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Torn World: A Handhold on Life

Well, the story grew (both longer and more exciting) since Mikka sponsored what is now the first third of it, but finally I found the right title. This is from [info]kelkyag 's request to see how Fleita sells her fine pottery, and [info]ellenmillion 's request to see a southern graduation ceremony of one sort or another.

So, with the usual caveat that this is the rough draft (comments and questions welcome), and some details may change to keep the world consistent by the time it's published on TornWorld.net, here is my story from the August Muse Fusion:

A Handhold on Life
by Deirdre M. Murphy

“Isn’t it exciting?” Arremina’s eyes shone as she buckled the harness around her climbing clothes—sturdy long pants and shirt, in the red and yellow colors that signified her club. Her cuffs were the rough undyed material signifying pre-apprentice status, but that didn’t really detract from the bright figure she cut in the uniform. Even her hair was braided with red and yellow ribbons.

Fleitamelo carefully set up her wares on the rented table. She didn’t usually go to fairs and festivals herself, but had made an exception to see her daughter compete. “I—I’m glad you’re excited,” she answered belatedly.

“Mom—I’ll be fine. I haven’t needed the harness in practice for weeks, well, except when trying that new course with the overhang. But there’s nothing like that today. Just the graduation climb, and then the straight-up race.”

A man walked over and started to look at Fleita’s vases, though her table was still more than half empty.

Fleita shook her head. It was bad enough that they had their graduation test in public—but then to make the already-tired climbers run a race? “Just promise me you’ll be careful.”

Arremina leaned over and kissed her mother on top of her forehead. “You watch. I won’t need the harness at all! But now I have to go have it inspected anyway.” She rolled her eyes. “It’s part of the test.” She whirled around. “It all looks proper, right?”

Fleita looked; the straps were snug enough to show off every inch of her daughter’s figure. Each buckle was fastened neatly, and the soft leather shoes and gloves were strapped securely on. “Proper clothing would be more modest,” she said dryly.

“Mom!” Arremina laughed, and jogged over to another girl in the same gaudy red and yellow outfit. The two hugged briefly, grinning fiercely, and then seriously inspected each other’s gear.

“So, you’re Arre’s mother!”

Fleita turned her attention toward her customer. He was small and trim, with long dark hair and sparkling blue eyes. He looked a lot like the girl Arremina was standing with. She flinched inside, waiting for the usual comment that they didn’t look at all alike.

“This is your work?” He lifted a vase, etched with delicate chicory flowers and a spiderweb strung between the spiky stalks.

She nodded.

He smiled, running a finger over the lovingly-depicted spider at the center of the web. “This explains where Arre got her patience.”

“I—you—her patience?” She blushed, realizing she was stammering.

He just smiled at her. “I climb too. And Kalineila has been wanting to follow in her old Dad’s footsteps. But Eila fell down some stairs as a toddler, and she froze every time she got both feet off the ground. Still, she insisted on enlisting in this class. Arre spent extra time with her, helping her get past that childhood fear.”

”I—she did? She’s mentioned climbing with Eila, but she didn’t say anything about that!”

“You should be proud of her.”

“I am.”

They talked a while, while Fleita continued setting up her booth. She learned that Keilomalo (“Keilo for short”) was a single father; his daughter the accidental, but welcome, result of a visit to the carnal guild.

Then the first climber started up the cliff. It was a tall, skinny boy in light and dark blue, who swarmed up the rock face as easily as Fleita climbed the ladders in her supply room. After he reached the top, and stood there securely for a minute, he dove out headfirst under the boom that held the ropes on the harness.

Fleita gasped, shocked. “What’s he doing?”

Keilo laughed. “I forget how scary that looks. It’s part of the test—you have to be able to recover if you fall.”

As he spoke, the boy tapped the cliff with one foot to slow his spinning, then again with the other foot, before grabbing a handhold that was totally invisible from where Fleita was standing, her mouth hanging open and her heart racing. Moments later he was scrambling to the top of the cliff again, and then jumping high in the air, arms raised in triumph.

