The cool fall air stirred up crisp brown leaves, causing them to dance along the trees' edge. Birds roosted quietly in the limbs, cawing occasionally, but nothing else seemed to be able to break the silence. A girl sat, huddled in the middle of the clearing, a pad of paper in her lap and a small, brown leather bag on the ground beside her.
She tucked back a stray blonde hair as she traced a piece of charcoal across the paper, slowly sketching out the landscape. Her tongue peeked out from the corner of her mouth, despite every attempt to keep it where it belonged.
"Damn it, "She muttered, "Why does it have to keep moving on-."
An arrow flew almost silently through the air, unnoticed except for the faint blur, embedding a leaf to the oak tree that was currently the object of all her attention. All of the birds surrounding her took off at once, and the girls' concentration was completely broken. She heard my voice call out, "Come on, Aether. I got something I wanna show you!"
Aether stood facing the trees, where she could barely see a shadow moving, "I knew you were there, I just didn't care enough to say hi! And let me gather all my stuff together before running off, this paper was expensive."
As she bent to pick up her scattered art supplies, she heard a stick crack and a faint laugh. Whirling around, she saw me standing there, pulling the arrow out from the tree and returning it to my quiver. My fingers danced over the nocks, counting and recounting to be sure I had all twenty-four arrows. Good arrows were easily lost and difficult to replace. My current set had taken a season's worth of savings to buy, and I didn't want to have to explain how I had lost them through carelessness.
"Knew I was there, huh? Then tell me lass, why were you facing the wrong way?" I smiled my crooked little grin at her and bowed slightly, eyes never once leaving her face. I could picture her in my mind with the slightest ease, but I preferred to look at her anyways. "Now hurry up, I wanna show you something. We don't have all night."
She rolled her eyes at my impatience and muttered, "boys", before saying out loud, "I don't think I can. I need to be home before dark, and as it is, walking home will take me that whole time. I guess it will just have to wait until tomorrow."
I beamed at her, a grin spreading across my face once more before I ducked behind a tree. A moment later, I emerged with two saddled horses and said, with a laugh in my voice, "Who said anything about walking?"
She was practically bouncing up and down and ran over to the horses, petting them and cooing softly, "Jack, you jerk. How did you get two horses saddled up? Alger is going to absolutely kill you for stealing horses!" Even with the scolding tone, she couldn't hide the excitement that was splashed across her face.
Waiting until she put a foot in the stirrup, I then pushed her up into the saddle, marveling at the touch of her, relishing the brief moment of contact.
"Didn't have to steal them. 'Sides, just cuz Alger's the horse-master, doesn't mean he can do nothing to me. I didn't do anything wrong this time. I showed up at the stables last night, or rather, early this morning, and convince Alger's boy, Tom, that we were best of friends."
She could barely hold back a laugh, even going so far as to put her hand against her mouth, "And just how did you manage to do that, my good sir?"
At this point, I had the sense to look down and blush a little, "Well, lass, it may have helped a little that I brought with me a bottle of fine whiskey I found in my mum's closet. Ain't like she was needing it, and I knew you'd like to ride for a bit."
She reached over and tried to smack me, but her flailing just made her horse turn the opposite way, "Jack! What have I told you about stealing?" She glared at me, but I just smiled back at her and got ready to ride. Placing a foot in the stirrup, I vaulted up into the saddle and looked over my shoulder at her.
"Follow me, quick like, we don't have much time to get there." And I put my heels to the horses' flank, taking off into the woods.
"But where are we going?" She called after me, hurrying to catch up. She muttered to herself when I didn't respond, "Boys and their little surprises."
I called back over my shoulder teasingly, "I ain't a boy, and nothing about me is little!" She just shook her head and sighed again, trying to keep pace with my breakneck speed.
We rode for another quarter mark before finally slowing down and reaching the top of the falls. It really wasn't much to look at; rocks cluttered the pathway, all the way to the riverbank where clothes were often washed. The water running over the edge of the cliff took small sticks and rocks with it, which was amusing for a short period but soon grew tiresome.
