Ankit and the Uncle of Refuge

Book Cover - Ankit and the Uncle of Refuge

A figure holding a club stands facing an ominous and oversized man.

Part 1: A family

The Underhalls - The Mainway and Markets

Dystopian underground cityscape.
Underhalls Mainway & Markets

Ankit dodged out of the path of a scruffy-looking girl, nearly bumping into a fruit stall in the process. She sprinted by in desperation, looking over her shoulder, oblivious to all but her pursuer. 

A sweaty, oafish drunk stumbled after her, slurring, “Stop her, she’s taken… she’s taken my…” He stumbled to a stop, scratched his head, then turned around and wobbled back the way he’d come.

“Six ‘n half a bunch, going now, going fast. Six ‘n half. What about a pair for the well-endowed lady?” ignoring the near-miss, the fruit merchant called loudly to a hooded, well-dressed couple as they approached his neighbour, a Phungz dealer.

“Serso you fuck. Hold your tongue, or I’ll have it,” spat the dealer.

The couple veered off and sped away. The fruit seller sneered, then laughed loudly, “not very committed were they, these modern addicts, whatever will you do?”

A faint grin formed on Ankit’s face as he and Kirto moved past the bickering traders. She had a spring in her step, “you haven’t spent much time down here, have you?” she asked with a smile. 

Ankit shook his head. She was excited to show him around the Underhalls, her home. Having met just three days earlier, she had taken an almost immediate shine to him. He wasn’t sure why, apart from gratitude, so he was still sceptical—as she had been at first. 

He’d come across Kirto as she faced down a pair of Blackboot thugs in the back alleys of the Port District, cornered and alone. She was dressed in a heavily worn coat with her hair matted into locks and that all too familiar look of a malnourished street orphan. Brandishing an old, rusty blade at her attackers, she was fierce but afraid. He’d witnessed this scene many times before and found himself compelled to intervene. At first, she assumed he’d want something in return. Orphans of Refuge don’t trust easily, having learned that things rarely come for free. Ankit had appeared suddenly, scared off the thugs, and then simply walked away. She chased him down in disbelief. 

The Port District wasn’t much to look at, but for Ankit it had been something like a home for the last few years. He’d managed to secure a steady stream of gigs and the trust of a few local landlords who would allow him to stay nights in exchange for odd jobs. Working in the docks made for a meagre living, but it was honest work. Loading and off-loading in the harbour, stocking stalls in the markets, security in warehouses, and even occasional outings on fishing trawlers. By now, he’d tried his hand at most things the District had to offer, saving up every Coin he made in the process. The Coin was the key to escaping this city, and that’s all Ankit had wanted for as long as he could remember. 

So, when Kirto had said she knew someone who would have a job for someone like him, as well as a safe place to stay, he’d known he had to meet this person. It may sound too good to be true, but he had heard rumours of someone in the Underhalls collecting orphans and taking them under their wing. 

“I’m telling you Kit, you’ve never met anyone like Uncle, and he’s gonna love you!” she went on.

He’d lost count of how many times she’d said this to him in the last few days. Ankit would always give fellow orphans a fair shake. At least until they either earned his trust or lost it for good.

Refuge embraces the lost, the weary, the outsiders and the outcasts. He remembered reading that when he was young. It was written on the bottom of a monument somewhere in the heart of the city. A massive stone arch over statues of children, men and women standing with arms outstretched, hand in hand. If he remembered rightly, it had something to do with the Founders of Refuge wanting it to be a safe haven. It was to be a free and peaceful city for Free Unarans and anyone else who wished to call it home. 

Even then, the younger Ankit had found this ironic. He had never felt particularly free, labouring in the workhouses his entire childhood for nothing more than his meals, a blanket and a hard floor to sleep on.

In Refuge, the rich, mostly criminal Baronies control everything. The ordinary folk are little more than slaves battling to survive. On the streets and in most of the outlying districts, the gangs run things, and it’s the worst kept secret in Refuge that they in turn, are backed by the Baronies. The Blackboots are one of the larger gangs, named for the heavy steel-toed boots that dock workers wear. They are enforcers for the Barony Rockerax, who controls the Port District and most of its operations.

Ankit had learned to survive on the streets and had always been able to handle himself better than most, so they had tried to recruit him on several occasions. He’d seen enough like him join gangs and die young, or worse, so he’d never understood their appeal. Having failed to win him over and for reasons he wasn’t entirely sure he understood, they now did their best to avoid getting involved with him altogether.

“Not interested in a gang,” Ankit had responded, somewhat abruptly, when Kirto had first told him about her ‘Uncle of Refuge’.