After a little victory dance, he started unhooking the ropes from his harness. Fleita missed the process of lowering the ropes to the next climber, since someone came up to ask about one of her vases, an outrageous uneven leaning structure that always seemed about to fall over. Fleita brought it to shows because it attracted attention; to her surprise, the skinny woman in the green and black climbing outfit bought it, saying, “It reminds me of Alelei Cliff!”

Keilo squinted at it, then nodded. “I can see that. Have you climbed it?”

Fleita squinted at the top edge of the vase. It didn’t look too terrible.

The woman laughed. “I’m working on easier overhangs first. But with this on my desk, I’ll be reminded of my goal, and not tempted to skip the weights.”

Fleita realized they were talking about climbing the underside, and she clutched the table reflexively.

“Isn’t that your daughter, Keilo?”

He turned quickly enough that he bumped the table, and Fleita reached automatically to steady the tallest vases. She noted the stiffness in his shoulders, and the tension in his voice as he started to describe each maneuver as his daughter climbed. He was more worried than he pretended—or perhaps than he himself realized.

Sensing that he needed the distraction, she asked questions whenever his voice trailed off. To her surprise, understanding what was happening made the process of watching Arre’s friend make the climb—and her final, timid jump off the cliff—less nerve-wracking.

But then it was her daughter’s turn to attach the safety ropes to her harness and start climbing, and Fleita found all of her new-found comfort vanished. Dimly, she was aware someone new had walked up to the table, but she found she couldn’t take her eyes off Arremina as she started up the rock face.

Belatedly, she realized it wasn’t only the pressures of business that had kept her from coming to watch Arremina’s lessons. Had she watched her daughter’s first fumbles on a sheer cliff face like the one in front of her, Fleita thought, she could not have slept at night, while her daughter continued the class.

But now, watching her daughter complete each maneuver in the prescribed order, competently and without fuss, she felt pride welling within her, and the realization that her daughter was growing up.

And as she watched Arremina dive off the cliff, arms outstretched and ready to take on the world, Fleita realized she was grinning widely, even as she clutched the table so hard her knuckles were as white as her palest vase.

There were new climbers on each of the five teams, and once the first few climbers made it to the top of the cliff, business picked up. Natural themes were popular, as were the odd-shaped vases Fleita made when she got bored. She would have to keep coming to these climbing events—she’d sold more of her asymmetrical showoff pieces here in one morning than she’d done at other shows in a year.

Once all the students had made it safely to the top, and survived their dive into mid-air, a great cheer went up, and they all tore their cuffs off, and tossed them away. Then, reminding Fleita of a nest-full of baby spiders, they rappelled back down. Upon landing, they were greeted with hugs, back-slapping, applause, and the new, soft gray cuffs of apprentice climbers.

During the last double-handfull of tests, the aromas of food had been drifting from behind the closed awnings of the food-sellers. Now the awnings were raised, and the crowd surged away from Fleita’s table. She took advantage of the lull to restock the table. While she did, she asked Keilo, “Isn’t that bit of cliff too narrow for a race?”

“What—the test run? Oh, the race isn’t there. There’s ten different routes—see, they’re marked with paint.”

Fleita had noted that each team had blazoned the cliff with splotches of paint in their colors. “Those are the team colors, right?”

“Exactly. Each team designs two of the courses, and fields ten climbers per run, one for each route.”

“But if the routes are different…” Fleita trailed off. This seemed a lot more complicated than she had realized.

But Keilo nodded gravely. “Each run is timed. And leaving the defined area of the climb carries a penalty, as does falling off. The team with the fastest total time wins.”

“You make it sound so simple!” A young climber in green and white, with dark brown cuffs, objected. He looked at Fleita earnestly. “It’s really much more complicated than that. The captain of each team has to know the team members really well—who can do which sorts of maneuvers, how tired they are, even if they’re nursing a stubbed toe. And the early climbers can change the course—knocking rocks loose or making a hand- or foot-hold more secure. And—”

A pretty girl in the same colors laughed and placed a hand on his lips. “Ibiq, the potter’s not even a climber! Don’t wear her ears off, or she won’t come down on her price for this mug I want you to buy for me!”

The boy looked at her and blinked, but took the proffered mug. “Um—how much is it?”

Fleita answered, and the boy handed over some tokens, his eyes on the cliff. “You can wrap it for her, right?”

