PRELUDE: THE THREE VIRTUES
by Niels van Eekelen
The Citadel of the Almighty is, for all intents and purposes, the center of the world. Not only does it lie in the borderlands between the realms of the Skanda and the Arganian people, an oasis in an unhospitable river basin, it is also the holiest of holies, the sacred home of the United Church. Once already, war started here. If the world is to change again, here is where that change will begin.
A washerwoman, unbeliever in the holiest place in the world. A soldier, rising through the ranks of the Church Guard. A troubadour, free spirit in a world of dogma. One of these is the voice that will write a new chapter in history.
Fulcrum is an epic fantasy published as a series of short e-books. Its prelude, the introduction to the series and its main characters, is presented here in full.
Acceptance is the virtue of submission to the
It is countered by the sin of vainglory.
– The Precepts of Pious Conduct
Her feet hurt. So did her back. Her hands felt
rough and wrinkled from the soapy water. And her plague scars were itching
something terrible. Her scars were like Old Man Kerotod’s
crooked leg that ached when there was a storm coming—the itches always heralded
bad days to come.
Furiously, Ahlin scrubbed her brush over the
Skanda linen she was cleaning. That was all she needed right now, to get sick.
Her brush dropped from her hand when she felt a
wet hand touch her forehead, and she only barely managed to catch it before it
vanished underneath the suds in her tub.
“Well, you look feverish, but you don’t feel
Churlishly, Ahlin pushed away the hand before
it could drip soap in her eyes. “Cut it out, Finna. I’m fine.”
At the other woman’s skeptical expression,
Ahlin heaved a sigh.
“I’m fine. Just a little Fall sickness,
same every year. Anyway, I just need to stay on my feet for the next two or
three weeks, then I’ll be able to make it through the winter.” By then, the
last of the caravans of pilgrims would have come and gone—the last wagon train
of the year to cold Western Skanda to the north was already in town and departing
the very next day. More were still expected from the Arganian Empire to the
south, but not for much longer, either. Not much work in town for washerwomen
after the pilgrims and traders had all gone, so it was important to keep
Ahlin breathed in relief when Finna turned back
to her own tub of suds and resumed scrubbing, but apparently the mindless work
didn’t distract the woman enough to keep her from commenting further.
“You know, Ahlin, maybe if you came to prayer a
bit more often, you’d be able to do more than simply ‘make it through’ the
Deciding that the shirt she was washing had
never been pure white even when it was sewn, Ahlin put it aside and reached for
her next victim. She deliberately waited five seconds before answering. “Like
you, you mean?” she said finally. “Because prayer has really saved you from
this impoverished, hard-working life that I’m still trapped in.”
The sound of water splashing was enough to tell
Ahlin that she had insulted Finna. She glanced to her side to see the older
woman work a stain with vigorous enthusiasm. Well, it was still the truth.
Ahlin had never seen a person’s fortune increase by an increase of prayer
yet—excepting, perhaps, the ordained priests, who seemed to lead their devout
lives in great wealth behind their walls. But even for them, it seemed to Ahlin
that that had more to do with pilgrims trying to buy the Almighty’s grace than
with actual prayer.
Oh well, Finna never stayed angry for long
anyway—insults were to be forgiven, that much Ahlin had to give the other
woman, she never skipped over the trickier articles of faith. The two worked in
silence for a while, the chatter of the other washerwomen at work and the
splashing of their laundry blending together into an uninterrupted murmur.
After a few minutes, Finna laughed suddenly. “I
have to give it to you, Ahlin,” she said, “it’s still funny to me. We live here
at the foot of the holiest of holy places, people come here on pilgrimages from
the farthest corners of the world, and somehow you’re an unbeliever.”
Flinching, Ahlin turned to scowl at the other
woman. “Shut up!” she hissed softly. “Shout that a little louder! I’m not an
unbeliever and I don’t need people thinking I am.”
“Sorry,” Finna said, but Ahlin could tell she
didn’t see what the big deal was. Someone who went to services as loyally as
Finna wouldn’t, but Ahlin had better things to do with her time and that had
gotten her into trouble before. Unbelievers ‘hid themselves from the sight of
the Almighty,’ so scripture said—and some people took that more seriously than
others and refused to associate with whomever they thought might be such an
abomination. It was a good way to lose business.
