This is the first piece in the portfolio I created for the Creative Writing Seminar I am taking next year. Peganina is still in the works as a novel, this is just the first chapter. Hope you enjoy!
Note: The pictures are something I used as inspiration for when I got stuck writing. I don’t remember where I got them, though. They are not my own.
Peganina only wants to survive. After escaping from a husband twice her age, she finds herself alone in a dangerous world full of monsters, bandits, and thieves. While on the run from her husband, she gets captured by slave traders and meets a fellow soon-to-be slave, Flick. He orchestrates an escape from the slavers, and the unlikely pair find themselves banding together to survive. Through shipwreck, murder attempts, and intrigue, Peg and Flick learn to trust each other. An outlaw whose only goal is to bring down the gangs and headhunters that dog her every move, Peg must learn what true strength is – before things boil over into a full-blown war.
The noon sun was merciless, beating down on the dusty streets of Agnitum until the entire city was fit to boil. Peganina had moved her work mending nets inside her father’s shop to hide from the sun’s glare, but even indoors the heat was nearly unbearable. And the stench from the harbour! Sour fish mixed with the refuse from the city’s plumbing – a pungent concoction that sat thick in the air, unmoved by the half-hearted breeze. She hadn’t seen a summer this hot since the plague nearly ten years ago.
Peg tried not to worry about another plague sweeping through, claiming lives already weakened by heat and hunger. Not that she had much family left to worry about. The last plague had taken her mother, two sisters, and younger brother. The army had taken her older brother, and as for her father, he didn’t do much these days but drink.
Though the business was technically owned by her father, Peg was the family breadwinner. Net making. Net mending. Keeping track of the ledgers. By this point, they were all tasks she could do in her sleep. Keeping in clients’ good graces, however, was a little more difficult. Especially these past few months. Her father’s drinking had led him to gambling, and men from the Razors, one of the most powerful gangs in Agnitum, had started lurking around the shop.
A shout from outside made Peg jump, and she jabbed her hand accidentally with the mending dowel. The next moment it was clutched in her fist like a weapon as she slowly lowered the net she had been working on to the floor, head cocked for any more sounds from outside, eyes darting from the open door to the back window.
There was a minute of relative quiet – just the usual clamour of the market one street over, the creaking of ships in the docks, and underneath it all the distant crash of the ocean on the breakwater. Peg relaxed, chiding herself for being so paranoid, and picked up her net again, absently sucking a little blood from the finger she had pricked with her dowel. The next moment there was a sound like breaking glass, and her father fell through the doorway.
“Father!” she cried, leaping up. There was blood all down his shirt and on his face. He pushed her away when she reached for him, and he fell to the floor, his head cracking loudly on the dirty stone. “Father, what happened?” she bent down to help him, years of hurt and care pressing in on her chest. He wouldn’t meet her eyes, just kept trying to push her away.
Four very large men stepped into the shop just then, and Peg instinctively reached for her dowel. But it was on the floor across the room where she’d dropped it when running to help her father.
“What do you want?” she barked, standing protectively over her father and hoping that she wasn’t visibly shaking with fear.
“We’re collecting on this scumbag’s debt,” the largest of the four said. He spit on the doorpost and stepped further into the shop. All four men had the distinctive tattoos of the Razors. They had come at last.
“How much does he owe?” Fear pounded in Peg’s ears as she did a quick mental tally of all the money her father had. Just enough to get them through to the end of the month, assuming she could keep him from drinking it all away. And her emergency fund. She always kept three coppers stitched into her hem – just enough to buy one more loaf of bread.
“Money is a man’s business, girl. But I will tell you he’s in deeper than he can pay.”
Peg backed into the wall, and the men didn’t stop advancing. She made a quick dart for her dowel, but strong arms grabbed her and pulled her back. She screamed and tried to kick the man holding her, but he just kept pulling her towards the door.
“We can pay, we can pay, please!” They were laughing at her struggle, and as she was pulled out the door she saw her father, battered and bloody, push himself to a sitting position. She betrayed herself, screaming for him. Screaming at him to help her as she was dragged outside.
She was shoved into a solid wall of muscle. A man with greying hair and military tattoos. “Hush now, wife,” he said, “I’m going to take very good care of you.”
He pinned her to his side with one arm, waving a paper in front of her face. A marriage certificate. Peg fought him tooth and nail, throwing everything she could at him, trying to remember what her mother had told her to do if she ever got attacked. But it was no use. The man was twice her height and a trained soldier. He had her pinned to the ground with her arm twisted painfully behind her back in two seconds. He smacked her head and her face hit gravel, splitting her forehead open.
“None of that now, eh?” her new husband growled in her ear. “We don’t want to cause a scene.”
Blood from her forehead dripped into her eyes and down her face as she was pulled back up. Her husband kept a firm grip on her as he tossed a bag of coins to one of the Razors.
“Debt paid, Lucas,” the Razor said, kicking her father one more time. Then he motioned to his fellows and they trouped away, back toward the harbour and the heart of Razor territory. Peg was pulled in the opposite direction, towards a waiting wagon. She caught one last look at her father as she was unceremoniously shoved inside. The hateful shell of a man, willing to sell his only daughter to pay for his mistakes. Then the wagon pulled away and she lost sight of the only home she had ever known.
Peg knew there was no point in trying to run away. Not at the moment, anyways. Her new husband’s servant sat at the back of the wagon, hand resting on the pommel of his sword, and her husband sat up front with the driver, also armed, hemming her in. She silently wiped away a few tears that had leaked out, and then felt the damage on her forehead. There was a chunk of gravel stuck in the cut. She grit her teeth against the sharp stinging pain as she carefully picked it out and then pressed the heel of her hand against it.
