It was time. It was. It was time.
If he camped under another tree tonight, he’d scream.
Topher’s hair wasn’t long, as in apprentice long. Nor was it runaway-Silent-Order short, either. It was mid-ear and he had bangs in his eyes now. He thought that was worth taking a risk on.
He’d spent three and a half months sleeping outdoors, though two or three times, he’d found a deserted, rundown barn here and there, and slept like a king. Best nights of his life of late.
And what a bold thief Topher had become. Far more so than his first few weeks. His boots were a perfect fit, thanks to the cobbler’s store with a weak lock in the back. A fresh loaf of bread cooling on a window sill, a berry tart once in a small village, half a jug of milk…. Not an accomplished thief, nor a gifted thief, but bold, aye.
Dogs had chased him twice, and once bitten him as he’d scrambled his way up a tree. In the dark, no one expected to look for a thief, they thought their dogs were running after animals.
And his clothes fit now, closest as could be expected. Topher had a cloak now as well, which helped keep the cold out the farther north he traveled. Sleeping on the ground had lost its appeal, however thankful for his freedom he was.
He’d also acquired a few coppers, though on each occasion, those were by mistake. Topher had a strict rule for not stealing money. People needed coin – whether it be to pay taxes, put food on the table for their little ones, buy seed for their fields or supplies for their trade…. Topher would not deprive them of that which they worked hard to earn. But in some of the pants he’d stolen, he’d found a few copper chips, so Topher had a small bit of coin.
Tonight, now, Topher was done hiding. He strode down the main boulevard of Landy Hollow, a town of middling size. While Topher was still southeast of Rorden North, he was only a week’s walk, perhaps two at most. And tonight, walking into town among other people, would be a good judge of how other people accepted him.
He’d planned a getaway route, if he needed it, but Topher was certain he wouldn’t require it.
No one thought any different of him. In fact, few people noticed him at all. Topher’s heart soared. Though that was not a final conclusion, he knew. He still had to interact in a social setting with other people, and just the thought frightened him.
For what would he talk about? His past six years as a silent person in a religious order that wanted to cut his tongue out before he escaped? His parents who sold him for cornseed?
Topher had made up dozens and dozens of stories over the last three months of solitude, for though he was free, no longer a member of the Silent Order, and still had his tongue, he ironically had had no one to speak to and was still alone. But he had stories to rely upon for when he did finally rejoin society.
And there was a small tavern near the end of the boulevard, for Topher had stolen about the town last night by moonlight and discovered the tavern. He had marked an escape route and a hideaway route, in the event that either proved necessary. But by The One God, Topher hoped to sleep in a real bed, under a real blanket, a hot meal in his belly tonight.
First, however, he’d be Arithist, from ArkenHeights. And there was Lancy’s Finest, Best Tavern in Town, though Topher noticed the play on this was that it was the only tavern in town, and he didn’t think there was another pub, either, though he hadn’t checked the town so thoroughly as to be sure of that.
He nodded to a few people as he walked past them and ducked through the door of Lancy’s Finest.
Immediately, the smell of sour ale, body odor, pine, bacon, and some sort of stew assailed Toper. Laughter burst out from table to table from coarse looking men. Some diced at their tables, others ate from pewter bowls of stew and shared conversation with their mates.
Topher stepped up to the bar and sunk onto a wooden stool. Remember, you’re Arithist from ArkenHeights, Arithist from ArkenHeights….
Finally, the barkeeper with gray fringed hair running about the sides of his scalp tossed a towel over his shoulder and stood in front of Topher.
Topher stared at him. He wasn’t sure what to say. Should he order his room first, or his meal… an ale, or maybe mead….
“Listen, what’ll it be, huh? Bit busy to stare at ya all night, eh?”
“Right. I’ll have – a room, please.” Oops, he’d meant to say an ale. “And, an ale. And a, a bowl of stew.”
The barkeep blew out a bored sigh. “Ya pay before ya stay. Two coppers, one more for the meal.” He had obviously repeated that speech hundreds of times, mused Topher.
As he dug in his pocket for his copper chips, he caught the eyes of a man seated across the pub, at a table alone. The candles in the candelabra above him were blown out, so Topher could not see his face, only that he was dark-haired and bearded, propped up against the wall with his legs resting on the other chair. His black eyes met Topher’s.
Just then, Topher’s fingers found his copper chips. He laid them on the bar.
The barkeep bit each one. Topher pulled back a bit, trying to hide his disgust.
The barkeep caught Topher’s expression and told him, “Got to be sure they’re real.”
The barkeep scoffed and pushed the towel around on the bar before Topher. “Ya never know nowadays, the things comin’ through here. Got to check.” He moved down the bar but returned with a pint that sloshed ale onto the bar. “Ya got Room 4, a winda’ room. Bath water is first light, first come as first serve.”
Then the barkeep moved on down the bar again. Topher swallowed several gulps of ale. His first ale, ever, and it tasted fine, very, very fine. A loud belch forced itself out, and Topher glanced guiltily around. Then he grinned. He could be as impolite as he liked from now on. But he expected to get that stew, and soon.
