Chapter One : Part Three

The Runaways

“Hey, watch it, ya filthy brats,” yelled the disgruntled owner of a cart filled with the foul smelling karussen fruit as Fitch blindly backed into it, causing the precariously stacked produce to shudder and tilt. To Aiyana’s horror, one of the large, dark green, spiked globes toppled and fell to the cobbles, breaking open upon impact and emitting an odor that closely resembled the smell of Fitch’s socks after they’d spent a hot day tromping through fields and streams.

“Now look what you’ve done!” the vendor groaned as he stared down at the mess of green and yellow oozing onto the ground.

“Sorry, sorry!” Fitch cried as he held up his hands in supplication or surrender, Aiyana wasn’t sure which. 

But as the vendor looked up from the odiferous, slime covered cobbles, his face turned dark with the realization of how much silver the careless boy had just cost him. His hand lashed out and grabbed at Fitch’s forearm, tugging him close and almost causing him to slip in the muck at his feet.

“Yer gonna be sorry, when I’m done with you,” he growled.

Fitch yelped as the vendor’s grip tightened painfully and Aiyana rushed forward, trying to put herself between the two. 

“It was an accident,” she pleaded. “And you’re hurting him.”

“An accident that cost me nearly a day’s wages,” was the vendor’s retort. “And he can plead his case to the magistrate, ‘less you’ve got the money to cover it.” Fitch cried out again as the older man twisted his arm sharply.

Aiyana thought frantically of the little bit of silver they had left in their purse. Curse Fitch and his insistence on buying swords. It would likely just cover the incident, but they’d have nothing left for the journey – it would be over before it had begun.

Fitch was babbling profuse apologies as Aiyana’s fingers reached for her purse and she said, “I’m sorry…” but the older man would have none of it. Roughly he shoved Aiyana aside, and she fell backward.

But just as she was about to slam into the stone street, she felt a pair of gloved hands catch her and a voice said, “Here now! What appears to be the matter?”

Aiyana looked up to see a tall, slightly thin man standing over her, his hand still firmly cupped under her elbow. She tried to slip free of his grasp, but he held on tightly, though his gaze never left that of the fruit vendor’s.

“These brats broke my fruit!” he bellowed back, perturbed at the other man’s calm demeanor.

“Is that so?” the stranger replied, glancing first at Fitch, then the mess on the ground at his feet. His tone turned stern. “Children, how many times must I tell you not to play around in the market? This is exactly what I’ve warned you might happen.”

Slipping his free hand into his simple brown cloak, the man pulled out a small purse, but not before Aiyana glimpsed several others hanging there. He held it out toward the vendor. “I do apologize for my children’s clumsiness. I promise to take them straight home and give them extra chores as penance. I hope this will cover the cost of your damaged wares.”

The vendor released Fitch and took the purse, quickly opening it and counting the silver inside. Grudgingly, he nodded, even as the newcomer took Fitch’s elbow in a grip similar to the one holding Aiyana.

“Come along, children,” he commanded, turning them toward another street. “You’ve wreaked enough havoc for one day, I’d say.”

Grateful to be free of his predicament, Fitch allowed himself to be propelled along, but Aiyana tugged against the firm grip of the stranger holding her arm as he pushed them toward a more narrow passage that led behind several shops. 

The man bent slightly, causing a lock of dusty blond hair to partially obscure one hazel eye, and pulled her closer to whisper in her ear, “Stop fighting me. I’m just trying to help.”

Fitch was oblivious to it all. He was practically prancing with joy as he babbled, “Thanks so much, sir. I thought he was going to have us for dinner. Did you see the look on his face, Aiya? He was turning purple!”

Fitch clearly missed the sharp look Aiyana threw his way. He wasn’t supposed to be using her name and he’d slipped for the second time already. She would have stepped on his foot again if she could have reached it, but instead she looked up at the man hurrying them along.

His gaze was fixed straight ahead, and he didn’t seem to have noticed Fitch’s slip of the tongue, or if he did, his countenance didn’t betray it.

As they neared the end of the path-turned-alley, Aiyana dug in her heels and demanded, “Who are you and where are you taking us?”

Fitch, as if just realizing how far they’d gone, stopped as well. He tugged his arm free and said, “Yeah… where are we going?”

“I’m merely taking you through a back route to the main square. Morgath back there is notoriously dour and vengeful, and he may decide the coin wasn’t enough. Why, he could be calling the guard even now to arrest you both. I thought it best you disappear into the crowds before he changes his mind.”

A smile broke out on Fitch’s face as he replied, “That’s mighty nice of you!”