The servant was watching her. She glared back, pushing the anger and shame of being married off like livestock that can be bought and sold deep into her heart, right beside that special spot she held for her father. He would be dead within a month without her. Starve to death, probably, unless the Razors killed him first. She wished that she didn’t care.
The wagon jerked across a rutted intersection, and she involuntarily gasped in pain as her hand shifted on her head. There was a tearing noise from the back of the wagon, and a moment later the armed servant tapped her on the shoulder, holding out a scrap of rough cloth torn from the hem of his shirt.
“Thanks,” Peg said. She pressed the cloth to her bleeding forehead. The servant smiled at her, and she took a chance. “Where are you taking me?” she asked.
“My master Mako has a farm out in the northern part of the island -“
“Quiet back there!” Mako barked. The servant visibly jumped and shuffled back to his seat in the wagon’s rear. The rest of the trip to the city gates was passed in silence.
The road was hot, and travel was unfamiliar to Peg. She had never been outside the city gates before, and the wide rolling hills seemed empty without buildings crawling up their sides and crowding their tops. Their wagon joined a small caravan travelling out of the city, and Peg spent two miserable days finding out just what kind of man her husband was.
Mako claimed he was an old friend of Peg’s father, and about the same age, too – almost forty. He had served a long time in the army, mostly on the Northern front, keeping the Giants at bay. The army had repaid him for his service with a large plot of land on the northern coast of Acies Island, and now that he was finished cutting down Giants, he wanted to settle down and start a family, and for that he had needed a wife. He had heard that his old friend Lukas was in trouble with the Razors, and that Lukas had a marriageable daughter whose dowry could pay off his debts. Mako said that Peg should be grateful to him for what he had done – that he’d done Peg a great favour by marrying her.
She put on a smile to spare her forehead any more trauma, but just under that smile Peg hated him. She hated everything about him, from the constant sour odour that surrounded him like a cloud, to the way he would recline easily by the fire and expect her to hand feed him his dinner with no regard for how hungry or tired she might be. The thought of being near him for the rest of her life made her want to throw up. She knew she needed to find some way to escape, to run away, and with every passing mile her urgency increased. All she needed was a golden opportunity.
Such an opportunity came on the third night of travel, though not in the way she had hoped. The caravan had halted for the night on a lonely stretch of road between two low hills. Father in the distance, about two miles away, the rolling farmland gave way to steeper, more forested slopes. Supper had been cooked and eaten, the dishes washed, watchfires set, and the last dregs of light were fading from the sky as Peg prepared Mako’s bed in the wagon. There was a sudden cry from farther up the line, the scream of a horse, and then the distinctive ring of a sword being drawn. Peg froze, heart pounding.
“Bandits!” someone shouted. Panic spread as black-masked figures emerged from the darkness, blades glinting in the fire light. Peg saw Mako leap from his place by the fire, bellowing as he drew his sword before she ducked down and hugged the floor of the wagon, wriggling towards where she had stowed the cooking supplies, reaching for the knife. Someone vaulted into the wagon, nearly landing on top of her. She screamed as he hauled her up by her hair. Mako roared and leapt for her, but was cut off by three of the bandits.
“Stop!” shouted the bandit nearly tearing out her hair. Peg felt the cold sting of a blade on her throat and held very still. Mako took a half a step back.
“Release my wife!”
Peg’s captor laughed. “Your wife! This young flower? You could be her father.” He let go of Peg’s hair and wrapped an arm around her ribs, squeezing her against his side. His sharp hipbone dug into her stomach, and her face was squashed into his armpit. It was not a good smell.
“Release her!” Mako bellowed, brandishing his sword. He opened his mouth to shout something else, but it was drowned out by an earthshaking roar. Everyone froze, heads slowly turning to the darkness beyond the caravan as another roar broke through the night. The bandit holding her loosened his grip and Peg dove away from him, over the edge of the wagon. She landed hard on the ground, and through the wheels of the wagon she saw emerge into the firelight the largest animal she had ever seen.
It was like a lion, but twice the size, with a black serpentine tail, and what looked like the horns of a goat protruding from its tangled mane. When it opened its mouth to roar again, its maw glowed white-hot like a blacksmith’s furnace. A stunned silence lasted only a moment before the cry went up “Chimera!” and every armed man, caravaner and bandit alike, turned their blades on the beast.
Peg only paused a heartbeat before making her choice. She crept back into the wagon, grabbed the knife she had tried to reach only minutes before, shoved a hunk of travel biscuit and a water-skin down the front of her dress, and then slipped off into the darkness. She only looked back once, and she regretted it. Half the caravan was on fire, the Chimera was still up and roaring, and several figures were splayed on the ground. She tried to block out the screaming as she sprinted up the road as fast as her legs could take her, making for the forest.
It took nearly an hour to reach the eaves of the forest. She collapsed against a thick tree that stood hunched at the bottom of a hollow a few meters off the road. It was very dark under the trees, and she didn’t fancy getting lost and eaten by some creature. Once she had caught her breath, she took stock of her situation.
She was very thirsty, had nothing on her but a kitchen knife, water, and a bit of biscuit, and was a three day journey away from the city where she had spent her entire life. Even if she survived her immediate predicament and made it back to civilization, what would she do? She had no one, and she had nowhere to go. The question circled like a vulture in her head while she drank her water-skin dry and hunkered down for a long, sleepless night.