things to be afraid of."
"Fine. That's true. But there's nothing to be afraid of right now, yes?"
"I suppose," he whispered. "I can't ever repay you."
"Certainly you can. You can sit down here with me, and we'll have something to eat, and you can tell me a story about your old neighborhood."
"Rats," he said. "I need fresh rats. I need to make new charms."
"Tomorrow."
"But I--"
"Tomorrow. Tonight, Rall, don't be afraid. You know I'm not walking abroad in the dark again. So I'll be staying with you, if you don't mind."
"Of course I don't mind."
She smiled. "And I want some dinner, and I want some chat, if that's all right with you."
He looked up then. "Will you take off your cloak?"
"I can do that," she said. "Will you put down your fear, until morning?"
"I can try," he said. "Aren't you ever afraid?"
"Every day," she said, taking off her cloak, folding it carefully, not watching Rall as her true appearance became perceivable. He'd seen it before, but sometimes a small flash of surprise still came into his eyes. She preferred not to see it. "I try not to let it rule me. So, what have you got to eat?"
"For you, a feast." He was smiling now, any flicker of renewed surprise at her true face and body hidden; she could see the tension in him, the urge to get to work on his charms, but he was trying to keep that hidden as well, and she was grateful for that. He put the hero-gloves down on a low table, and went to the pantry.
Verenisse watched the flame of the silver candle. It burned steady and white. No danger. No peril. No threat. Not from monsters, anyway.
Today, she thought, has been a good day. And if tomorrow is not, then tomorrow would be soon enough to face that.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 27th, 2011

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