As it turned out, the fact that Ahlin looked
around to see if anyone had overheard them was a lucky thing. Without that
touch of paranoia, she might never have caught the glint of the light
reflecting off the knife striking at her back.
Without her even having to think about it,
Ahlin’s hand shot out and managed to grab the wrist of the hand holding the
knife. With a quick jerk, she pulled it off-course. The momentum sent her and
her attacker tumbling forwards over her laundry tub, knocking it over and
spilling the lukewarm water all over them. They rolled across the ground,
struggling for possession of the knife.
Vaguely, Ahlin registered that the people
around them were screaming and panicking. It was all a blur, though—the danger
had focused her mind like an arrow in flight. No one seemed inclined to
interfere, except for Finna, who only received a kick to her stomach for her
trouble and was sent staggering backwards. Fending off a hand clawing for her
eyes, Ahlin finally saw who it was she was fighting with.
The woman had always been a bitch, but actually
attacking Ahlin—and in front of everyone—was a new one. Ahlin tried to recall
if anything had happened to set this off, but found that she was rather too
preoccupied with the present to focus.
She spotted an opening and struck out with her
free hand, punching Solleen straight in the nose. Blood splattered and the
other woman squealed like a pig.
Not about to waste the opportunity, Ahlin
pulled down Solleen’s arm by her wrist and bit down on it. Solleen struggled
furiously, but Ahlin had her pinned for the moment and increased the pressure
on her jaw until her attacker dropped the knife. It went skipping over the wet
dirt floor, out of reach.
A quick jab with her knee stunned Solleen long
enough for Ahlin to clamber back to her feet. Two fast kicks to Solleen’s
stomach and chest made sure she didn’t follow. Ahlin didn’t hold back—no way
was she letting this fight go on a second longer than necessary, and making
sure that Solleen got the message was the best way to end it.
She pushed the other woman over onto her back
with her foot, and then planted it on top of her and put weight on it. It took
a few panted breaths before she was able to speak. Finna came closer, looking
down at Solleen with confusion and still clutching her stomach.
“Why?” Ahlin asked finally, simply. “You...
Solleen only glared up at her, and Ahlin put
more weight on her chest until she gasped out, “You stole my business! That
Skanda trader... he was just haggling with me over price... then he saw you
stick out your chest and just gave you whatever price you wanted... you slut.”
With a harsh chuckle, Ahlin looked around at
that very trader’s clothes, strewn about in the muddy water on the floor. Yeah,
they were providing great customer service. “I’m as the Almighty made me, body
and soul,” she told the woman on the ground. “Next time you decide you have a
problem with my body, go complain to them. Finna?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
Together, they picked up Solleen off the floor,
each taking an arm, and dragged her to the door. There, Ahlin made sure to give
the woman an extra shove so that she tumbled to the ground again in the street,
and she and Finna went back inside. Reflexively, Ahlin checked that her hair
was still fixed over the scar on her head, and ended up smearing her hair with
mud from her hand.
The other washerwomen were getting back to
work, doing their best to pretend that nothing had happened and above all that
they had had nothing to do with it. Old Man Kerotod, who ran the place,
mysteriously absent during the fight itself, had other thoughts about it. He
came barreling towards Ahlin and Finna in his uneven gait. “Out! Out, both of
you!” he shouted.
Ahlin sighed. The man was as predictable as he
was transparent. Still, Finna played along and argued.
“Kerotod, please be reasonable, we didn’t start
“Don’t care! No fights here!”
Ducking down, Ahlin started gathering up the
articles of clothing from the floor that she would now have to start all over
on. Her eye fell on Solleen’s knife, and she put it away in her clothes with
her own knife, which she had hidden so well that she hadn’t been able to reach
it during the fight. That was real useful in an emergency, she’d just
discovered. She would have to try to fix that—but later.
