Nick was signaling him from the stairwell. And not very secretively, either, for an individual who spent a significant amount of time on the street. Ron ran a hand through his hair, allowing him to shake his head ever so slightly. If nothing else, he wanted to finish his noon-day meal.
Luvian stepped out from the kitchen then, his forearms lightly dusted with flour. He leaned both hands on the bar.
Luvian’s use of only Ron rather than Ronnie caused a pit of apprehension to settle in his stomach. Ron hadn’t fought on a battlefield, but he knew how to employ the use of such verbal tactics. They played with your mind and distracted you. Ron strengthened his resolve.
“Did you get enough stew?” asked Luvian.
Odd question, that, thought Ron, but he’d play along. “Of course, always. And always excellent.”
Luvian’s dark eyes were studying him, not blinking. Aloud, he said casually enough, “That’s because we always put just enough vegetables in it, we never add too many. And we simmer it, we never let the pot overflow. Family recipe here.”
Luvian’s eyes continued to penetrate Ron. From nowhere, he placed a basket of fresh bread in front of Ron. And then he glanced quickly down the bar where Nick had been standing, but had disappeared. Then he looked into Ron’s eyes again.
“Be sure to give our regards to Master Cradwick.”
Ron knew that Luvian’s underlying message was if you don’t keep your private affairs out of my bar, you won’t be welcomed back. He wondered how Luvian had found out, and then, considering Nick’s lack of subtlety, decided it couldn’t have been hard to notice.
“I absolutely will,” Ron replied quietly, in the same tone that Luvian was using.
Ellia, who had been clearing the other end of the bar top, stepped up. “Pappy,” she scolded as she slid her arms around Luvian’s arm. “Don’t look at Ronnie like that. He’s one of our favorite customers, isn’t he?” Ellia smiled at Ron.
Then she looked up into Luvian’s serious face. “Are you getting enough sleep, Pappy?” Worried, she raised a slender finger up in his face in imitation of Luvian scolding the girls. “Now you see here, and listen good. If you don’t get enough sleep, you won’t be worth spit out there on the floor.”
Ron couldn’t resist a smile. Luvian’s serious demeanor melted, though with reluctance, as he turned and gazed down at his youngest daughter. Finally, a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
“Yes, daughter,” he sighed as he capitulated with a shake of his head.
“Now, that’s better. Go on, go, back in the kitchen, take care o’ that bread. And be sure to get more sleep!” Ellia called after him, still in her Ellia-as-Pappy imitation.
Luvian’s smile was for Ellia’s benefit as he turned about, but he still affixed a quick stare in parting at Ron. Ron lifted his eyebrows briefly in understanding.
After Luvian’s considerable frame was no longer staring him down, Ellia turned around. She stared down at the basket of bread. “Hungry?” she inquired with a disarming smile, for Ron had already eaten a basket.
“Ah, no,” Ron shook his head. “Your Pap brought it out for Master Cradwick.”
“Oh, I see.” Her blue eyes gazed off over Ron’s shoulder. “I worry about Pappy sometimes. You know? Maybe you could talk to him.”
Ron choked down his swallow of ale. Thanks, he thought, but no. Luvian was the last person he wanted to talk to just now. Ron suspected Luvian could pick apart even the most accomplished of liars. He kept coughing – damn if hadn’t swallowed that ale wrong!
Ellia slipped around from behind the bar and patted him on the back. “Are you okay? Ronnie?”
In a watery voice, Ron held up his hand, clearing his throat. “I’m fine. Fine.” He coughed a few more times.
After Ron could look at Ellia without spluttering, he suggested, “Ellia, I’m surely not the one to talk to your Pap. Maybe Tank? They were in the Army together?”
She placed a hand on his from across the bar. “But Ronnie, that’s why you’re a better choice. You aren’t in the Army. You didn’t serve, you don’t remind him of the War, and you’re a local boy. He likes you,” Ellia insisted.