Aether had been here a thousand times sketching, so she was pretty bored by it all. "Jack, if this is it, I really should be getting home. My parents are going to be mad enough as it is. They always are."
I dismounted easily, rubbing a hand along the horses flank, before skipping over to help her down, "Shush. Now hurry, we don't have much more time. Hurry." And with that, I set off quickly along the river's edge towards the cliff and the waterfall.
She walked slowly after me, picking her way carefully over the rocks, about to call out for me to be careful and slow down when I turned to take a small dirt path, recently cut, that led a little ways off into the woods.
Curious, she stepped onto the path and realized that it went downhill for a bit before curving back towards the falls. It winded all the way down to where the water pooled at the bottom.
It could easily be seen that the path was brand new; there were few signs that anyone had done anything more than blaze the trail. It was carefully cut, twisting and winding so that it was never too steep while still being easy to follow.
When we reached the bottom, she stopped and drank it all in. The mist from the falling water hitting the rocks rose up into shy rainbows, cascading and filling the air all around us. It was impossible to be there and not get wet, but neither of us paid it any attention, we were so lost in the colors dancing and spinning through the air.
"Jack... this...this is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen... It's like nothing I could imagine.. Thank you." Wonder filled her voice and she looked at me with practically tears of joy in her eyes.
I looked back at her and said softly, almost so that she couldn't hear me, "It ain't as good as what I imagine every moment of every day. Nothing is."
She looked at me with a question forming in her eyes but I stopped her, "Let's go. You need to get back home and the colors are dying out already anyways. It doesn't last very long, only at the very moment the sun is cresting those ridges. I just wanted to let you see what I've been up to for the past couple of days."
She started to blow off what I said but it finally registered with her, "You? You cut that trail all the way down here?" Just then did she realize the cuts and scrapes down my arms and legs, and the new holes in my already tattered scraps of clothing.
I nodded, shrugging, "Kate helped a bit too. She likes the woods and wanted to be sure I wasn't hurting the trees too much." With a faraway look in my eyes, I ignored the look she shot at me and set off back up the trail.
Looking back at the now normal mist, Aether sighed happily and wished she had had the time to draw out the lights before they faded. "Maybe tomorrow though," She trailed off slowly, before following me back up the path.
The ride back was silent aside from the gentle thumps of the horses hooves on the dirt road, and we got back to town before dark fell. When we reached Aether's street, I dismounted stiffly, holding out a hand to help her down. She stepped down, a red blush slowly spreading across her cheeks when I brushed my lips against the back of her knuckles. "I'll see you soon Aeth. Don't forget me."
With that, I disappeared into the crowd, and even with the two horses, I was soon gone from sight. My past led me to have the ability to fade into the background at the drop of a hat. When you had someones purse in your hand, you had to be able to disappear before their very eyes. Otherwise, you'd be a bad thief. And everyone knows a bad thief is a dead thief.
Once, I looked back and I saw Aether try to pick me out from the crowd, but she soon gave up. She went inside, and instantly started to get screamed at by her parents.'
Even outside and down the street a ways, I could still hear the gist of what was being said; Such and such wasn't done, she was being a lazy and ungrateful brat. They were always saying that she was wasting both her own and their time. It was the usual, in her life. Even while she was so used to the words by now, they still cut deep. Sometimes she felt as if they were striking at a support that seemed to be cracking, ready to snap at any moment.
She slammed the door to her room open and almost threw her bag across the room, when something fell out, fluttering to the ground. A sunflower, crinkled and a little worn, yet somehow still alive. A not was pinned to the back with her name scrawled across it in my sloppy handwriting.
"Hang in there lass. You're like this here flower, persevering even in the tough times. I'll always be here for you, Aeth. Always. -Jack"
Even with everything that was going on, she looked out the window after her dearest friend, a faint smile crossing her face. She found that she was wishing to be back at the waterfall, with those colors around her once again.
She collapsed on the bed and tried to block out the screaming. Even used to it, sleep didn't come quickly. She tossed and turned for hours, her thoughts a jumbled up mess, before finally slipping into a dreamless sleep.