“Come on, Kerotod, when have Ahlin and I ever
given you trouble before?” Finna tried. “Besides, we were in the middle of
doing laundry. You know if we aren’t able to deliver those clothes clean
when we promised, that will cost us. You don’t want that, Kerotod, do you?”
“Fine!” Old Man Kerotod cried as if tortured
into submission. Here it came. “But you pay! For the tubs and the hot water!
Finna sighed deeply and nodded.
“We’ll have to owe you until we get paid
ourselves,” Ahlin added. When Kerotod opened his mouth to speak again, she
scowled him down. “Don’t. You’re gouging us enough as it is.”
Kerotod was reasonable enough in his own greedy
way, and knew that she was right. He shrugged amicably and walked away. In
tired silence, Finna and Ahlin gathered up their things and got back to work.
It was all part of the cost of doing business
in the holiest place under the sun.
Ambition is the virtue of fervor in the name of
It is countered by the sin of sloth.
– The Precepts of Pious Conduct
He wondered if he was supposed to feel guilty
about this. They were all servants of the Almighty, after all. But by that same
token, why did the ordained priests have to hold their conclaves in such
secrecy? No, Tygg felt quite justified in considering his eavesdropping a form
of training—especially after what he had just heard the older men discuss.
Hearing his own name mentioned in the conclave
had come as a surprise, and for a moment Tygg had feared that the priests had
discovered him. Luckily, his martial training had kept him quiet instead of
betraying himself before he found out that he was simply on the agenda. Tygg
was well aware that he was young to be considered for another promotion. Still,
the Arganian priests had argued, he had a “level head” of the kind that would
be needed “in this time of growing unrest,” and “the guard looks up to him.”
When they had spoken of his popularity among the armed men, they had sounded
equal parts complimentary and concerned.
The Skanda priests had been less convinced, and
had offered up a number of half-hearted objections—including Tygg’s age. The
argument had been curiously lacking in heat, though, and Tygg had gotten the
impression that all the priests were going through well-practiced motions.
That was par for the course with the rest of the
meeting. Ninety percent politics, all of it. Truthfully, Tygg had expected as
much from his earlier observations—and he had been keeping a close eye on the
ordained priests whenever they came out in public, or when two of them
encountered each other—but he still felt a curious sense of disappointment, a
heavy feeling in his stomach. These men were supposed to be above such worldly
concerns. Their arguments should be limited to the metaphysical, like whether
it was proper to speak of the Almighty as “He” or as “They.”
In theory, anyway. He was Lieutenant Tygg Vana
of the Protective Guard of the One Church, and that had
provided him with plentiful opportunity to see the humans and the sinners in
even the most devout pilgrims and priests. Tygg did not pretend to be any
different himself—he desired that promotion and would make certain, somehow,
that he received it. He fully intended to become an influential person in the
Church one day.
Cautiously sticking his head back out from
behind the statue of the Sainted Eath of the River, Tygg discovered that the
priests he was hiding from had passed him and that the hallway was empty.
He dropped down from the pedestal and saluted
the sainted one with his hand over his heart, palm outward. It never hurt to be
respectful. Checking his uniform for dust, Tygg calmly walked down the hallway
in the opposite direction the priests had headed in. At the doors to the inner
sanctum, he nodded to the guards on duty. From his own experience as a grunt,
Tygg remembered quite clearly that they had very little idea of who was
actually allowed past them, and they weren’t about to question a superior
officer who looked like he knew what he was doing.
There was a lot to think about, and Tygg
considered where to go. Church politics, unpleasant as they were, were proving
to be complex. The divide between Skanda and Arganians was as clear in the
clergy as it was in the world outside, and while Tygg had suspected that much,
there had been far more subtle allegiances at play in the conclave as well.
He shook his head in an attempt to clear it.
Even with all the curiosity and ambition in the world, there was no way he was
going to decipher the inner workings of the One Church today. Best to put it
all aside for a while and focus on his actual duties. Even the
smoothest-running squad of Church Guard stationed in the Citadel of the
Almighty needed to be checked up on occasionally.