Ron sucked in a deep breath. How to say that he was likely her father’s least favorite person just now…? No, he hadn’t served in the War, but….
Ellia’s big, blue eyes stared at Ron, beseeching him…. Ugh. She got that trick from her father, no doubt. He felt himself relenting. Now he knew what it must feel like to be Luvian….
“I… I can try,” Ron mumbled. And there it went, zip, all his training, right out the window.
“Thank you, thank you, Ronnie!” Ellia grabbed his hand with both of hers. Her smile lit up her whole face.
Ellia ran around the bar and squeezed his shoulder in thanks. “Lunch is on the house!” she whispered with enthusiasm. And with that, Ellia danced off to other side of the bar to sweep.
Ron gestured uselessly in reply. How – how had she done that? He was glad his employer hadn’t seen that. Ron leaned his head on his hand and stared up at ceiling.
“Fell for ‘em, didntcha’? Ha ha.” Nick chortled some more.
“What? What are you talking about?” Ron did not like to be seen out in the open with Nick, even if they were standing in a shadowed alley. Especially after Luvian’s pointed hint. Ron pulled his cowl up a bit further.
“The blue eyes. The blue-eyed ploy. Works every time, I tell ya. You’re not alone. Except on her mum. You’ll hear Miss Ruthie tell her, ‘You can look at me all you want, Ellie girl, but until those chores get done, you’re not goin’ anywhere, much less the Market Place.’ She even gets Tank.” Nick chortled again.
Somehow, Ron did not feel relieved.
“By-the-by, and today, I do mean buy….” Nick always loved to start off his tales of information with clichés. He rubbed his fingers together to emphasize “buy.”
“Get on with it,” Ron hissed. He planned to cut back on their arrangement. Nick had given him very little of worth, but Ron liked to have enough people on the streets that he could talk to at a moment’s notice. He knew that Nick would enjoy not having to report to him as well.
“Well, now, South Fair is South Fair, isn’t it, same comin’s and goin’s,” commented Nick. Lately, the street people had abbreviated South Fairview to South Fair, and the regular residents had begun taking up the term as well. But Nick was prolonging this discussion deliberately, enjoying Ron’s building exasperation.
Ron narrowed his eyes.
“All right, all right, if you’re gonna be like that….” Nick shook his head. Then he leaned closer to Ron and, behind a hand, whispered, “There’s some rich folks in town.”
“That’s it? Your big secret? Rich folks in town? Honestly, I –”
Ron was turning to leave, but Nick grabbed his arm. “No. You think that’s nothin’, right? Think about it. This is South Fair, mate. Rich folk, in South Fair.”
Ron pulled his arm back and rolled his eyes. “So they’re passing through, maybe they came from the west, or maybe they got off on the ferry.” Ridiculous.
“In their nice iron carriage, drawn by pretty horses? Best of clothing, expensive luggages….” Nick ticked off on his fingers and trailed off pointedly.
Ron admitted to a small bit of curiosity now, but nevertheless, most reasons for wealthy travelers passing through South Fairview were easily justified.
“And… did they have a destination apparent?” Ron prompted, rounding his hand about with impatience.
“Nope, that’s the odd thing. My folk all say they just rode through and round about. I mean to say, we South Fairs, we do like our town, such as it is, but it ain’t no Fairview Proper. Ain’t a one out of a hundred of us’ll ever see a goldy. But them rich folks, you know they got goldies sittin’ about in their shithouses to wipe their arses with.” Nick snorted. “Ronnie, mate, them folks probably got shithouses made of gold, that’s truth there,” and Nick nodded his head with a jab in Ron’s ribs.
Ron sighed at this exaggeration, but Nick was right. None of these people here had ever seen gold pieces, and many not even silver. So for what reason were these wealthy people in South Fairview truly here?
Ron mulled over this new development as he readied himself for his trip to the Market Place, for it was, after all, a fourth day. He found himself wondering how to report this to his employer.