I stood watch outside for a few moments, trying to make certain that she was alright. Frowning, I sighed and started picking my way through the crowd. I wished that I could take her away from here, take her somewhere she was appreciated. But I knew it wouldn't ever happen. A man like me with absolutely no means, stealing away the chieftain's daughter? Even a small village like this, that was a blasphemy unthought of.
Money was a scarcity in my family, and without the thieving I used to do, it was difficult to scrape up any sort of coin. I found most of my spare time was spent in the woods, trying to get some pelts to sell. Fur was always a commodity people bought, but it only brought in so much.
Up to that point, the horses had been calm and docile. Which was good, because with my size, controlling the two beasts would have been downright impossible. Now, however, they started throwing their heads into the air and calling attention to me. My grubby, tattered clothes didn't fit in with this neighborhood, full of the rich snobs who would die before lending a hand to the likes of me.
Making sure I kept my eyes down, I left my hands out in the open where all could see them. No one here knew about my past, I didn't think, but I had made a promise to Aether. I wasn't going to break that unless I absolutely had to.
And if that meant I had to actively stop myself from lifting pockets, I'd do it. Even if the fat snobs kept their purses right in the open, easy to grab and run away with. I wouldn't even need someone else to do a smash and grab, at least, not at first. They had grown complacent after the small band of thieves fell that ran things here fell apart. I was part of why they no longer operated like they used to.
"Cut it out, Jack. You don't need it, and if you do it, you'll just tick of Aeth. Or get caught and thrown in gaol. Nobody needs that." I shook my head quickly and hurried through the crowd, people quickly stepping out of the way of the two giant horses. I quietly laughed, thinking that I should always bring horses with me, everywhere I had to go. I'd get there faster, that was for sure...as long as I didn't mind the extra attention they brought with them.
Once I got back to the stables, Tom was practically freaking out with worry over the fact that it was almost dark and the horses weren't back yet. Tom was chubby, with more chins than limbs and a man of shaggy blonde hair. Piercing blue eyes were almost always clouded from the alcohol or bitterleaf, a small time drug that was bitter to the tongue, but when smoked it would give interesting hallucinations. Not that I had ever tried it, but I used to know a man who dealt the stuff.
The bottle of whiskey I had left him the night before was rolling on the floor empty, and sober Tom wasn't very nice...but then again, neither was drunk Tom either.
I shrugged and grinned at him, shoving the reins into his hands. If he wanted them, he could deal with their excited state. I booked it before he could yell for his father, the horse master. As much talk as I had been earlier, I was one of the poor folk. I had little to no standing here, and any fight started with the chief's horse master would be lost before it started. So I put up with Tom, no matter how much of an arrogant ass he could be at times.
Before I could go home, I knew I had one last pit stop to make: Kate's house. She would be wondering how the trail had turned out, and Aether's reaction to the colors.
Getting their was easy enough. She lived in the poor quarter along with myself, though her section was a bit worse for wear than mine. Kate had been found in a burned out house from a raid, and raised by a caring family until she turned seven. At that point, they decided she was old enough to either live on her own or get a paying job and stop being a drain on their resources.
With nowhere to really go, she made her own home. Taking pieces of broken boxes and wood from scrap heaps, she made a small hovel that was basically just a roof over her head. But it kept her dry when she slept, and gave her a little bit of privacy, which was all that could be asked for.
Trash littered her lawn, a sea of grass that only those of us who grew up here could truly understand. I made my way across it, careful not to send too much debris flying, and knocked on the door. I had to strain, but I made sure I heard the timid, "Come in", before even thinking of entering. I knew Kate, well enough to know she would put a knife through me faster than I could explain that it was me who was calling.
Her home was bare of almost all amenities, with barely any furniture, and less decorations. But one did stand out amongst the rest: A pink ribbon pinned to the wall above where she slept.
She must have seen me looking at it, because her voice rang out in the small space, "Do you remember what you said to me the day you stole that as a gift for me?"
I shook my head, a small smile crossing my face. I waited, knowing she would remember every word, and she did, "You told me that I deserved something in my house, besides myself, that was pretty. And then you pinned it in my hair."
