Chapter One : Part Two

The Runaways

The cobblestone streets of Almontera were busy, as they always were in the late afternoon hours. People from the surrounding villages flocked to the busy markets to sell their wares or buy exotic goods brought in from the capital city’s nearby harbor while the locals bustled about between the open-air markets or the decadent shops lining the city’s central streets. Carts filled with late autumn produce, apples, pears, golden ears of corn and brightly colored gourds, rumbled over the cobbles, stopping at homes and shops along the way to deliver their wares. The smell of freshly baked breads and pungent cheeses wafted through the air, just barely covering the stench of horses and leather and people crowding close together while the general din of the meandering crowds was punctuated by the occasional shout from a vendor or raised voices as two parties haggled over prices.

Such was the crush of people that no one seemed to pay any mind to the two children weaving their way through the crowds, their eyes alight with wonder and excitement as they darted from shop to shop. They stopped to purchase two loaves of crusty calah bread and a small block of hard cheese before they saw the sun glinting off a cart bearing blades of all shapes and sizes.

Fitch’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped open at the sight, causing Aiyana to giggle.

“You look like a codfish,” she whispered, as Fitch took her hand and dragged her across the square, dodging past vendors and shoppers alike.

“Real swords, Aiya,” he murmured in awe. “We could have real swords…” Fitch reached out and reverently touched one of the finely crafted blades.

“You can’t even lift a real sword,” Aiyana snapped back.

“But look at this one,” Fitch replied, louder this time, as his hand took hold of the hilt of a silvery steel short sword. It was just small enough that he could easily, if a bit clumsily, lift and brandish it. “And there’s another one just like it. We could both have one,” he cajoled.

Aiyana bit her lower lip. They were beautiful blades. She bent down to examine the second sword more closely. The ornate hilt bore a traditional Cyrean knotwork design with a deep violet amethyst nestled in the center of the pommel. As she ran her fingers over the silvery blade, she noticed the delicate scroll of an ancient language etched into its surface, running up its center from guard to tip.

Fitch grinned broadly as she lifted the blade and tested its weight in her hand. She didn’t know as much about swords as she would have liked, but she could tell that it was well balanced, and it felt like an extension of her arm as she held it out in front of her.

“’Ere now!” called a disgruntled voice behind them, startling Aiyana and Fitch.  They turned around to find the bladesmith glaring down at them. “Those’re not toys, you two! Put ‘em back and be on wit’ ya before I tan yer hides.”

Aiyana’s fingers tightened around the hilt of her blade even as she ducked her head to avoid making eye contact with the man. But Fitch stared right back at him and said, “We’re not playing. We want to buy them!”

“Oh really?” The bladesmith chortled. He was a broad man, tall and weathered with long dark hair liberally streaked with grey and a wiry beard to match. “And how’d ya expect to do that, lad? These ‘ere blades are too expensive for the likes of you. Unless yer the crown prince in disguise.” He laughed at his own joke.

“No,” Fitch spat back defensively. “But she’s… OW!” He jumped back from Aiyana, who had stomped soundly on his instep.

The bladesmith’s eyes narrowed under his bushy brows. “She’s what?” He turned his gaze to Aiyana, who kept her head ducked low as she clutched the sword in both hands. “What kinda game are ya kids playin’ at?”

Hopping on one foot, Fitch scrambled to cover his mistake and spluttered, “No game, I swear! She’s… she’s been working in the scullery at the palace, saving up money, and… and today’s my birthday and our father gave us silver to buy a present and we want these,” he finished with a sigh.

The bladesmith squinted one eye at them, then placed his hands on his hips and said, “It’ll be thirty pieces of silver.” Fitch’s eyes widened with delight as, in his excitement, he grabbed at Aiyana’s shirt sleeve with his free hand and tugged.

“We can do thirty pieces of silver,” he reassured the man towering over them.

“Each,” the bladesmith clarified, pointing at the two swords in turn before crossing his arms over his chest.