Ron turned into the Market Place, lost in thought, considering how he would approach his employer soon. Then the whinny of horses broke into his reverie. He glanced up with surprise. It wasn’t that he hadn’t heard horses recently, but these horses were all a-jingle, with the trappings of the buckles and bits that attached them to an impressive iron carriage.
Nick was right, Ron admitted with reluctance. Lined with gold trimming, decorated with gold crests and accoutrements, the carriage was, without doubt, out of place in South Fairview.
Dressed in striped black trousers and a stiff black velvet greatcoat, the coachman directed the horses with a look of pure disdain for their surroundings. A whistle sounded from inside the carriage, and the coachman drew up on the horses. The carriage wheeled to a stop. Ron had never seen something so out of place before.
A woman with pale, golden hair piled elegantly upon her head leaned out of the window of the carriage. She outstretched her arm at the folk in the Market Place, her fingers stiff with contempt.
“Do any of you know where Master Chadlick can be found?” Her voice was bored and patronizing as she gazed out upon the shoppers on the street of the Market Place.
People glanced at each other. Ron knew two things at once – one was that poor people who were treated like scum by rich people were never going to help them of their own accord – and two, that Master Chadlick sounded a great deal like Master Cradwick. Even if any of the South Fairview people recognized this mistake, none of them were about to assist her. They paid enough in taxes. Why give the rich any more than they deserved, and for free? Ron saw that plain on their faces, even if this woman did not.
But the mystery was, what did they want with Master Cradwick? Certainly people of their means had access to a blacksmith in Fairview Proper, or wherever their destination was. There was certainly no need to go galivanting about South Fairview riling up the residents.
A man on the other side of the iron carriage leaned out. He caught sight of Ron. Unfortunately, Ron’s blacksmith apprentice sigil, two crossed hammers over an anvil, was visible on his tunic.
“You! You! Come here!”
Shit. Ron glanced about him. So much for remaining hidden and observing.
He took a step back and glanced about him, wondering just how successful his chances of running for it were. Ron took another step back, his eyes darting about. He could run behind the vendors, fewer witnesses….
“You, boy, you!”
And then a man grabbed Ron and forced him forward.
Immediately, Ron began fighting, but his unseen aggressor pinned Ron’s arms behind him with brute force. Then Ron was shoved into the carriage.
“Go! Go!” called one of the men, slapping the outer side of the carriage.
Ron saw nothing, for a burlap hood had been forced over his face. Still, he lashed out all about him for the door so that he could jump out, the window even.
And then a stunning pain to his head, and darkness….
“You’re a bloody fool, you know that, don’t you?” snapped a woman’s voice.
Ron could not see. About his eyes a dark rag was bound. He struggled then, the details suddenly rushing back to him. But rope fastened his arms together behind him.
“When I get free of this, you are all going to die.” Ron started pulling at his ropes.
Both the man and the woman chuckled. “Well, he’s definitely awake now,” she laughed.
“Oh, don’t worry, you’ll be free enough, boy. We’re here for Master Cladwich. It is Cladwich, isn’t it?” said the man to the woman.
“It’s Master Cradwick,” growled Ron.
His blindfold was untied. His nose had told him he was still in the wagon, but the curtains were drawn.
The woman stared up at the top of the wagon, bored. “Cradwich, Cladwich, whatever,” she waved her hand about.
“It’s Cradwick!” snarled Ron. “And what do you want with him?”
With even more affectation in her voice than before, she leaned over to address her male companion. “I personally can’t believe they even have a blacksmith in South Fairview. Such a – a mudhole.”
“They even have a Market Place. Who would have guessed?” laughed the man.
She sniffed. “If you could call that a Market Place. Really, it was just a, a Muddy Place,” and she brushed at her skirts.
“Am I here,” droned Ron, “for some significant worth or consequence? Because if you don’t need anything blacksmith-related, then please, by all means, knock me out again. I can’t listen to this tripe.”
