I’m hungry. I know it doesn’t help anything to dwell on it, but after three days of no food it’s hard to dwell on anything but. Besides, the kids are counting on me. If I don’t steal, they don’t eat. The merchants are getting wise though – damn them. I can’t risk stealing food directly, not any more. I have to find a mark. Someone big, clumsy and stupid would be good. I’m so hungry.
I’d been staring at the big half-orc for at least a minute before I finally realised what I was looking at. A big, clumsy and stupid mark. Perfect. Garret would be mad it’d taken me this long to figure it out. Garret doesn’t know what it feels like to be this hungry. Garret… no, best not to go there.
I slide to my feet and start towards him. Not directly, quick and quiet is the key. Don’t draw attention to yourself Lyra. Be careful. Be discreet. I weave my way through the crowd, using the sunlight reflecting off his heavy armour to keep him in my sights. He had a big sword too – really big. Wouldn’t want him to hit me with that. Wouldn’t want anyone to hit me with that. Would probably hurt.
Damnit woman. Concentrate!
I stop dead, letting the crowd move around me, ignoring the few annoyed voices as those near me are forced to weave around me. Focus Lyra, focus. If you screw this up, you’ll have to try your luck with the vendors again. And I really don’t think that’s such a good idea. From here I can see the stall run by the crazy halfling and his human partner. I’d tried to ingratiate myself in with him, even using his native language – thank you Garret.
It hadn’t worked.
Stupid halfling had I suspect, seen straight through me, and he’d had his hulking partner chase me out of the market. Jerk.
Concentrate. But I’m so hungry.
I started moving again and straight away found myself squinting. The big brute had taken his gauntlets off and was attaching them to his belt. And ahhh… there was my pay. There was a ring on his finger, and there, the musical sound of coins in a pouch. Looks like the big brute was planning to buy something to eat himself.
Now I need a distraction. Perfect. Those two fat merchants – they’ve never known hunger before. But they’re arguing about – who knows what. I don’t care, they’ll serve their purpose.
I duck around the two merchants, using their argument as cover to get me close to my mark. I snuggle right up close and -
“Hey! Watch out!” I’ve run straight into some fancy-dressed servant doing their master’s shopping. Without a word I vanish back into the crowd. My mark has turned his head, no intelligence in those eyes – but he doesn’t see me. No one sees me unless I want them to. I let the crowd swallow me and spit me out behind the half-orc. Safer to come from a different direction Garret always said. Garret…
The brute has tucked his coin pouch onto his belt right beside the gauntlets. How very obliging of him. Right. Now’s my chance. Duck to the left, sneak around behind this gentleman, thank you very much. And now come in again to the right. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Be careful. Be discreet. Don’t get caught.
The hand comes out and. …
I came to an abrupt stumbling stop. Something had my right hand in a vice-like grip. I looked up. And up. And up. I kept looking up til I was staring into the face of my mark. He’d caught me? He was certainly staring down at me, with an odd sort of – un-expression on his face. My that’s annoying. What was it Garret had always said? Don’t get caught Lyra, don’t get caught.
“That is one way of describing the situation.”
Oh damn… Did I say that out loud? I could feel the blood drain from my face and I knew I must look even paler than I usually do. Odd voice for a half-orc though. Deep, which isn’t surprising, but – compelling in a way. And very very calm.
A tug on my wrist and the deep voice spoke again
“Just what do you think you were doing?” Yup. It’s official. I’m in trouble. Think fast girl.
“I was… uhhh. I-” Oh, well done Lyra. Well done indeed. Idiot. I could swear at myself. I would swear at myself – I never have trouble talking my way out of a situation. I blame this on being hungry.
“Trying to steal from me?” Great. Now he sounds amused. Just what I wanted. To be some idiot half-orc’s comic relief. Lunch time entertainment. I’m not a bard damn it. Except he caught me. And no half-orc has ever caught me before. And they’ve tried. I would have to pick the only half-orc fast enough to catch a thief. Well done me.
“No!” I tried desperately for the sound of indignation – and would have found it too, if my voice hadn’t crackled on the last note. “I wouldn’t- I was… I…” my voice trailed off under his gaze. He was just standing there, staring at me. Knowing.
I give up.
I sighed heavily and my shoulders drooped. I’m finding myself close to tears, which is unpleasant. I haven’t cried since – since when? Mother? Garret? No, when I stubbed my toe the other day. Hey! It hurt! I’m so exhausted, and so hungry, and so…
He laughed. Well, more of a chuckle really. But can you believe it? He laughed. Moron. Bet he doesn’t know what hunger feels like. Him with his ring and his gauntlets and his full coin pouch. It’s just rude really. Rude and impolite. It hurts my feelings. More than your stomach? The thought slams into my head with all the force of a raging, starving tiger – which funnily enough, is approximately how hungry I am right now. I’m staring at my feet, trying to emphasise how small I am. It works. His grip on my wrist relaxes and he speaks again.