When Fleita nodded, reaching for a box, the boy turned to the girl. “I’m going to go see who’s going first.” He puffed his chest out. “Though I’m sure that the captain will put me last.”

The girl waved him on, then turned and thanked Fleita. “And don’t mind Ibiq—it’s just that he really wants to be Captain next season, so he’s showing off at every opportunity.” She took the securely packed box, then hesitated.

“I can store the box here under my table for you until after the races, if you like.” Fleita offered.

“That would be great!”

The girl took the offered pencil and wrote her name on the box. Fleita bent to tuck it away, and by the time she stood up again, the girl had vanished in the crowd.

The first race was called, and Fleita noted, with worry, that nearly all of the climbers lined up at the base of the cliff—Arremina among them—wore brand-new grey cuffs.

“But they just climbed!” she protested. “Shouldn’t they get to rest a while before they race?”

Keilo patted her hand. “The first races are the safest and most predictable. Only one team Captain or Coach has climbed the route. Also, they shouldn’t, but a lot of graduates are tempted to celebrate with drink or smoke—having them climb first prevents them racing drunk.”

Fleita made a small, acknowledging noise. Her eyes were on Arremina. Her daughter was standing on a splotch of paint, apparently the starting spot, eyeing the cliff. There was a brief, piercing musical phrase, and Arre ran forward, leaping for the first handhold.

Fleita gasped. Arre’s feet scrambled on the rocks, but she drew herself up until one foot rested, briefly, and her body surged upward. Her second hand grasped, and the first hand shot upward, leaving room for her other foot to land where the first hand had been. Fleita wanted to cry out—slow down!

“Your girl’s doing very well!”

She realized Keilo was still there. Her eyes darted from Arre to the other climbers. The purple and pink-clad boy next to her daughter was already two feet higher, and three feet higher than the climber on his other side. Their safety ropes hung slightly slack; each climber had team members below and above to keep the ropes at a length that could catch them if they slipped, and observers from other teams making sure the ropes weren’t tightened enough to help the climber ascend.

Fleita could hardly breathe as she watched Arremina scramble quickly up the rock face. Every time a foot slipped, or Arre stretched for a new handhold, her breath caught in her throat and she clutched the table tightly.

The boy in purple pulled further and further ahead of Arremina, his safety-rope dangling looser and looser. The crowd roared.

“What are those fools doing?” Keilo’s voice was sharp.

Startled, she glanced at him. He was staring at the top of the cliff above the boy in purple. “What?”

“They aren’t winding up the slack on his rope. If he falls, he’ll fall all the way!”

She looked more carefully at the boy. His rope was swinging in the light breeze. His teammates beneath him were looking distraught. The ones above—one of them fell to the ground, one hand bright red. The other was doing something to the mechanism, or trying to.

The sound of the crowd became more intense, and Fleita realized the officials were blowing the starting whistle. Two of the climbers stopped, and headed slowly back down.

“What’s going on?” Fleita let go of the table to grip Keilo’s forearm.

“They’re trying to stop the race, but the crowd is so loud most of the climbers can’t hear the whistle.”

Fleita watched helplessly as her daughter kept climbing, trying to catch up with the boy in purple. One of the people running the mechanism that was reeling in Arre’s safety rope tore off his shirt and ran to the person on the ground, tearing the shirt into strips. Fleita gripped Keilo’s arm more tightly.

And then the boy in purple slipped. He slid down almost to the level Arre had climbed to, and sideways off the course. At first, he made half-hearted efforts to grab hand-holds, but then he noticed his rope was swinging loose. Suddenly, he started grabbing frantically at the cliff, leaving red smears, slowing his progress downward, but not stopping it.

The crowd’s noise doubled.

Arremina stopped, her head turned toward the boy.

Then he stopped falling, dangling from just one hand. The crowd silenced momentarily, just enough for the whistle to be heard. The boy tried to find another grip, first for his other hand and then for a toe, without success. He was left hanging there, feet dangling, his safety ropes lax and useless.

“That coach is sure to lose his license!” Keilo shook his head. “Even if, by some miracle, that boy can hang on until they get that thing unjammed.”

Then Fleita noticed Arremina was moving again, climbing upward and sideways. Keilo noticed too. “Good girl!” He patted Fleita’s hand. “Look at your girl!”