The two of them were silent for a moment. Probably at having been spoken to so rudely, Ron mused. He half expected to be hit again. Ron couldn’t fathom why he was a part of this small company, but he hoped they would enlighten him soon….
She frowned with disdain, displeased at being addressed so.
He told Ron, “As it happens, we need the services of a blacksmith.”
“We have been told that this… this Master Cladlick is the best in this mudhole.”
The male gentleman continued. “And we are unable to leave until we get our horse looked at. She requires a new shoe.” He held up a horseshoe that was slightly cracked.
Ron wanted to laugh. A horse could take them on for miles with a shoe such as that. And why did they not travel with an extra? What utter asses.
“That won’t take but two hours at most,” Ron told them. Assuming his arms were untied and he didn’t kill them first.
The woman looked horrified. “Two hours!”
The man also looked stunned. “Why, we can make it to Fairview Proper by then!”
Ron shrugged. “Aye. Take it or leave it.”
“Well, then. I think we’ll just make it on our own,” huffed the man.
Please do, thought Ron. There was no way he could possibly stand their company any longer than necessary.
She sniffed, her nostrils flaring. “Very well, then. Cut him loose.” Then she thought of something.
“I’ve barely eaten today. Has this mudhole anywhere people can eat, save their own kitchens?”
She couldn’t be more insulting. Then an idea brightened his throbbing head. “The Brew House and Tavern is a place people go a lot.”
“Very good, tell us where it is.”
“I – I –” Ron hadn’t expected she would actually go for the idea. He’d been attempting to insult her.
“I – I…? Are you more of a moron that we originally thought? Or do you not even know where it is?” she snapped.
“Well, milady, it’s not that I don’t know where it is, it’s just that…. Well. A lady such as yourself, of quality –” here, Ron had to choke the word out, for he would have preferred to call her a bitch instead – “well, milady, it’s a tavern, after all.” Ron raised his eyebrows, assuming she would pick up on his reference. Woman of quality never set foot in taverns and pubs.
“I understand what you’re trying to tell me, boy. But does this place have food?”
“The very best. Ask them for their very best stew and their very best stout, and they’ll take great pains to make sure you get it. They only do that for quality folk. Ask them for their family recipe.”
Her eyes narrowed, trying to discern if he was telling the truth. “Very well.”
And he was cut free and shoved out of the wagon.
Ron’s only consolation as he rubbed the rope burn on his arms, was that Luvian and Miss Ruthie were going to enjoy taking extra special care of those two….
Ron walked home in the twilight of the evening. They didn’t need to club him on the back of the neck like that, he grimaced. That was going to be bloody sore tomorrow. Ron decided that tonight, just for one night, he was going to take in a serious quantity of red wine, and not Cradwick’s, either. But his own, stashed in a corner behind his small chest of belongings. And he would have one fuck of a hang-over tomorrow morning. And to be quite, quite honest, Ron did not give the first fuck about that. In fact, he mused, he would sleep long past the bloody roosters and the distant bell-tower. Bloody club me on the back of the neck, he sulked, bastards –
Ron’s grumpy mental commentary was interrupted by the noise of a number of children yelling. Typical of South Fairview, he thought. No one minds their children…. Somewhere inside of him instantly berated him for that miserly and undeserved thought, but his pride was too wounded just now to care.
On the other side of the next street corner, a number of boys of varying ages, probably no older than fourteen, Ron observed, were laughing and ganged up in one pile. Ron crossed the street to get a better view.
Street boys, gang boys. Piled on top of some unfortunate little fellow. Ron thought idly that he wasn’t the only one who would be sore in the morning, but whoever that poor git was, he was going to be in bad shape tomorrow.
“OY! All of you! Go on! Get out of here! You heard me!” Ron yelled.
The boys looked up then. Several of the younger ones ran off. Three of the older ones stood up and considered him. Was Ron seeing right? A twelve-year-old and two fourteen-year-old boys, thinking to take him on?
He scoffed and put his basket down. Ron opened his arms to invite any of them to try him. But first he said, “Let me tell you something. This is not something you want to do.”