Aiyana gasped and her head snapped up to meet the knowing gaze of the bladesmith. Remembering herself, she quickly ducked her head, but not before his eyes narrowed shrewdly. She turned her back toward the man and leaned in close to Fitch.

“Sixty! Fitch, that doesn’t leave us with very much money,” she hissed.

“So? We have enough food for a few days. And… swords, Aiya. Real swords. No more playing with those stupid wooden practice swords Cheven gives us. We’d have the real thing.”

Aiyana sighed and looked down at the hilt of the blade she still gripped tightly in her right hand. “Fine,” she whispered, causing Fitch to crow with excitement and dance a little jig before she tugged at his arm to stop him. “But this is it. No sweets, no cakes, nothing else…”

“Right, right,” he said, still bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Nothing else. Thank you, thank you!” As Aiyana reached into the small pouch tied to the inside of her trousers, Fitch grinned up at the bladesmith.

“We’ll take them!” he declared, glancing impatiently at Aiyana as she counted out sixty silver coins. As soon as they were in Fitch’s palm, he handed them over to the bladesmith. They waited while the man counted them a second time.

After what seemed like an eternity to the two children, the man nodded and said, “’Ere, now. Ya can’t go around town brandishing those blades.” He withdrew two pieces of oiled sheepskin from the back of the stall and handed them to Fitch. “Wrap ‘em up good an’ proper now, an’ put ‘em in yer bag before ya hurt somebody.”

Fitch gave one sheepskin to Aiyana and they dutifully wrapped the blades and gently placed them in the bag. They were too big, and the wrapped hilts protruded from the satchel, but Aiyana tightened the drawstring around them to ensure they wouldn’t fall out.

The bladesmith nodded and said gruffly, “All right now, off wit’ the two of ya. You’ll go on straight home if ya know what’s good fer ya.”

Without hesitation, Fitch declared, “Yes, sir!” before grabbing Aiyana’s hand and tugging her away from the stall, beaming and chattering on excitedly about their purchase.

For his part, Sondham the bladesmith shook his head at their retreating backs as he tried to convince himself that he’d heard the lass’ name wrong and that her eyes were just an odd shade of blue.

  *   *   *

“I can’t believe we have real swords,” said Fitch as he walked backward through the crowd, grinning broadly in Aiyana’s direction, though his eyes were fixated on the two hilts protruding from the pack slung over her back.”

“I can’t believe I let you talk me into buying them,” Aiyana grumbled. “It was almost all our money, Fitch.”

Fitch grabbed her upper arms and squeezed, grinning. “But so worth it! Besides, we needed some way to protect ourselves, didn’t we? We are hunting a targol, after all.”

Pursing her lips and slanting her best friend a knowing look, Aiyana snorted. “All we have to do is catch it, not kill it.”

“But the targol doesn’t know that. It’s best if we’re prepared for any eventuality. Isn’t that what Cheven always tells us?”

“He also always tells us that we’re too young and inexperienced for real swords and that he wouldn’t let us touch metal sharper than a butter knife,” Aiyana shot back, shrugging off Fitch’s hold on her arms and pushing past him toward one of the lesser crowded streets in the city.

Fitch darted around in front of her, walking backwards as he continued, “And this is our chance to prove him wrong. When we come back with the targol…”

“We’re not bringing it back,” Aiyana interrupted him. “There’s no way we can bring one of those things back here. We just have to catch it, and claim the wishes…”

“But no one will believe us if we don’t bring it back. And, besides, we don’t even know what we’re going to wish for yet. What if we ask for millions of pieces of gold? How would we get it back here? Better to wish for it here.”

“Or to ask for a million pieces of gold in a sturdy cart with a team of horses.”

Fitch grunted. Aiyana knew he hated it that she was the more practical of the two of them. He had just opened his mouth, about to respond, when Aiyana cried out, “Fitch!” but it was too late. Fitch pitched forward, nearly toppling them both.

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