“They can have the blasted roads if it keeps them out of the city. We don’t need any more thieves here. The guards and their damned quotas are enough.”
“They’ll stay out. They get caught stealing here and their fate’s service or death. Bad as the guards are they’ll keep the city in line, but out there? The king doesn’t have the men to fight both the bandits and the war.”
“Thieving lot of them should hang with the bandits. Took my silk-skin slippers the other night, threatened me with a flogging for complaining. What use are slippers in a war?”
I like to daydream. I pick a purse that’s heavy and imagine it’s full of sparkling silver coins, but I know better. I hold my breath and tug at the strings that hold the purse shut. They come undone. I slip my fingers inside and squeeze the first coin they find. I tuck the copper pebble away and fly out from under the table when the wind comes in again. No one saw me. No one ever sees me.
My favourite spot in the Running Nose is the corner most farthest from the front door. The wind doesn’t reach there and sometimes I can feel the warmth coming from the nearby fireplace. The walls there are full of dusty shelves full of empty jars and bottles and there are big barrels that sound hollow when I knock on them there too. I crawl and sit on the floor between two of those barrels and blend into the dust and shadows and other forgotten and thrown away things. I look back towards the man whose pebble I stole. He stands and empties his purse onto the table and starts counting his coins.
“More ale here!” he yells. “This war’s making me thirsty!”
Some of the others around him cheer.
In another tavern I started a big fight by stealing a whole purse. No one saw me so others were blamed. A lot of people were hurt and it was all my fault so now I only take a little. I only need a little anyway. “This war’s making me thirsty,” I whisper. I pull up my knees and wrap my arms around my legs. Everyone blames the war for something. I blame it for only one thing. I blame it for taking Father away.
“You know, this p-probably isn’t the safest place for a little, a little girl.”
No one ever talks to me, not on purpose. I see a pair of black boots in front of me. The bottoms are almost coming off. I look up. I’ve seen this boy here before. He’s only a little older than me. He has big muscles, but he’s not very tall. He has black hair and a crooked nose like it’s been broken and healed back wrong. He seems to be waiting for me to say something. I stand up and slip out from between the barrels so that I’m not cornered. He isn’t going away.
“What do you want?”
“N-nothing. Not really. I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m F-Felgren.” He takes a step back. “I work here. Well, I help here, they don’t p-pay me, so I’m not interested in, in ratting anyone out. I’ve seen you here, the past few days, and I . . . I just wanted to say hi. I don’t have any friends, or f-family, so I know what it’s like to be alone.”
“I have family! Father’s just not here right now, that’s all, but he’ll be back.”
“Oh,” Felgren says. “I’m, I’m sorry.”
I wonder if all boys are so nervous. I don’t know what else to say so I start playing with my hands. They’re dirty and I must be dirty too so I hide them behind my back. I look at Felgren. He’s still looking at me so I look away. The rest of the people in the Running Nose are yelling and drinking and I think some of them think they’re singing. They don’t see me and they don’t see Felgren. I guess he’s not that important either.
Felgren smiles. His teeth are dirty and crooked and one of them is broken. “Pleasure to m-make your acquaintance, m-my lady.” He tries to curtsy. He’s not very good. It’s kind of funny but I don’t like to laugh anymore. “What are you d-doing here?” he asks. “I wouldn’t spend my t-time here if, if I had a choice.”
I shrug. “I come here to wait.”
“Wait for what?”
“For the war to end,” I say. “Everyone always complains so much in places like this. I think they’ll be some of the first ones to know when it’s over.”
“Oh, I—” An old man runs past Felgren and almost knocks him over. The man is holding his trousers between his legs and is heading for the alley door. “I . . . I don’t think the war’s ending an-anytime soon,” Felgren says. “It’s just b-begun, really. You m-might as well be waiting for the sun to rise t-twice in one morning.”
My insides suddenly feel like they’re all crinkled and mushy and broken like when things fall apart after being wet for too long. I feel like that a lot. It’s stupid. I know I shouldn’t. I miss Father. Felgren’s wrong, the war has to end soon. It just has to!