I laughed, remembering the day clearly, one hand unconsciously rubbing my stomach, "Yeah, and then you punched me in the stomach and ran away from me. It took hours to find you."
I had thought to win her favor so she could help me with a robbery, and all I had gotten for my trouble was a hollering girl and a sore stomach.
At six foot and a bit, she towered over me in the small hovel. She was lanky and thin, probably from how little she got to eat more than anything else. Lanky, greasy black hair hung in strands that she refused to brush or clean. I tried to cut it once, but she just snatched my knife away and cut it herself, so close to her scalp she was nearly bald.
Her voice broke through my memories, "So, what did she think of it all? Did she enjoy it as much as you thought she would?"
I nodded, smiling swiftly, "We got there a little late, so it didn't last as long as I'd hoped. But we still got to see the end of the colors, and I could tell she loved it. Her face is an open book sometimes. I wanted to thank you again."
She glanced over at me, "You can thank me by thanking the trees you cut. And I was happy to help, it was fun to make, and pretty too. You could have made the path a little smaller, though. The tree's weren't too happy. Should probably apologize as well as thank them, in fact." She picked up a crust of bread, idly scratching mold spotting along the edge. I wondered for a moment if she planned on eating it. Making a mental note to get her some fresh food, I knew already she wouldn't thank me for leaving it for her. But it was always gone when I came back, and she wasn't starved yet, so I didn't need the thanks.
Still holding the bread loosely, she asked softly, "Don't you miss it at all?"
"Miss what, Kate?"
"The lifting. With me and the guys. The feeling of getting away with taking what isn't yours. The thrill of running from guards or merchants, trying to evade dogs and men alike. The feeling of coin weighing your purse and food in your belly. You have to miss it."
I looked down at my feet, trying to find the words, "I...I do miss it, I can't lie. But not as much as I thought I would. Now that I have something...someone who cares about me and wants me to be safe...I don't know. It's worth going without."
Without a word, she put the bread down and walked out, briefly squeezing my shoulder in farewell. I didn't ask where she was going, and she didn't tell me. Kate preferred to keep her business to herself, and I wasn't going to pry where I wasn't wanted.
I left her house as it was, not knowing if she would be upset if I moved things around in an attempt to clean up a little. Kate wasn't one to have mad at you, or you'd wake to find bugs in your bed and your food rotten through. I looked around one last time before turning to head to where I stayed. It wasn't all that far from where I was, only a few streets over really...if you could really call them streets in the poor quarter.
I was only halfway home, picking my way slowly through the broken path, when I was stopped by four shadows stepping from a small alleyway.
One of them, Elroy, a very old acquaintance of mine from days long before, stepped forward into the light, "Jack, my boy. We need you for a job we just picked up, you were asked for specifically. I guess he heard how good you were and wants only the best. Big pay day, enough that you could really retire from all this. What you have to say man, you in?"
I tried to shoulder past them, but two hitters blocked my path. These men were handpicked not for any particular skills they had, but their immense size and strength. That, and their desire to break bones. "I told you once already, but I'll tell you again if I need to. I'm not in the business anymore, the life of lifting is behind me. Leave me be, Elroy, I don't want to fight about this."
The short, slightly blond boy just smiled sadly, his green eyes lighting up, "Well, I'm sorry my man. But I can't do that. See, I already took payment for the start of the job, but we need you along with us." He nodded slightly to the two hitters, "Convince him. But don't hurt his fingers or his head, we need them both intact."
The two men grinned at each other and rolled their shoulders back, stretching out and cracking their knuckles. With a confidence born from intimidation, they started towards me with their guard wide open.
With a deep sigh and a slight prayer, I let out a burst of speed towards the hitter on the right, my feet barely seeming to touch the ground. In surprise, he set back on his heels and crouched a little to maintain balance when I hit him. He expected me to try to tackle him, or maybe shove him to the side.
Leaping at the last second, my foot touched down on his thigh, his bent knee giving me all the platform I needed to flip over his head. Spinning myself in midair, I punched the back of his head, just behind his ear. Years of fighting and balance didn't disappear over night, and at one point, I was the best there was.