His mind made up, Tygg directed his feet
towards his squad’s favorite tavern. They were back on patrol duty in the morning,
so it was his responsibility to make sure his men were sobered up enough by
then not to fall off their mounts. He always let them have their fun, and they
repaid him by leaving their more sinful urges in the barracks when they
reported for duty. Tygg had found the method far more effective than trying to
enforce pristine behavior at all times, like some other officers did. Soldiers
were not priests. His squad’s behavior was undoubtedly one of the reasons he
was being considered for captaincy. The men made him look good.
Down the street from The Hunting Owl, Tygg
frowned. He thought he could hear shouting, followed by a noise of something
Sure enough, when he was five paces closer to
the tavern, two waitresses came running out the door, clearly fleeing something
happening inside. Tygg began to run, and the noises of a brawl became louder.
He rushed in through the door and immediately
had to duck his head as a mug of ale came flying at him, splattering out its
Inside, he found a war zone. Tygg grimaced as
he recognized his men on one side of the battle. Although almost every patron
of the tavern had been drawn into the fight, it looked like the core of it was
a face-off between his Arganian squad of the Church Guard and a Skanda squad of
what was supposed to be the same force. The two races had trouble enough living
together in peace—The Five Year War hadn’t been over for so long that it had
been forgiven or forgotten—so usually the men were smart enough not to mix
races where there was also alcohol in the mix.
For a moment, Tygg hesitated. He was an
officer—he could not afford to be seen getting involved in a bar brawl, for the
Church’s sake if not his own. But he didn’t see the Skanda’s commanding officer
anywhere, and someone needed to step in and bring this to an end.
At least no weapons had come out yet, but
enough of the men were bloodied that one of them was bound to cross that river
in a fit of rage sooner or later.
With a deep breath, Tygg waded into the fight.
He could try to address the mob from the bar—the acoustics and lighting in the
place turned it into a kind of natural stage, so that was his best bet. But how
to make the idiots listen?
Moving swiftly between the fighters, Tygg
dodged a Skanda fist swinging at his head and swiped his attacker’s leg out
from under him, sending him tumbling to the floor. A little further on he
shoved two men intent on wringing each other’s necks hard against a table, so
that they split apart, each on one side.
He never threw a punch. His goal was to contain
the mess, and no man was going to stand down if the man ordering him to do so
had just broken his nose. With a sense of relief, Tygg spotted Alefs, his
sergeant, not far away. He grabbed the man’s shoulder and caught the punch he
got thrown at him in response on the palm of his other hand.
“Lieutenant! Sorry, Sir! Thought you were one
of these savages!” His black mustache and beard were coated red with blood
leaking from his nose.
“Alefs! What in the name of the Holy Oak is
going on? Did you all go completely mad?” He had to shout to make
himself understood over the noise of breaking furniture and the lively exchange
of racial epithets. “Never mind that—what started all this off?”
Alefs grabbed him by the sleeve and pulled them
into a little alcove with a private table for two. A trembling waitress
squealed as they invaded her hiding place, and a snarl from Alefs sent her
“They—those Skanda pigs—came in while we were
celebrating our last night off, Tygg,” he explained. “You know how it is. All
were a bit rowdy, and that lot started singing some filthy song about good
Arganian women.” Tygg groaned inwardly. He sincerely doubted the Skanda song
was any filthier than the things his own men regularly sang about both Skanda
men and women. Truly, he was hardly fond of the Skanda and their
borderline paganism and loose ideas about hygiene himself, but the blind hatred
that existed between the two races had never made anything easier that he was
“Anyway,” Alefs continued, “some of us went to
tell them off, tried to put them straight, and, well, this happened pretty
quickly.” He nodded his head towards the main room. “Sir? Are you going to
order the men to stand down?” He sounded skeptical about Tygg’s chances getting
anyone to listen to him, and Tygg was forced to agree. He bit his thumb, deep
“Ranks,” he said finally. “Alefs, get the men
to form ranks.”
“Huh? I don’t...”
“Along the east wall. Close ranks, no one gets
through. That’s an order, Sergeant!”
“Sir!” The order given, Alefs leaped into
action with the blind obedience of long practice, despite not understanding.