“Now, how bad can things be that you’d try stealing from a paladin? We’re not noted for our valuables.”
No. No no no. Nonononononononononono. No. Not again. Horrified I yanked away, not again. Please not again.
The half-orc. The paladin pulled back. He was massive, I had no chance, and I knew it. His strength had me held in place.
No no no… not listening. His hand around my wrist tightened and I panicked. Without thinking, I slammed my heel into his foot
“Yeouch!” Full plate. I forgot. Damn that hurt.
The paladin tugged on me, oh no, I’m going nowhere with you. Mind destroyer. Family destroyer. I’m so tired, I’m so hungry. I’m never going to get away. Despair hit me full force, my mind was screaming Get away! Get away! I swung at him with my free hand. If I could cause a big enough scene, I could get free.
He grabbed my hand before it connected.
I stopped thinking.
He slapped a hand over my mouth.
Before I could take advantage of my freed left hand, he’d yanked on my right and had me pinned against him.
I kicked him in the shins.
“ENOUGH!” He hissed the word, and I could see in his face – anger, frustration.
He let me go.
“It is all right. I will not hurt you.”
I jerked backwards, desperate to get away and felt his fingers move against my wrist. He’d relaxed his hold. And then his words penetrated my blind panic. Will not hurt you. All I had heard was ‘hurt you’ and I already knew enough about that thank you very much.
I stared up at him, into eyes that seemed strangely gentle. My fingers uncurled from the fist I hadn’t realised I’d made. What on earth was this?
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I don’t- I didn’t mean…” I found myself trailing off uselessly. What was the point in talking? I was still caught. And a caught thief means an imprisoned thief. He shifted his weight, letting me go completely and folding massive arms across a massive chest.
“You didn’t mean to steal from me?” He sounded legitimately sceptical.
“Well, no… I didn’t mean to get caught” I stopped dead, hands flying to my mouth. What had possessed me to say that? Being hungry was destroying my better judgement. Destroying my ability to even think. I had to get out of here.
The half-orc paladin – what an odd concept – seemed to find that amusing, because he burst out laughing. I saw something else amusing. Nyn, Tel and Brin. They were hovering, hoping I could feed them, as they always did. A plan started forming. First, a distraction. I forced myself to pay attention to him again. Once again my mark.
“Well, an honest thief. That’s a new one. All right, little thief, what shall we do with you?” He keeps laughing… this is getting annoying. Okay, humour the half-orc. I can do that.
“You could just let me go” I peer up at him, doing my best to look adorable. I learned this from Terryn; she could turn men to butter just by turning on the ‘sweet and innocent’. It works for me – about half the times I try it. Bloody half-orc kept laughing. Plan B.
“I don’t think so, little thief,” he looked down at me, smiling. “I don’t think you’re really a bad person” – oh thank you so much. “Perhaps it would be best if you travelled with me for a time. Yes, that should keep you out of trouble admirably.”
I couldn’t believe it. He seemed smugly delighted with the idea. I was not. Time for more drastic action. I let my left hand slide behind my back, I knew the kids would be watching. I hastily curled my fingers around into the various signs and signals that screamed ‘distraction!’
“And exactly what sort of mission – quest… err, thing would a paladin be on that requires a thief?” I borrowed again from Terryn’s experience, putting as much cynicism and pertness in my voice as I could manage. All I needed was time, and I could already hear the sounds of the kids moving. The half-orc looked thoughtful. Good. The more time he spent thinking, the less likely he’d be to see what I was doing.
Nyn rant into him, going full-tilt and burst into noisy tears. Tel indignantly abused the ‘bad man’ in a shrill childish voice, while Brin skidded to a halt and started slapping at the armoured legs. Bless their starving little hearts.
I yanked my hand free from the loosened grip and jumped sideways, intending to dart past him. A flicker of hunger pangs shot through my stomach as I moved and I stumbled. And that damn half-orc was fast. He pivoted around and grabbed my shoulders.
I stopped, and my shoulders sagged. Was there nothing I could do to get away from this monster?
“You are going to be trouble,” he sighed the words. He looked like he wasn’t sure what he was doing himself. That made two of us. I still couldn’t understand why he hadn’t just thrown me over his shoulder and marched off with me. I knew he’d thought about it, I could see it in his eyes. I looked up at him, waiting silently. There wasn’t really much I could say any more. And for once, I was running out of ideas.
“Why are you so determined to get away from me?” He asked finally.” I’ve already told you I won’t hurt you.”