“What’s she doing?”

He smiled. “Can you see? Oh, I forget you’re not a climber; you don’t know what to look for. Even from here, I can see a ledge there, halfway between the two racing lanes.”

She peered at the rock wall. There was a tiny bit of shadow about ten feet above the boy’s head. Why was it so smart for Arre to be heading there? Shouldn’t she be heading back down, like the other racers?

Carefully, but quickly, Arre moved to the ledge, and got herself settled onto it, standing up and grasping a handhold firmly. And then she reached up and unhooked the safety ropes from her harness. Holding the rope firmly, she jerked it twice, and then three times. The crowd grew quiet again, watching.

Slowly the rope lengthened until it the hooks swung at about the boy’s chest level. She jerked twice again and the rope stopped lengthening. Then slowly, she started it swinging, calling something out in a clear, high voice. The boy looked at her, then positioned his free hand awkwardly, waiting.

The hooks swung closer and closer to the boy, finally hitting him in the shoulder and swinging wide. Arre let the swing die down a bit, then tried again. The crowd was silent, as if everyone was holding their breath with Fleita.

This time, the rope, a few inches above the hooks, smacked the boy squarely in the hand, and he managed to grab it. A few minutes later, he attached the hooks to his harness and called, “Lift!”

The rope slowly tightened, until the boy’s grip on the cliff was clearly only stabilizing him. “Hold” he called. Arre was almost directly above him. If they lifted him up, and he bumped her—Fleita couldn’t breathe.

“I can rappel down from here.”

“All right” A woman’s voice from above.

They watched as the boy rappelled down, and then a guide line was attached to the safety rope, and it was raised back to Arre, who reattached the hooks to her harness and started to rappel down.

Keilo gently loosened Fleita’s fingers from his arm. “I can watch your table for a little while. Go ahead. Go to your daughter.”

“Do you have a sales license?” The question was automatic.

“I do, but I wouldn’t presume. People will wait a little to buy a souvenir from the mother of today’s hero. I’ll just keep everything safe for a little while.”

With a nod of gratitude, Fleita left the table, for once glad of her slight form, which let her slip through the crowd while they were still focused on the girl in red and yellow, the one who saved the day.

She was almost to the front of the crowd when Arremina touched ground and turned to look for her. The people in front of her parted when Arremina reached for her, and finally, with her daughter in her arms, she started breathing easy again. “I’m proud of you,” she said. “But I hope you won’t be upset if I say that next time I come to watch you climb, I hope it won’t be quite this exciting!”

Writing does take energy and time. If you enjoyed this story, and would like to support me continuing to spend my time this way instead of, say, playing video games, please click on the hat or leave a comment.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 21st, 2010 03:39 pm (UTC)

I'm not surprised that Arremima insisted on more action in this story. :)
Aug. 21st, 2010 04:07 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you like it! What do you think of the title?
Aug. 21st, 2010 07:00 pm (UTC)
It has a good grip on the story. :)
Aug. 21st, 2010 07:11 pm (UTC)
Too bad LJ doesn't have the cool Torn World smileys!
Aug. 21st, 2010 04:45 pm (UTC)
Perfect title, and very exciting story! I love seeing more of these two!
Aug. 21st, 2010 06:50 pm (UTC)
If only I didn't need a day job!

The Muse Fusions do make space for people to do stuff that's not on their to-do list, which is nice.
Aug. 21st, 2010 05:41 pm (UTC)
Love it, exciting story.

Wonder what a Torn World pencil looks like. Do they have the trick of threading graphite into a woodstick?
Aug. 21st, 2010 06:48 pm (UTC)
I figured that was one detail that might get changed after canon discussions.

Glad you liked the story!
Aug. 23rd, 2010 04:35 pm (UTC)
If they didn't have our version of wooden pencils, I imagine they would have a way to wrap a graphite or wax core in a thick paper-product that would be just as good.
Aug. 22nd, 2010 01:03 pm (UTC)
Well done! Both you and Arre. Had my emotions thoroughly hooked in the crisis/rescue scene. My thought at the end was: there writes a real Mother.
Aug. 22nd, 2010 06:09 pm (UTC)
Good to hear from you! And glad you liked it.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )


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