Tygg watched for a moment as the sergeant grabbed two men by their arms and
yelled instructions in their ears. Then Tygg continued on, making his way to
By the time he got there, the din of the
fighting had already gotten noticeably less ear-splitting. He rolled onto the
bar, spying the proprietor hunched down behind it on his knees, and jumped to
Surveying the fighting, Tygg could now see a
clear front line, with most of his Arganians to his left and most of the Skanda
to his right. With ranks two deep on either side, the fighting was at least
somewhat contained, if not enough to respond to a call for truce. Still, he
would be heard.
He cupped his hand around his mouth and
shouted. “Invasion alarm! Invasion alarm!”
As one, the soldiers jumped a foot into the air
and cast wild looks around themselves. The ringing of steel sounded as weapons
were drawn—which was what made this a risky gambit—but fighting stilled for the
moment. The civilians who had gotten involved just looked around at the others,
No, the Five Year War had not been over that
long yet—not long enough to stop training recruits to respond instantaneously
to military strikes against the Citadel, be they from the north or from the
south. When the men realized that there were no invading armies in The
Hunting Owl, one by one they turned to Tygg and soon spotted his
Tygg ground his teeth and clasped his hands
behind his back, playing the calm, detached officer. He wasn’t feeling the
part. “Disgraceful!” he shouted when enough of them were looking at him. “Are
you lot servants of the Almighty, or are you animals? I’ve learned to expect
this kind of behavior from caravan guards. And that’s a good thing, because the
next person to strike or provoke another can go ask them if they have any
openings.” His head snapped around as he saw a smirk form on one of his men’s
faces. “That goes for either squad, Lernis,” he said. “Don’t think I don’t see
you there.” If the Skanda believed he was favoring his own men, they would only
be encouraged to start up again. And frankly, Tygg wasn’t feeling very
charitable towards his men right now anyway.
“Now sheathe weapons!” He breathed deeply in
relief as the men all obeyed his command. He’d managed to startle them enough
to shake them out of their drunken rage.
“Good men. You will all report to your
barracks, where you will remain until first bells tomorrow morning. On the way
there, you will not speak to anyone outside your squad. You will not gesture at
or communicate in any way with anyone outside your squad. Do I make myself
A chorus of “Sir, yes, Sir!” rang through the
“Before anyone leaves,” he continued,
and waited a moment for everyone to quiet down again. “You will each come up to
the bar and graciously contribute funds for repairs to this fine
establishment.” That got them to take in the destruction all around them. Most
looked embarrassed. Good. “If contributions fall short, I will double—no,
triple!—whatever amount is missing and confiscate it from your squad payrolls
equally. Dismissed! Blessings of the Owl and the Oak Tree.” He did not manage
to keep the sarcasm out of his voice on the last remark, but throughout the
room, hands instinctively flew up to hearts in salute.
Tygg remained standing on the bar as the men
came up one by one and deposited coins at his feet, and then trudged out the
door. He guessed that the cowering man behind the bar was receiving more than
enough coins to replace the broken mugs and furniture—perhaps even enough to
bribe his waitresses into coming back to work after all this.
With some amusement, Tygg noticed that one of
the civilians emptied out his wallet on the pile before leaving as well.
Perhaps he was more intimidating than he thought.
Yes, he was good at this, he realized.
Too few officers of the Church Guard managed to command respect from both the
Arganian and the Skanda branch. Perhaps it was not so strange that he was
already up for captaincy after all. And perhaps that was only the beginning of
his rise. Politics was all about convincing people to listen to your words,
after all... and that he could do.
Arbitration is the virtue of justice and
It is countered by the sin of wrath.
– The Precepts of Pious Conduct
Why did people insist on rising so early? She
had already been woken once, at dawn, when a group of departing riders had
talked far too loudly of that day’s destination and that morning’s bowel
movements while saddling their horses.
She had managed to fall back asleep after that
lot had departed, and it felt like she had scored a few extra hours of shut-eye
out of that. Now the stable boy was checking on the animals, though, and from
the noise coming in from the village’s single proper street, Cilley knew that
it was useless turning over once more. She pushed herself up to a sitting
position and stretched out her arms above her head, cracking her spine.