He crumpled to the ground, grunting, while the other stepped back warily, wondering what my next move was. Not bothering to feint towards him, I spun around and sprinted down the alleyway. No use to tempt luck again against a second hitter if I didn't need to.
Elroy called after me, his mocking laughter ringing down the street, "You can't run forever, Jack. I'll find you, no matter where you go."
"He's gone, boss. What we gonna do now?" The hitter who had been used as a springboard gingerly picked himself off the ground, rubbing his knee softly.
Elroy started to speak but was interrupted by the fourth shadow stepping out into the light. The light revealed a man, richly dressed, with a condescending smile that was soon replaced by a look of scorn, "I thought you said you could get him in on the job. I'm paying you good coin, I expect the best. Not only in people, but also in the work they do. Was that truly your best work, boy?"
Elroy kicked the ground in anger, not used to anyone talking down to him. At least, not doing it and able to get away with it. Standing there and listening to the man's insults got under his skin more than anything he could remember. "Look, I told you before that I could get him, and I will. It'll just take a little bit of time. You said it yourself, it doesn't matter when the job happens, just that it does. Right?"
The man waved his hand contemptuously, "That I did. But if I find out that you exaggerated your abilities in any way...I may just have to take care of your presumptuous attitude myself. And trust me, boy, you don't want that to happen."
The look in the mans eyes was so cold and deadly that Elroy swallowed hard, trying to get past the lump that appeared in his throat, "No, no need to do anything like that. I told you I'd take care of it, and I will, no worries."
"Yes, see that you do. I'd rather not find my time wasted. Now, I grow weary of this miserable place. You couldn't live somewhere...cleaner? No matter. Be sure that when I see you again, you have good news for me." As he spoke the last words, he stepped back into the shadows and disappeared from view.
Elroy and the two bully boys looked worried, trying to pierce the shadows to see if they could spot the man. Elroy even went so far as to send one of them into the alley to search, the man was nowhere in sight.
"That man, if that's what he really is, gives me the shivers, that's for sure. You two, get back to work. Our plans shouldn't be too much longer, hopefully, and then we'll have Jack in the palms of our hands."
Travelling in the poor quarter could be tricky at times. There were no actual solid streets, the shops on the paths were designed to be able to be taken apart and moved at a moments notice. This made all the pathways move occasionally, so you had to rely more on your sense of direction than any map or path. Unless you were quick of wit and could tell north from south, it was easy to lose your way in the darkness.
I had been running these streets since I was old enough to walk, though, so I never even doubted where my feet were taking me.
Bursting out of the side street and onto one of the few main market roads, I slowed, not wanting to knock into anyone who was out late. My feet nimbly leaped along the cracked walkway, instinctively avoiding the loose stones that would cause me to trip or stumble. On busy market days, it wasn't unheard of for a tripped person to be trampled to death by the uncaring passerby. And though it wasn't busy now, it still wouldn't do to lose my balance in this area.
In the poor quarter, almost everyone was uncaring. They'd steal your purse as soon as look at you, and few would go out of their way to make sure you were okay.
I refused to make eye contact with anyone, knowing the desperation and despair I'd see in their eyes, deciding to just hurry to the shack known as my house.
The place reeked of week old, rotten food and booze. It was a broken down, two-room building, one room for my parents and the other was the bathroom, kitchen, and my room all rolled into one. The smell on warm days drove me out of the house in an attempt to escape.
My mother was a lazy woman who was content to sit in a chair and issue orders like a queen, all the while eating most of the food and gorging herself on sweet drinks and candies. This drove my father to find happiness in hard liquor, turning him mean and angry all the time. Almost all of our money went to feeding their addictions.
It had been a long time since I felt loved at home, or anywhere else. In fact, it had been a long time since I even felt like I was home.
Luckily for me, neither of them were currently awake, though that could change at any moment. I curled up in the corner farthest away from the waste-hole, and tried to cast my busy mind into sleep.
Darkness overtook me, and gratefully, I succumbed.
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