A Chronicle of Ashes - Whedon's Row: Chapter III



'A Chronicle of Ashes' is a series of short stories exploring the extended Foxhole universe. These are unrelenting tales of human struggle in the face of apathy and violence, borne by a world in a constant state of war. Content Warning: A Chronicle of Ashes depicts scenes of violence and war.

 


Whedon's Row

Chapter III

The Listener


Mr. Walden spat into the running sewer water. It was a good one too, thick and stringy. His cheeks flushed with pride.


“Bloody stars,” Mr. Pitts said, his gaze fixed on the tunnel ahead, “we’re not animals.”


He wiped his lips, then spat again. It was less impressive this time. “Why should I care? It’s a stinky sewer.”


The pair continued along the slippery bricks. The exit wasn’t far now. If they didn’t get the package back to the House soon, they’d find themselves on the wrong end of Prey’s mood. Walden would take the brunt of it with his luck. Mr. Pitts wore a sour face, which wasn’t all too abnormal—he always seemed eternally put off—but he had been especially grumpy lately.


Mr. Walden’s brogues were two sizes too small and so worn that the wetness seeped between his toes. Was he in a sour mood? Nope, no sir, he was not. All because today, Prey gave them a job. An important one, too. One that ought to pay well enough that he could fill his belly with meatloaf and bread at the inn. Then he’d find a nice chair in a quiet corner by the hearth where he’d smoke his pipe until he ran out of tobacco. If the sewer wasn’t so damp and putrid, he might have even been able to imagine the aroma and warmth.


The job turned out easier than he’d imagined, was nothing to steal some package from a kid. Though, he’d felt some way that she probably drowned on his account. Or did he? He wasn’t sure. Conflicted, Mr. Pitts would say. If she'd only done as she was told.


It didn’t matter, anyway. Mr. Walden was not paid to think—well, he was not paid much at all—but when he was paid, it was usually to rough up some poor bastard.


“When we meet with Prey, let me do the talking, yeah?” Mr. Pitts gingerly stepped over the corpse of a rat infested with maggots.


Of course Pitts would do all the talking, he always did.


It got quite stuffy in Prey’s office, and all the candle smoke tickled Walden’s nose. Worse yet, Rumtooth hovered by the door, the big ugly gargoyle. His silence always gave Walden the spooks. Listening to a constant patter put him at ease. Not so much the words, more the noise of it, and Rumtooth never had much to say. Perhaps that’s why he and Mr. Pitts made a decent pair. Pitts never shut up. Even then, he was saying something or other about the job as they stepped into the candlelit room, but Walden had stopped paying attention somewhere on the walk down the hallway.


“Walden!” Mr. Pitts slapped his elbow.


Prey didn’t so much as glance at the two men; her attention remained locked to her logbook. Mr. Walden tucked the package tight under his right elbow.


“Miss,” Pitts said, pressing his hat to his chest, “we done what you asked and fetched your parcel. It was, well, not without some considerable effort.”


“The girl?” Prey paused her writing.


“Sleeping with the rats, m’fraid. Riding the River Shit.” Mr. Pitts said with a snicker. “Found herself a grave already pissed on—” With a single raised eyebrow, Prey shut him up.


Sweat ran down Mr. Walden’s back, which was quite uncomfortable, a thought that only served to worsen the sweating.


Prey sighed. “Pity.” She tossed a coin purse on the table. The chips inside plinked as it settled. “The package?” Her sharp eyes flicked to Walden.


“Eh, a moment Mr. Walden, if you would,” Mr. Pitts said, leaning on Prey’s desk. “If whatever’s in this package is… valuable to you, then there may be some cause for, how should I say, renegotiating our rate.” As he spoke, Pitts circled Prey’s desk, he stood to her left, much closer than Walden would ever dare. “Now, I know you may protest, but I need you to understand that Mr. Walden and I, we uh… ‘ave deep connections in the Fastness.”


Everything in his guts told Mr. Walden that he ought to reach out and clock Mr. Pitts upside the head, but he couldn’t bring himself to move. He wished he’d known Pitts was going to pull a fast one on Prey. Now, Walden didn’t know where to put his hands, how to stand, or act… so he froze. The most sensible thing would be to set the package on her desk and walk out the door. That purse looked mighty heavy, though, coin enough for a few months of hot meals and soft beds. Instead, he rolled on his heels wearing an awkward grin, which did little to ease the tension in the room.


“Is that a threat, Mr. Pitts?” Prey said, snakelike, holding onto every syllable for a moment longer than was natural. She rose, staring him down.


“No Miss Prey, we’d never dream of it. It's our belief that you underestimate the value my colleague and I have brought to your organi—”


“Rumtooth.”