“It’s not a gang,” she’d seemed outraged by the suggestion. “Uncle gives us a safe place to sleep and a wage. In turn, all we have to do is run errands.”

She’d not wanted to say any more until he agreed to meet the man. It had taken her three whole days to wear him down, but the prospect of Coin and a place to sleep was too much for him to ignore.

“Kirto! Where have you been?” the man asked accusingly from his seat behind a makeshift desk, an old wooden door laid across two steel trunks. Ankit didn’t much appreciate his tone.

“I’m sorry Uncle, I was up in the Docks, looking for—” Kirto paused and looked sideways at Ankit. She looked ashamed, “—doing as you asked when the Blackboots came at me.” 

The man called Uncle looked up at her from his desk where he was busy counting Coin, his interest piqued. Ankit got his first proper look at him. Sunken, cloudy eyes with dark patches beneath them were set into a round face. He had wild, greasy hair and a deep scar running diagonally across his forehead into the hairline. His ears were pinned oddly flat against the side of his head. Right now, there was a quizzical expression on his face.

“Blackboots?” He looked at Kirto first, then over at Ankit, drinking him in. “Were they waiting for you, or did they just happen upon you?”

“I’m not sure. They seemed to sweep in on me as I was observing the dock,” she answered, still guarded. 

“Hmmm… Now, Kirto, who is your new friend?” Uncle didn’t seem satisfied but moved on.

“Uncle, meet Ankit, Ankit, meet Uncle,” Kirto responded. “He stepped in and scared them off. It was incredible.”

“That so? You? You scared off a couple of Blackboots?” Uncle looked doubtful as he inspected him. “You don’t look like you could scare off a puppy!”

Ankit was well aware that his wiry frame and skinny ankles, which were presently being eyed up, made him seem less potent than he was. Being underestimated gave him a much-needed edge. His speed, agility and accuracy meant he could incapacitate just about any adversary, with just the club holstered in the small of his back, before they even saw it coming. He stared back at Uncle intently, not feeling any need to respond.

“The quiet type hey?” Uncle continued as if daring him to say something. Ankit remained unperturbed, but Kirto was growing visibly anxious.

Just as she seemed about to burst, “All in good fun, hey Ankit?” Uncle spoke and a wide yellow-toothed grin formed on his face. It seemed genuine. Nevertheless, Ankit felt uneasy. “I could only have time for anyone who’s taken care of one of my favourites.” 

“Ankit is an orphan of Refuge too!” Kirto added.

“Are you indeed? Where do you come from then?” Uncle asked, his eyes narrowing. He picked up a coin from his desk and rolled it over his fingers.

“Here,” Ankit answered quietly, making sure to look him in the eyes.

“I mean before Refuge?” 

“I don’t remember anything before Refuge.”

“Nothing?” Uncle looked surprised, “well well, a true orphan of Refuge indeed. The best kind, in my books. I’m sure we can find a spot for you in our little family, can’t we Kirto?”

Kirto beamed in response, then looked shyly at Ankit. He finally allowed himself to relax and take in his surroundings. So far, he’d been focused on the immediate area and any exits should he have needed to leave in a hurry. He’d suspected it was an old warehouse, which he now confirmed. 

These underground spaces, storehouses, factories and other long-abandoned structures from the second age gave the Underhalls their name. Like a shadow of the present-day Refuge that continued to grow overhead, the Underhalls had developed separately, feeding off the city and providing for its darker desires.

Now that his eyes had adjusted to the light, he was surprised by the cavernous space. As he strained to see the roof, he could see it was perforated, allowing light and fresh air to break through. Throughout, floor-to-ceiling racking stood in rows; some collapsed against others or rusted to bits. Many more robust-looking steel scaffolds and shelving had makeshift panelling stitched and nailed to them, forming shacks and tiny homes. A vertical shanty town like Ankit had never seen, complete with rickety staircases and walkways linking them all together. The little light that made it to the floor revealed the debris and garbage tipped from the walkways and thoroughfares above. 

Lights began appearing all around him. A small family indeed, many faces with eyes glinting, had emerged from the nearest shacks while Uncle interrogated him and Kirto.

She grabbed Ankit’s hand, “you can stay with me if you want to. Until you find a space of your own.” 

She tugged at him stiffly. He didn’t get the sense he had a choice but to follow. Kirto grinned as she led him up a series of rickety staircases, introducing him to several kids along the way. He nodded at them, and they all nodded back, a wary glint in their eyes. A few more levels, and he was standing in front of a door. Kirto grabbed it by its sides, lifted and moved it over. 

Stepping aside, she ushered him in with a smile, “welcome home.”

Continued on Page 2 with Part 2: A brother

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