It was a dull and murky night, with rain pattering heavily against the cobblestone pathways. Water trickled down the cracks of the long-forgotten stonework to form tiny streams in the ground that weaved and rushed downwards towards an alley. It was short and narrow, darkened with long walls on either side looming overhead. In the middle, between tossed goods and binned foods, lay a young lad. Rain seeped into his hair, his rags and he lay on his side, contorted and broken, cradling his stomach for warmth. He faced the wall, no strength, nor will to shiver and he remained still and waiting. But not for a saviour, he waited for release.
“You gonna give me a hand, or what?” Came a demanding voice. It pulled the lad from death’s queue and he turned to see Grendel stood at the alley entranced leaning against a keg.
“It’s not gonna move itself, yano,” Grendel continued, drumming his knuckles against the hollow keg. “There’s coin in it for ya… If ya want it, that is.”
Suddenly, Cooper jolted awake as the blanket he was all too happily swaddling in just a moment ago was yanked away from him. At the foot of his bed stood a woman, with the blanket corners held tightly in her hands.
“Come on, up-up-up, get-up!” She demanded, speaking with a fervent intensity. Cooper watched with glazed eyes as this behemoth of a woman hastily scurried the length of his bed before reaching his side. “It’s evening, you’re late—get up!” She shouted.
The waves of fatigue continued to hang heavily on Cooper’s eyes and his mind still held one foot firmly in his world of dreams. And so, he continued to look back at this woman with a daft expression, hearing the syllables of her words, but not their meaning.
His thoughts slowly crawled back to him. Hair smooth and yellow. In her head were eyes darting and green. Shoulders as broad as a bull, but proportionally accurate for her tall and lithe figure… Cooper’s eyes narrowed on her, and then the realisation came crashing down on him.
“Aífe!” He yelled, lurching upright from his previously sprawled-out position on the bed. “The fuck you doin’ in here?” He continued, pointing a finger directly at her. As quickly as it rose, Cooper’s temper was suddenly diminished, as in that moment, much to his surprise, he felt a cold draught whiff across his buttocks. He looked down.
“Shit,” he gasped, quickly covering his genitals with his hands.
“Ah, wise up,” Aífe said with a dismissive tone, “I’ve seen much better, and I’ve seen a lot worse. You’ve got nothing to be modest about. Now—” and she hunched forward with her arms spread out ready to grapple Cooper, “You need to get ready for work.”
Cooper quickly jerked backwards, shouting in protest, but it was already too late. In an instant, Aífe’s arms were tightly wrapped around Cooper’s waist and after a quick “Upsy-daisy” from Aífe, he felt himself being hoisted into the air. With not so much as a grunt or a puff of exertion, Aífe draped Cooper over her shoulder as one would a sheet, ignoring his frantic demurring and began to walk out of the small and dingy room as if she was carrying a lamb for the slaughter.
“You could’ve at least let me get dressed first,” Cooper grumbled as they walked through a narrow hallway, still draped over Aífe’s shoulder. The walls were barren and weakly lit by near burnt-out candle sconce’s that hung above a dozen wooden plank doors lining each side.
Aífe replied, “If the god’s wished you to be clothed with humility, you would not have been born naked.”
“That’s a first.”
“You’ve never referred to them as god’s before.”
Aífe fell silent, and her face grew sullen. She paused to think, but before she had a chance to respond, a drawn-out creak of rusted hinges echoed down the hallway as a door opened ajar further ahead.
Out from within the room emerged a young man, his hair dishevelled and his shoulders slightly rounded, visibly tired and clearly just awake. His neck was terribly furrowed with rubbery thick scars that continued upwards, engulfing one side of his face in mottled skin. If not for his disfigurement, he would have been considered a comely man by many – and maybe to some, even more so now. He turned and immediately narrowed his eyes as he saw walking towards him, Aífe; a woman who stood at least two heads taller than himself, carrying Cooper, ass-first and bare-naked over her shoulder. He considered saying something but, thought better of it, and instead settled for a nod to greet her. Aífe returned the gesture in a nonchalant manner and the man darted past, keeping his gaze low to avoid eye-contact. As their paths crossed though, he curiously glanced at Cooper, wondering if he was alive, or dead, abled or limp – but was surprised to see Cooper giving a half-hearted smile and a limp wave. The man did not respond but shook his head in bewilderment before quickly scurrying off, wanting to remove himself from the situation.
“He seemed a bit odd,” said Cooper.
“Aye,” replied Aífe, “You be quiet now,” she continued, “folk here are resting.” And she carried on down the hallway, keeping to her hurried stride, before taking a sharp left and stopping at a door at the end of the hall.
With her free hand, she fumbled at a crowded keychain tied to a strap around her waist, before unhooking a long rusty key and inserting it into a similarly styled metal lock in the door. It turned with a satisfying clunk and the door crept open, allowing a seam of light from the hallway to trickle into the room. She entered the room.
Aífe turned to close the door, and as she did so Cooper could see in that middle of the small box room were a series of stone slabs that lay across the floor, encircling a fire pit. Its flames were dull and served as the only source of light, with molten cinders crackling in the ashen core of the logs reverberating off the walls to resembling that of gravel sliding down a glass pane. Situated above the fire pit was a smouldered keg, repurposed as a bath basin, filled to the brim with steaming water.
Without hesitation, Aífe brought Cooper towards the keg and slid him off from her shoulder and into the water in one swift movement. She ignored his frantic gasps as he adjusted to the temperature and handed him, what was previously, a long wooden spoon but now with a coarse cotton swab tied to the tip for scrubbing.
As she turned to leave, Aífe stopped at the door, turned to Cooper and said in a melodious tone; “Peak time drink time is approaching soon, so you best be ready in a hurry… We’ll see you downstairs.”