Resignation sucks. But what else was there? The kids had run off, and I didn’t blame them. Looks like I wasn’t going to be feeding them today after all. I can’t think, I can’t move fast enough to get away from this man, I can’t talk my way out of it. And all he does is tell me he’s not going to hurt me? And damn it if I don’t believe him too.
“I believe you,” I said finally. Wearily. Defeated. I’m too tired and too hungry to argue any more. Let him do with me as he will. “But in my experience being caught means only one thing. Trouble.”
That I was in trouble was the one thing I didn’t doubt. I just wasn’t sure where that trouble was going to land me.
“I have no intention of handing you over to the authorities.”
“You aren’t?” I sounded at least as stunned as he looked. Nice to know I’m not the only one being thrown off balance by this. Speaking of balance – why is he so tall? I took a step back so I could look at him without craning my neck. Why am I so short?
Nausea hit me hard, and my knees collapsed out from under me. I slipped on the dust and staggered sideways. Hands grabbed me and arms went around me and I was set back on my feet. The half-orc. The half-orc paladin – stepped back so I could see him clearly. He stood there, just staring at me, while I tried not to throw up on his feet. I’d caught glimpse of my reflection in water barrels, I knew I looked terrible. He looked like he was about to ask awkward questions.
“How long has it been since you last ate?” He asked finally. Yup. There goes that awkward question…
“A while…” I muttered, unwilling, or perhaps unable to admit the truth. Not to a paladin. Okay, so I doubted he was going to – do anything, but that didn’t mean I could trust him. And I wasn’t going to admit how long it had really been.
He snorted. Nope, not telling him.
He glared at me in exasperation. Not. Gonna. Happen.
He sighed, and his breath stirred my hair. I glanced up. Oh bugger…
“About three days,” I admitted, my voice barely audible.
Nothing. Silence. I looked up. He was gone. What?!
Clinking and the thud of heavy footsteps and he was back and dumping a … a loaf of bread into my hands. I started at it, I must have looked like I’d never seen bread before. I glanced up at him, blinking. Not crying. Nope.
“Thank you,” I said it so softly I’m surprised he heard me.
First things first. I turned around and whistled – code for ‘it’s safe’. Instantly, Nyn, Tel and Brin appeared, beaming up at me – eyes wide with a hunger far worse than my own, doing their very best not to rip the bread from my hands. I handed the bread to Nyn, grateful for once for my lack of height. If I’d tried to crouch or bend I’d’ve fallen on my face.
“Wha’ ab’t you?” Tel demanded. He’s the oldest of the trio, and takes his duties as ‘big brother’ very seriously. He takes care of the others and tries to take care of me. I grinned at him, plucked the loaf from his hands and tugged a small piece free. Popping it in my mouth (and then I nearly did cry), I said,
“That’ll take care of me. Go. Eat. And stay out of trouble!” That last was yelled at their receding backs.
I turned back and abruptly remembered the half-orc. I eyed him through my eyelashes, squinting up at him. He looked surprised. I felt myself squirming.
“I learned that from my first guild,” I muttered defensively. “Anything that sparkled or shone we could handle as we saw fit.” I paused to remember some of those lovely things that had sparkled or shone. “But food was first for those who can’t feed themselves.” I set myself then. Waiting for the ridicule, for the laughter of those who imagined thieves had no honour. No compassion.
“You have a good heart little thief,” he said finally. He looked a little troubled. Obviously he was one of those who thought there was no honour or compassion among those who transferred ownership for a living. Serves him right.
“I’d say thank you, but that won’t really help me much,” I commented dryly. A sudden idea then, worth a shot. “Now that you know I’m not completely evil, perhaps we can come to some sort of agreement? You don’t turn me in, and I will – behave myself.”
“No, I don’t think so,” his voice was quiet, and almost pensive, but there was no mistaking the unmovable quality. Drat. Well, it’d been worth a shot. Jail here I come.
“I think you should come with me. There is good in you, you simply need to find the right path.”
The right path? What the hang is that supposed to mean? Besides, I already have a path, thankyouverymuch.
“And you don’t think I have that path already?”
The bloody paladin burst out laughing. Again. I’m getting sick of that.
“Obviously not little thief!” He was chortling. At me.
Then he stepped forwards, til he was almost standing on my feet. Forcing me to tip my head back so I could see his face. Panic slapped at me, and I ruthlessly shoved it back down. Standing on his feet wasn’t an option. Diversions weren’t working. I was running out of ideas. But I’d be damned if I’d show him how much he intimidated me. How much he – scared me…
“I won’t turn you into the authorities; but I think I will insist that you come with me.” He stared down at me, with that un-expression I’d noticed earlier. Did he even realise how badly he was freaking me out? “For a time at least.”
For a time. Now what does that mean?