He looked around for a barmaid to inquire of, and instead found himself staring back at the mysterious man across the pub. Still seated with his boots propped up, the man had not moved.
Just then, a scratched-up pewter bowl of steaming stew with a wooden spoon sticking out of it was shoved at Topher across the bar. “Bread?” Topher called after the receding back of the barkeep.
“Bread’s extra,” called the barkeep, rubbing his fingers in the air for coins as he walked away.
Somehow, Topher doubted that, but this would be his first meal in months, and he really didn’t care if bread was served with it or not. Just being inside among people was a wonderful feeling.
He pulled up a spoonful of stew, wondering what it was. Just some vegetables, but too hot to eat yet. Well, there was a cure for that, thought Topher as he swallowed down several more gulps of ale.
No belch. Ah, well, he thought as he glanced about the bar.
All these people and no one looked at him askance at all. What a wonderful feeling….
Then he met the eyes of the mysterious man across the bar, the man in the shadows. He held Topher’s glance for no more than a second, but Topher saw him distinctly shake his head. Minutely, barely noticeable, and with something like scorn, and then his gaze flicked away.
And just like that, it was over.
And just like that, Topher’s feeling of warm independence and oneness within the Land vanished.
Was the man a bounty hunter? Did he recognize Topher? Was he going to execute him, or capture him and deliver him back to the Order?
Topher barely tasted his stew, noting only that it was far too salty, which he recognized would make people thirsty and want to buy ale. If he drank much more of his ale, he would be completely drunk, and right now, he needed to be clear headed now more than ever.
Without finishing the rest of his stew, or his ale, Topher stole quietly around the bar and headed down his side of the bar toward the staircase. He’d sneak out tonight, out the window, since they’d given him a window room, according to the barkeep. Now that Topher thought of it, he wouldn’t be staying the night, so he wanted his coppers back.
He bent to brush his boots free of dust, saw no one watching and that the barkeep was on the other side of the bar. Two copper chips were left on the bar next to two different empty bowls, and the barkeep had not collected yet.
Faster than lightning, Topher swept them off the bar and then slipped up the staircase silently. He wouldn’t be staying but a few more hours if that long, and…
Was that bread?
Topher smelled bread.
He leaned around the corner. A customer had left an untouched half a loaf of bread on his dishes outside his door.
Topher swiped the bread smugly and opened the door to his room.
It wasn’t much of a room, but it was a mattress underneath a roof, with four wooden walls, and a window. And it would have been nice to stay and have a bath in the morning as well, mused Topher.
But the longer he stayed, cramming bits of bread into his mouth, the longer he decided it was better just to leave before anyone might think to look for him.
He forced the window open, climbed out onto its sill until he hung from his fingers….
Then he let go and fell to the ground.
It took a while before he was able to stand. Topher just sat down against the inn and panted for a while. A three-story jump. What had he been thinking! Bloody ale.
Thanks to The One God nothing was broken or sprained.
Finally, Topher set off down the boulevard out of Lancy’s Hollow, heading northwest. He had to get out of there before someone found him.
He kept to the shadows and kept a brusque pace, albeit a gingerly one. Three-story jump – Topher, you’re an idiot –
Just as he was scolding himself yet again, he saw a figure up ahead. Staying to the shadows as was he.
The figure up ahead halted and Topher immediately fell up against a building.
Then the figure began walking again. Topher had to leave – this was his getaway route, and with that mysterious man behind him, he couldn’t risk slowing down. The end of the boulevard and Lancy’s Hollow was so close.
Topher scaled the walls silently, hoping that whoever that man ahead of him was, he would hurry up and turn off a side street to his home.
Then the man ahead stopped yet again. Topher sighed with frustration.
The man ahead of him stepped into the torch light of the street, then put his hands on his hips.
Topher’s jaw dropped.
The mysterious man from the bar turned slightly and gave an annoyed glare behind him. “Do us both a favor. Stop following me.”
Topher skipped up to him. “Me! Following you! I thought you were following me!”
“Lad, I don’t know what instinct told you to get out of that bar when you did, but be glad of it. Why do you think I’m out here? I expect there’s a thorough amount of blood being mopped up just now.”
Topher’s jaw fell open. “W-what? Blood?”
The man scoffed and rolled his eyes. He fell back into the shadows again and started walking forward.
Topher followed him.
“Stop following me,” came the man’s irritated whisper.
“I’m not. You’re going in my direction. I’m – headed in the same direction.”
“Listen, lad. I don’t know where you’re headed, and I don’t know why or how. But you’re not going with me.” He paused but Topher could see the man’s eyes as he glanced up and down at Topher’s face.
“You may fool everyone else, but you think I can’t tell a runaway Silent Brother when I see one?”
Topher’s eyes grew wide but he replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“No? That haircut hasn’t grown out long, has it? Still got the same cut around the neck. They wanted to burn your tongue and you ran, was that it? Can’t say I wouldn’t do the same. But you’re wanted now. You better learn how to hide real well. And I don’t need anyone slowing me down. Understand me? You stay away from me, lad.”
The man in black turned and continued further in the shadows.
“Who are you?” called Topher.