With a single word, her loyal guardian launched towards Mr. Walden. He tried to hand over the package but swung much too fast and instead smacked Rumtooth across the mouth.


“Oh my, apologies—I… uh?” Mr. Walden stammered. He glanced at Mr. Pitts for guidance, but he had one hand halfway into his jacket pocket. They were standing in a powder keg, and Mr. Walden held the match.


So, he did the only sensible thing he could think of. He ran.


While Rumtooth was reeling, he pushed the big man aside and careered out of Prey’s office. The House was a maze. No one ever used the front door, for obvious reasons, so Mr. Walden hoped they’d get distracted scouring the sewers. Problem was, he’d never come in that way before.

Gunshots cracked off the walls behind him.


He barrelled down the once ornate hallway until he reached a set of stairs, which he climbed only to find himself on another, identical floor. This one was in much worse shape, and many of the rooms were empty, abandoned, with broken windows sending a cool draft into the hall. He slowed his pace, praying he was clear of immediate danger.


Drop the damned parcel, you dumb dog, he told himself, but that didn’t convince him. The package was his only bargaining chip. Perhaps he’d sell it to the highest bidder and flee Whedon’s Row. But to where? The Row had been the only reason he never got drafted, never had to give up his freedom. All he had to worry about was staying fed. Besides, Prey would most certainly keep coming after him. He’d eavesdropped on folks gossiping about what happens to her enemies, and it sent shivers down his spine. Walden wasn’t even sure how he wound up in that category, but he sure as hell didn’t want to find out if a man could be relieved of his skin while awake.

A scream came from the stairwell. He was sure the voice was Pitts'.


Ahead, the hallway opened into a large foyer. If the building had a proper exit, it would be there. And yet, with Mr. Pitts nipping at his heels, he gave serious thought to doubling back to help. Well, as much serious thought that could be done, given the circumstance.


Another shriek shot down the hallway, only this time it was snuffed out by a series of muted thuds.

Walden sprinted into the foyer and pushed out the rotten set of double doors, nearly ripping them off their hinges. He knew the House was somewhere near the Meridian, not far from the place where he spent many frigid winter nights as a child. His feet navigated him to Aidan’s through the tight alleyways by instinct.


Every so often he’d bring food to the children there. Aidan, the caretaker, was an aging veteran and a cripple, and caring for hungry and sick infants was thankless work. Few of the cracks that folk fell into in Whedon’s Row were as safe as Aidan’s. It was an orphanage of sorts, but not by name, and certainly not like the homes Mr. Walden passed through as a lad. They were horrid, vile places that fed straight into the camps. He overheard a lifetime’s worth of stories about the camps to be grateful he always found his way back onto the streets.


The door to the old cellar was tucked in the back of a cramped alley on the east end of the Meridian. He swung it open. “Mr. Aidan? Mr. Aidan, I need help.”


The cellar was in a sad state. The few narrow windows along the ceiling let in thin beams of dusty daylight to warm the rows of wobbly cots. It smelled mustier than he remembered, and the feverish moans caught him by surprise.


A young boy—he couldn’t have been older than seven—emerged from a back room. “’Ullo,” he squeaked, “Mr. Aidan is—is, he’s away for now.” The boy eyed Mr. Walden up and down. “You ‘ave a parcel for us, sir?” The package. Walden had nearly forgotten about it.


Struck with a plan, Mr. Walden grinned. “Why… yes, yes I do. You tell Mr. Aidan I’ll come back, and that he shouldn’t open it up.”


The boy’s face turned crooked. “What’d you mean?”


“No matter what,” Walden said, and handed the package to the boy. “The name’s Mr. Walden. W-a-l-d-e-n Walden, understand?”


The lad bobbed his head along, reciting the letters, then nodded. “It’s soooo heavy. Why can’t I see what’s inside?”


“It’s a special secret surprise. That’s why no one can open it, okay? Tell Aidan I’ll swing by tomorrow.” Walden figured that was plenty of time to smooth things over with Prey, explain that it was all a big misunderstanding, and that the whole thing was Mr. Pitt’s fault. Walden had never been the one to work out a plan, but he was good at following them when he knew the rules. So, he figured all he had to do was stick to whatever plan he made, and everything would get sorted out.


Mr. Walden stopped to peer back at Aidan’s place, lifted his hat as if to say, “good day,” and then scurried up the stone steps into the alley.

 

Written by Matthew Rigg Chapters of this episode of 'A Chronicle of Ashes' will update on an irregular schedule. Keep an eye out on the site or on Discord for announcements of future chapters!