But… for a time… Eventually he’ll get used to me, and then I’ll have a chance to bolt. One chance, when I’m not starving, that’s all I’ll need.
“I can see I don’t have much of a choice.” I said, being sure to let him know I wasn’t happy about this. “Fine… My name is Lyra.”
He smiled at me, stepping backwards at the same time. Bastard. He did know what his – closeness was doing to me. He did it deliberately. Right. Fine. When I leave, I’m taking all his stuff with me.
“And I am Ket’Thull.” He introduced himself genially. I suppose he felt he’d won, could afford to be nice about it now. “Now, young Lyra, we have a long way to go. Perhaps we should see about feeding you, since you so kindly gave up your previous meal to the less fortunate.”
I couldn’t help it. I laughed.
“Now that I won’t argue with.”
“Silver, can you hold Tella for me?” I waited patiently until she approached and stopped in front of me. She made no effort to reach out for Tella, and I had to put the child straight into her arms. There was a flicker of emotion in her face – something dark, something angry and – anguished? As fast as it appeared though, it vanished. Her face softened and she shifted my daughter in her arms until the child was upright. She started walking in little circles, bouncing as she did. The dark emotions I’d glimpsed gave way to delight.
A baby. I had a baby. I caught one flailing hand in mine and held it in the classic aristocrat’s position. Then we danced around the room. I didn’t dare sing. Babies love to be sung to, but I simply cannot. I am tone deaf – as my teachers reminded me almost daily. Tella gurgled a happy baby laugh, and I beamed at her, pressing a kiss to the side of her head.
I was happy. For the first time since leaving Domoth. For the first time since graduating from the Ariaethus. For the first time I didn’t wonder where Terryn was, or why she had left. I was happy. And I had a baby.
She squealed a couple of times, as I moved into an old dance of Celadia. I had been told there were more opportunities there for one with my skills than anywhere else on the continent, so I was practicing. Tella wasn’t exactly the best practice partner, but she was absolutely the most adorable.
My dancing must have been too energetic for her, because soon enough Tella started yawning. Her tiny mouth opening wide and those little eyes scrunching up to nothing. I sat down on the big, soft chair reserved for those with the baby and nestled her into my side. Her blanket was draped over the arm of the chair, so I picked it up and wrapped her in it.
I adjusted us both, then started rocking slowly, rubbing her back as I did. I may not be able to sing, but there’s nothing wrong with my speaking voice, so I started telling the story of the king who loved his maid so much he gave up his kingdom in order to marry her. It’s a lovely story, and my voice is soothing when I want it to be.
I sat and rocked in perfect contentment. I snuggled into Tella, even as she snuggled into me. I pressed another kiss to her forehead as she drifted off to sleep. Even then I continued to rock, holding her close. Protecting her. I was happy. I had a baby.
“Here, I’ll put her to bed” I reached down to take Tella from Silver’s arms. She tightened her grip and leaned away from me. I don’t think she even realised she was doing it. Startled, I took my daughter from my friend’s arms and put her in her cradle. Silver’s head came up so fast it almost made me jump. I cringed inwardly at the look on her face. All at once fierce, protective, caring – everything that made a mother a mother. And yet, full of rage and hate and fury. But behind it all, buried behind her green eyes, I could sense a sort of despair. A grief. It made me realise how little I know this new friend of mine.
It was late, and soon we too slept. I woke in the middle of the night to feed Tella, and I could hear a strange sound. Curious, I carried my daughter to the door of my bedroom and peered out. There was Silver, curled up in my big, soft easy chair, deep in trance. But it didn’t seem pleasant. Elves don’t dream as far as I know, but she seemed caught in the throes of a nightmare nonetheless. She was crying – I didn’t realise she knew how. Silver is cold-hearted at the best of times. But she wept, begging and pleading for ‘them’. She wanted someone to bring her ‘them’ and it appeared ‘they’ didn’t, for she got angry and violent. Tossing and thrashing.
I stared dumbfounded, not sure whether I should wake her or not. Tella snuffled in my arms, and I looked down at her sleepy face. I remembered the look on Silver’s face, as she held my baby girl, and when I took her away. Suddenly, I thought I knew what it was Silver so desperately cried out for. Moving as quietly as I could across the dirt floor, I approached the chair where she sat in trance. Ever so gently, I reached out and laid Tella in Silver’s arms. The affect was instantaneous and almost frightening. Instantly, she wrapped her arms around my baby and curled protectively over her. Even in trance, she rocked back and forth, and a mumbled croon came from her lips.
I sat on the floor at her feet, just in case Tella started to cry and woke my friend.
“What did they do to you my friend?” I whispered, touching Silver’s knee with one finger. “What child of yours was stolen?”
I kept a vigil that night. On the outside I was calm. On the inside though… on the inside, my heart was breaking.