But the man, who’d let Fitch go, had yet to release Aiyana’s arm. She scowled up at him as he prodded her back into motion. Fitch skipped along beside them, chattering on about the stink of the broken karussen fruit.

They turned a corner onto a slightly wider back street that stretched several paces ahead before opening up into a spiderweb of other paths skirting homes and businesses at varying angles. Aiyana could hear the sounds of a busy marketplace nearby and sighed with relief. Perhaps this man was altruistic after all, but there was a warning pricking at the back of her mind the same way the answers to Beswarick’s questions often came to her, and she tugged at his grip again.

“Hush now, we’re almost there,” he whispered to her. Fitch, in his excitement, noticed nothing.

With a smile, the man looked at Fitch and said, “And what are the two of you doing in town anyway? You’re a bit young to be wandering about alone, aren’t you?”

His expression turning mulish, Fitch replied, “We’re not too young! We’re going to hunt a targol.”

The man’s eyes widened and he stopped moving. “You don’t say? Targol hunting… why, I did that when I was a boy, almost caught one too.”

“You saw a targol?” Fitch was incredulous.

“I did indeed. Twenty years back, it would have been. I was about your age. Even had my rope about his neck, but with all those spikes… it snapped, and the targol was gone, quick as lightning.”

Aiyana frowned. “Targols don’t have spikes on their necks…” she said.

“The northern breeds do,” the man countered quickly, before turning his attention back to her friend. “So if you’re targol hunting, you should really have steel chain. Did you bring a steel chain?”

Fitch’s gaze dropped. “No, we didn’t know about the chain. We just have rope.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” the man replied. He seemed to think for a moment, then continued, “You know, I have a length of chain at my shop. It’s not too far from here. If you’d like, I could loan it to you.”

Fitch beamed, “That would be…”

“Not necessary,” Aiyana interjected, shooting her friend a warning look.

“But Aiya,” he pleaded, eyes wide.

Her groan of frustration with her friend was drowned out by the man she was beginning to think of as her captor as he said, “It’s no trouble, really. Come along, it’s not far now.” And he pushed at her arm, directing Aiyana toward another side street as Fitch followed excitedly along.

After several minutes of walking through the twisting, turning back streets, the man gestured to a doorway at the end of a dark, narrow alley and said, “It’s just up here.” The door was blackened with dirt and smoke, and on the frame around it were etched foreign looking symbols in a tarnished golden color. At the sight of it, even Fitch stopped, casting a nervous gaze back at Aiyana.

“You know,” he said, “maybe we’ll be just fine with a rope after all…”

“Nonsense,” said the man. “You’ve come this far, might as well get the chain, come along.”

But Aiyana had been manhandled and pressed far enough and she pulled her arm again, violently trying to free it from the man’s iron hold. “Let go!” she shouted.

The man’s smile finally slipped from his face as he grabbed both of her arms just below her shoulders. “That’s not happening,” he growled. Reaching up, he gripped the brim of the hat and pulled it from her head, causing her white hair to spill out around her shoulders. “You’re not going anywhere… Princess.”

Confused, Fitch called her name even as the man yelled, “Grimsby, Elcorn, get out here!” 

The door at the end of the alley burst open and two men stepped out. One was short and stocky with a shock of tangled red hair while the other was a bit taller, dark and muscled, with a patch over one eye and a scar stretching under the patch from his forehead to chin.

Aiyana lashed out, landing a kick just below her captor’s waist. The shock of the blow caused him to double over and release her, and she grabbed her friend’s sleeve, shouting, “Fitch, run!”

Behind them, a pained voice cried out, “Forget the boy, just get the girl!”

They tore through the back alleys, completely lost in the labyrinth of the city. But their steps were spurred on by the sounds of the men running behind them.

Fitch, who had always been the faster runner, looked back at her and cried out, “Aiya, what’s going on?”

But Aiyana’s only answer was, “Keep running!”

After what seemed like forever, the alley widened and they broke out into the bustling marketplace, not far from the blacksmith’s stall where they’d bought the swords. A cry of “Get back here!” spurred them on, even as they collided with a cart filled with apples.

They didn’t stop at the vendor’s outraged cry as half his crop tumbled and rolled across the cobbles. They kept running, bumping into other stalls and carts, leaving angry shouts in their wake.

They ran, long after the sounds of pursuing footsteps had faded, past the merchant sector, through the elaborate residences of nobles and beyond the smaller peasant homes. They ran through the fields at the outskirts of Almontera, and only stopped, gasping for air, as they reached the edge of the great Evendwood Forest.

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