The three boys glanced uneasily at each other but stood their ground.
“Well then, come on. The ground over here could use a little more blood.”
Ron’s small, would-be assailants measured him a little longer, and then turned their backs on him, strolling down the street as if Ron was simply not worth their time. But he’d seen the whites of their eyes. Ron snorted at himself. Good. Something else he could get drunk over tonight. Scaring small children. Cheers to you, mate, now you’re really an asshole.
Then he heard a whimper. What the hell –
Down there on road, half-hidden against the building, was a tiny ball of a child. As Ron stepped closer, he found that the boy had hidden himself half inside the concave of the building, where the bricks had fallen away. The child’s arms were covered all about his head and shoulders to protect himself.
All of Ron’s disgust and anger dissipated. Those bullies.
Quietly, Ron stepped up. “How badly are you hurt, lad?”
The boy flinched and retreated even further into the brick of the building. Odd, that, though Ron. Damn it all, now his interest was piqued. Shit. He picked his basket up and squatted slowly next to the child.
“I’m not here to hurt you. Will you let me see if you’re okay?”
The child did not respond. His tunic was filthy, old dirt stains ground into it, gray from age, and far too large for the boy. A street child.
Ron reached out an arm. “Can I see?” He placed a hand on the child’s shoulder.
The boy jumped but after a moment, relaxed slightly. He peeked out from beneath his elbow.
Slowly, Ron was able to unwind the child from his tightly wound arms. Old scars on the boy’s face told Ron that this was not the first time the boy had seen the harsher side of the fist. Right now, however, there was grime and dirt on his face. His lip was split, and blood ran freely from his nose. Ron didn’t know what he hated more right now, the condition this child was in, or the bullies who had done this to him.
“Lad, what’s your name?”
The little boy looked up at him with small green eyes. They considered Ron for a moment, as if, Ron realized, wondering whether Ron was even worth interacting with.
Then the boy shrugged. “Kylon. But they call me ‘Pylon,’ because they all “pile on” top of me.” The lad tried to sound brave as he informed Ron of this last, but his eyes fell to the ground at the last moment.
Ron wanted to throttle every street boy he ever saw from that point on. But he schooled his expression to a kindly one, so that he wouldn’t frighten Kylon.
“Kylon, how old are you?”
“Ten,” said Kylon with another brave face, his green eyes wide in an attempt to convince Ron.
Ron looked down his nose gently, staring at Kylon until the boy finally admitted in a stubborn tone, “Eight.”
Eight. He would have guessed seven, but street boys didn’t have the proper food and nourishment that other children did. Then an idea sprang to mind.
“Kylon, when did you last eat?”
Again, Kylon had a ready lie for him, but Ron put a finger upon the lad’s lips to shush him. Kylon looked at Ron’s finger, cross-eyed for a moment, until he decided upon the truth.
He looked up at Ron. “Three days ago. It were burnt bread from behind the baker’s.”
Ron was suddenly glad of the bread he had taken home from The Brew House and Tavern. That unspoken conversation between him and Luvian early this afternoon seemed so far away now.
“Well, Kylon, I’m going to take you somewhere where you can have a good meal.”
Immediately, Kylon started shaking his head in fear.
“If they see where you take me, they’ll just beat me again when I leave.”
“Kylon, I insist. I have friends on the street who will watch out for you and make sure you are safe. I really do,” Ron insisted, when Kylon looked skeptical. “Now, stand up. It’s just a warm meal, and a safe place to sleep for tonight. No one will hurt you.
“And we can clean up that face of yours.”
Reluctance warred in the boy’s face and his eyes darted all about the street for the boys of the street gang, but the promise of a warm meal and a safe place to sleep won out.
Inside the forge, Ron set down his basket and gestured to Kylon to have a seat.
He dipped a cloth in the water barrel and sat down before Kylon. As Ron dabbed at the blood on Kylon’s face, he couldn’t help but feel badly for the lad.
