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Stronghold – by Stephanie
“Looky what I’ve found, a lil juicy tidbit for me afternoon snack.”
The leering whisper woke Dalia just before a rough hand grabbed her arm and yanked her from her hiding place under the docks. Her nightmares transformed into her worse fear, a scenario that she had played out in her thoughts numerous times, Dalia immediately went limp and stilled her breathing.
She slumped into her capture’s sweaty chest, playing dead in hopes that he would lose interest and leave her corpse as a feast for the sea birds. Her plan worked because the dockworker cursed in fear, let go of Dalia and backed away.
She allowed gravity to slump her petite body to the rocks and tried not to react to the pain when her head bounced into a stone. The man continued to cuss and managed the courage to nudge her a few times with his boot before scrambling back up the rocks to the docks above.
After a few minutes, Dalia opened her eyes and gasped when she was confronted by a large crab claw just inches from her face. She quietly brushed aside the scavenger and several of its friends as she sat up gingerly holding the lump on her forehead.
“That’ll teach you to sleep during the day, Dal,” she chastised herself as she climbed along the rocks under the miles of wharves in South Kenton.
The city of Kenton was split into two sections that were divided by the Glacier River and connected by a huge bridge where it poured into the great ocean. The old city on the southern shore catered to and housed the less reputable part of the Kenton population. Dalia, a South town girl, never wanted to live up to the notoriety of her home. Her mother, a long time cook for one of the city councilman, raised Dalia to be honest despite their circumstances. However, after her mother’s untimely death and the addition of the bridge fees, Dalia gave up all pretenses of being honest in order to survive.
Orphaned when her mother died four years previously, Dalia was a now veteran homeless wharf waif. Being an orphan was a hopeless lonely life and one that all too often occurred in the poor section of Kenton. Most children did not last longer than a month before they were starved, murdered, enslaved by the pirates or any other number of unsavory endings.
In her four years on the streets, Dalia experienced any number of run-ins and close calls with the distasteful population, but none as close as being discovered asleep by groping hands. She knew better than to try and sleep during the day but with authorities cleaning the homeless off of the streets to prepare for a visit from the Prophetess, all of her usual sleeping spots were no longer safe and she was on the run constantly.
It was sheer desperation that drove her to the wharves to sleep when it was usually the last place anyone would think to lose consciousness. With the authorities scouring the usual hiding places, the wharves in the daytime seemed safer than anywhere else.
As Dalia scrambled up the embankment to find another nook to hide, there were shouts to her right. She saw a group Kenton peacekeepers climbing down from the boardwalk in her direction. Her groper must have reported a dead body.
Fear shot through Dalia and she quickly searched for a retreat before she was cornered. Calculating her chances, she spotted a small exit up top through the base of a post hole. With the well trained skill of despair, she just barely managed to shimmy up the post and through the opening before she was clutched by the merciless hands of her pursuers.
Terrified by the shouts from the men below who called attention to her sudden arrival on the docks, Dalia pulled her dingy cap low over her brow and dodged behind a stack of crates waiting to be carried aboard ship. She knew that the longer she stayed in one place the quicker she would be discovered and arrested, so she slipped past the crates and down the nearest alley before climbing a drainpipe up to a nearby roof.
“Just keep moving, Dal,” she whispered to her sleep deprived arms and legs as she scampered over the soggy warehouse rooftop hoping that it could carry the weight of her small frame.
“She’s on the roof,” one of peacekeepers yelled and she glanced down to see the group of men pointing up in her direction.
Her exhausted body shouted for her to quit moving as she ran across the weather worn shingles toward the promised rooftop beyond. Days without sleep or food pulled at her light footfalls as she skimmed to the edge and looked for the best place to jump.
She set her feet to jump and the roof beneath her complained by creaking and snapping. Rusted nails gave way to her added weight and the shingles beneath her feet began to slide. Dalia made a valiant dodge to the next roof only to find that the shingles on her new foothold were in even worse shape. She surfed the sliding rooftop down a few feet before she managed to find sure footing and skipped across the moaning roof to the top of a large warehouse beyond.
The falling shingles gave notice to her pursuers below and they shouted directions around the warehouses from the alley. Dalia knew that if she just got beyond the alehouse there were miles of stacked shacks and shanties where she could evade the peacekeepers.
She danced to the edge of the warehouse and realized that the alehouse roof was much farther that she was willing to jump. Quickly dropping to a stack of barrels, the scent of stale alcohol greeted her as she hid on the top of the used containers hoping that one of the quicker of the peacekeepers did not notice her perch.
Needing a diversion, Dalia searched for something to throw. The top of the barrels revealed no such device so she glanced down at her meager possessions. She owned only the minimum of what she needed to exist, so the thought of losing any one of her few belongings was difficult to contemplate.
Luckily a worker from the alehouse banged opened the back door into the alley where Dalia hid just as the peacekeeper started searching the barrels.
“Hey you, there’s nothing there to steal, get away from me barrels!”
The peacekeeper glared over at the burly worker who did not seem one bit intimidated. As they started arguing about peacekeepers over stepping their boundaries, Dalia used their shouts as a distraction and quickly scaled a fence behind the alley. She ran into the alehouse’s small storage yard toward a stack of cabbage crates that would gain her access to the safety of the rooftop beyond.
Her body complained at her every move and sluggishly responded to her demands. She began fantasizing about a hollowed out wall in the basement of an abandoned house about a ten minute run away. With her foot on the first crate, she grabbed for a handhold but her leg buckled underneath her weight.
Her world tilted backwards as she fell to the ground, unintentionally toppling the stack of crates. She sat in stunned silence as the wood crashed into her legs and shoulders before one of the slats slammed into her face and crushed her to the ground, burying her small body in a sea of broken wood and wilted cabbage.
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