“Morning, handsome,” she said when the stable
boy looked around in her direction. The kid—all of fourteen years old if Cilley
remembered correctly from the day before—blushed such a bright red looking at
her that she checked if she was still properly clothed. Which she was. Ah, he
was probably just that age. Or simply not used to pretty women sleeping on the
hay in the back of the stables.
Brushing the hay from her clothes and hair,
Cilley sat up on her knees to check her pack. Being a light sleeper, she was
sure she would have woken if someone had tried to rob her, but you could never
be too careful. Everything still seemed to be there, so she took the pack,
tugged her boots on and slouched towards the doors. The stable boy was doing an
impressive job of ignoring her now—and if he really was just that age,
Cilley frowned, that was actually a bit insulting.
Outside, the sun was out. It was not a pleasant
experience, and Cilley fled into the inn’s main building as quickly as she was
able. It took a minute of blinking and furiously rubbing her temples before her
vision cleared. She looked up just as the door swung shut behind her. It
echoed. Or at least it seemed so to Cilley, the room was that empty. Not a
single table was occupied by more than empty bowls and mugs. Behind the bar,
the innkeeper was wiping clean more dishes, and the look he gave her was as
harsh as the sun.
Cilley dropped her pack on the ground and fell
into a chair. “You owe me breakfast!” she said.
“Breakfast was an hour ago,” the innkeeper
said. She wished she could remember the man’s name. Names were useful tools
when talking to people.
“Well, I didn’t hear you say that when we
talked business yesterday. No timetables were mentioned.”
“Breakfast is the morning meal. For decent
people, anyway. It’s practically midday. The cook is out now.”
Leaning back her head, Cilley groaned. As if he
was free enough with his coin to pay someone else to prepare breakfast. She
said, “Come on, goodman, let’s not be difficult this early in the day, all
right? I just want something to eat before I get back on the road. Don’t even
care if it’s hot. And then I’ll be out of your hair.”
The innkeeper glared at her. It looked like the
actions physically pained him, but he ladled some slop into a bowl, gathered up
leftover bits of bread and brought them over.
“You’re too kind,” Cilley told him, but the man
was too boring to rise to the bait. He had liked her well enough the night
before, when seemingly every person for miles around had come to his crummy inn
to listen to her.
A few bites into her breakfast, Cilley was more
certain than ever that they had not come for the food. Finishing her meal as
quickly as possible, so as better not to taste it, she left without another
It was still bright outside, but with food in
her belly, it was easier to take. And all things considered, this late in the
season—with the winter chill beginning to set in—better the glare of the sun
than grim rain clouds.
She made her way to the riverside, where a
narrow stone bank kept the reeds out of the way and gave access to relatively
clean water. Cilley freshened up, filled her waterskins and drank her fill.
As simple as that, she was ready to leave the
nameless village behind. All obligations fulfilled, all preparations made.
There was only the nagging feeling that she had been underpaid. Rummaging
through her pack, she grabbed her flute, leaving her lute safely wrapped up in
its oilcloth, and sat down on the riverbank to play.
The night before, her lute had gotten exercise
aplenty. She had played the inn’s common room from dusk until the early hours
of the morning. A crowd the likes of which the crummy place had probably never
seen had stayed up late to listen to her songs, drinking ale by the bucketload.
She had negotiated with the innkeeper for her meals—including breakfast—free
ale for as long as she was playing, and a place to sleep. It was cheap for what
she brought to the place, and common practice throughout the lands was that she
got at least half the tips that were left that night. People certainly left
them for her, even holding up the coins to show them to her before putting them
on the table. The innkeeper had hurried to snatch up every last bernon, and
after her performance the calculating looks he kept sending her way were enough
to inform her that she needn’t bother ask for any share of it. A false note
disrupted her flute play. Damnation. She shouldn’t have started thinking about
it, now she was getting cranky.
A giggle sounded from behind her, shaking her
from her thoughts. Without taking her lips from her flute, Cilley turned her
head. A bunch of children, varying in age from near-toddlers to young teens,
were standing a little distance away, watching her. From the looks of their
muddy feet, they had been playing among the reeds when they’d heard her play.