“Kylon, where are your folks?”
Kylon winced as Ron held the cloth to another wound. “My parents died of fever when I was little.” Amused at an eight-year-old’s idea of little, Ron encouraged Kylon to continue. “My mum, before she died, she signed me over to the orphanage.” Kylon sighed. “Then she died. And then I lived at the orphanage for a while. But they’re not nice people there. They don’t always feed you. And – well….”
Kylon looked off to the side, thinking of some nightmarish action. “So I ran away.” He paused, and then said, “The boys on the street, they wanted me to join them, but I didn’t want to. ’Cause I watched them, and they’re mean to folks. So when they wanted me to join them, I said no. I keep saying no, and I can run faster than them, and hide, too.” Kylon drew in a deep breath. “But sometimes they catch me anyway.”
Ron finished cleaning the blood from Kylon’s face. Underneath all that dirt was a clean face again. There were even a few freckles….
“Well, Kylon. Or do you want me to call you Pylon?”
Kylon’s face was solemn. “I haven’t gone by Kylon for a long time now.”
Ron didn’t think he could bring himself to call the boy Pylon. “Right then, lad. Let’s see about getting you some dinner.”
Ron put together a fast pottage and fed the boy some boiled vegetables and a bit of Luvian’s thick bread as well. Kylon watched Ron’s every move with large eyes.
“You know, Kylon,” Ron said as they ate together. “They may call you Pylon, like Pile On. But there’s a real such thing as a Pylon. You hear how different I say it, PY-lon, instead of PILE-on?”
Kylon yawned and nodded around his mouthful of bread.
Ron looked at Kylon thoughtfully and then said, “Lad, a PY-lon is actually something that’s very, very strong. It holds other things up, like great big enormous towers and gates. PY-lons are huge, and very strong. Blacksmiths like me, and him back there, Master Cradwick, we use that term.
“Kylon may be the name your parents gave you, but you can go by PY-lon if you want to. If you want, you can stay here and help out here. You need a safe place to be.”
Kylon’s eyes grew round. “Like an apprentice?”
“A bit, yes. I’m the apprentice here, for now, but one day, I’ll have my own forge, and Master Cradwick will need a new apprentice. And that could be you. If you want. Just now, you just sweep and do a few little things about and I’ll see you get a wage.”
Kylon was still staring at him.
“Now, Kylon, if this sounds good, then you go on and stay. But you cannot leave the forge here, because if those street boys find you, they’ll beat you again.”
Ron thought for a moment. “You don’t have to stay either, Kylon,” he said. Street kids were street kids, you couldn’t rescue them unless they wanted to be rescued. “If you want to leave, I want you to take this with you.” And Ron turned around and found the smallest hammer Master Cradwick had. He handed it to Kylon.
“Here. You take this with you if you decide to leave. Just use it for defending yourself and then run away, don’t use it to beat anyone up with, you hear me? If I hear you’re out there beating boys up with my hammer, I’ll come find you and I’ll beat you silly. And then I’ll take my hammer back.” Ron had kept his voice benign throughout all of this.
Ron stood up and dumped their dishes into the water barrel. When he came back in, he said, “Lad, you’re fallin’ asleep and so am I. Now, you sleep there –” and Ron pointed to the pile of hay on the floor, “and I’ll be sleeping here.” Ron walked toward his own bed and started pulling his boots off. Ah, that felt good.
He looked over his shoulder at Kylon. The boy was already stretched out on the hay. Ron picked up one of the extra blankets they had in the forge – hardly needed with the coals still burning all night – and spread it over the boy.
In nearly no time, the boy’s breathing was even. Ron slid out a bottle of wine, crappy wine, but wine nonetheless. He drank so rarely, but what a day. He stared at this little boy. Someday, Ron thought as he gulped a mouthful of wine down, this little lad might be Cradwick’s new apprentice. Ron swallowed several more gulps of wine before he corked the bottle tight. He bloody well hoped so. He was tired of this assignment.