She smiled and played some questioning notes their way. They came closer, the
older ones nudging the younger, shyer ones forward.
Cilley kept playing one-handedly as she pushed
herself to her feet and swung her pack onto her back. She enjoyed playing for
children, but unless there was a village fair or a farmers’ market, she rarely
got the chance. The money was in late nights, in adults who were already
spending it freely on ale or mead.
Movement caught her eye. It was a woman, apparently
the mother of two of the children, because she rushed up and grabbed a boy and
a young girl by their arms to roughly drag them away. The woman cast a dark
look over her shoulder as they retreated.
Oh, so that was how it was. Afraid the
naughty troubadour might corrupt her children. Undoubtedly it was because of
the bawdy songs she’d sung last night—but as if any of the men hadn’t been
twice as crude to her as any song she had sung. That did it. She deserved a
better reward from this cruddy village, and she’d get it.
Switching to a jaunty tune, Cilley walked
through the group of remaining children, back towards the village buildings.
When they didn’t follow, she turned around and walked backwards, smiling at
them. They got the message. Cilley began to skip and to twirl about, and the
children laughed and easily topped her for energy.
As they walked down the street, her entourage
grew to over a dozen. Over a dozen noisy, dancing and singing children—enough
to keep busy every wary adult’s eye, which suited Cilley fine.
A blanket hung over a line between a tree and a
shed. Winter was coming, and that blanket looked mighty warm. She snatched it
and threw it about her shoulders like a cape. All part of the show for the
kids—why would anyone think to stop her?
Nobody even saw the freshly baked bread vanish
underneath that cape from the windowsill of the farmhouse they passed next.
The children seemed to be having the time of
their life—probably were, in a nowhere town like this—so Cilley didn’t feel
guilty for using them as a diversion. As they neared the inn, Cilley turned
back around to face the children. She shifted to a different tune, a well-known
one that served as a melody for a dozen different children’s rhymes in a dozen
different lands. The one this group of children started singing to it, she had
always liked. It was full of mischief. Walking backwards and egging the
children on to be as overexcited and noisy as humanly possible, Cilley nudged
open the door with her behind and went inside.
“What in the Pit of the Thirteen Depths!?” was
the innkeeper’s greeting. Cilley grinned at him past her flute. The children
were coming pouring in through the door. “What? No. No!”
eyes widened. Quickly he tossed aside the dirty rag he was using to make a
pretense at cleaning with, and tried to grab the nearest kid. The young boy
shrieked with laughter and danced out of his reach. The children thought this
was a wonderful game—all except for maybe a few of the older ones, who knew
better, but none of them seemed eager to lend the innkeeper a hand.
Cilley loved chaos. And she was so very good at
“Off! Keep your hands off, Aster!” the
innkeeper raged at one of the younger girls, who had climbed onto a table and
was sniffing a half-full mug of ale that someone had left unfinished. “Your
da’ll kill me!”
Amidst all those children shrieking at the top
of their lungs, it was easy to overlook one quiet adult as she put away her flute
and ducked behind the bar. In any city inn, the moneybox would have had a firm
lock on it, but in a village like this where everyone knew everyone, people got
careless, innkeepers included. Probably too busy ripping off people to their
faces to worry about anyone doing it to him behind his back. Anyway, Cilley
only took enough to cover her share of the tips, or her best optimistic
Then she ducked through the door to the
kitchen, only pausing to grab some hard sausages and a bottle of brandy to wash
them down before vanishing out the back door.
When the sunlight hit her face this time, she
smiled, the ruckus inside muted as the door swung shut. She knelt down for a
moment to put away her food, then rolled up her blanket-cape and tied it onto
Feeling much better, positively re-energized,
Cilley once again lifted her pack onto her shoulders, ready to leave the crummy
village behind. The westward road waited for her in the distance. It was a ways
to the next town big enough to have an inn, but Cilley had a feeling she was
going to make good time that day. She’d better—no telling when the innkeeper
would remember her or check his moneybox, after all...
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