“I’m, I’m sorry,” Felgren says. “I didn’t mean to make you cry. Your f-father’s fighting in the war, isn’t he? I don’t al-always think. I’m n-not very good with words. Uh, d-do you want some food? I can probably get something from the k-kitchen for you. It-It’ll be something someone else didn’t eat, so it’ll be cold, but no one will m-miss it. Wait here. I’ll be, I’ll be back soon.”
Felgren walks away. He seems to be in a hurry. I don’t move for a while and think that maybe I should stay. It was nice of him to offer me food, but if Felgren can find me so can someone else and I know what they do to thieves. I’m too little and too weak to fight in the war so that only leaves the other punishment. I run for the nearby door and I run into the man who ran by earlier. He doesn’t notice me even though he walked right into me. I’m used to that. I walk around him and run out the door. I’ll just go to sleep hungry again today. I’m used to that too. It’s easier to go to sleep hungry than to be hungry all day, and I can just buy something with my copper pebble when I wake up in the morning.
I don’t have a home anymore, so I find one of the places where I normally sleep. I normally sleep by a fireplace, but on the other side of the wall, outside. It isn’t as nice as being by the fire but the bricks warm up a little and it’s better than sleeping in the cold. I have some blankets hidden where no one will find them too. I don’t remember falling asleep. It’s cold now, the fires usually go out in the middle of the night, but the sun is already rising and it will warm me up fast enough.
The market isn’t very busy today, but it isn’t very busy most days. There’s less in the stalls every day and every day things get more expensive, but as long as someone can pay the merchants will usually find something to sell. Thieves aren’t very welcome. The guards are always here, even when the market is almost empty. I saw a thief get caught once. He ran and one of the guards pushed his sword through him and it came out the other end sparkling red in the sunlight. The guards left the body behind, I guess as a warning to other thieves. I stayed behind too. I had never seen a dead man before and I kept thinking he would stand up and walk away. That night two people wearing robes came pulling a small cart. They picked up the thief and threw him inside and dragged the cart away. They never said anything. I think they were priests.
Today I buy one green apple. It’s small and hard and sour but it stops my stomach from rumbling. It’s less than I usually get, but sometimes the merchants are just greedy. I wander the city streets and somehow I wind up near the Running Nose. I didn’t mean to, I don’t usually go back to the taverns so early but I don’t have much else to do. Felgren’s in the alley. He’s doing something with fish over a barrel and I stay hidden around the corner to watch. He cuts their bellies open, pulls out their insides and tosses them into a bucket. He then cuts the heads off and tosses those into another bucket. He wraps the rest of the fish in a cloth and brings them inside. He comes back with more fish and begins all over again.
“S-so, are you going to come say hi?” Felgren asks.
I didn’t know he could see me. My cheeks get warm and they’re probably pink now but he won’t be able to tell from this far.
“You’re not very stealthy for such a li-little person.”
I move closer to him and keep my hands behind my back. They’re still dirty. I never really cared before. I don’t know why it bothers me now.
“Why aren’t you fighting in the war?”
“I . . . w-well, they can’t send everyone to fight in the war, or there w-wouldn’t be anyone left to gut the fish, would there?” Felgren says. “I’ve just been lu-lucky I guess. I’m better with a k-kitchen knife than with a sword anyway.”
“You’re strong enough, and old enough. There’s other people who can do what you’re doing and they can’t fight in the war like you could.”
“I’m n-not that much older than you.” Felgren shows his dirty teeth again. He’s smiling but I can tell it’s the fake kind of smile because his eyes look sad. “I suppose they could still come for me, b-but I hope they don’t. I think they’ve got m-mostly everyone they need now. The war’s f-far away from here, t-too, though sometimes it doesn’t feel that way, and it would p-probably take too, too long to catch up to the army now too.” Felgren’s looking at me again. I look away at first but then look back. “Do you have a place to stay?” he asks.
“I have places I stay.”
“You’re dirty, that’s all. I’m— I don’t mean that in a mean way. I-I’m sorry. You’re just always w-wearing the same things and, well you wouldn’t be spending your time in a t-tavern all by yourself if you had a place to stay. I see a l-lot of you here. Homeless people, I mean, not ch-children, but sometimes children too. We have to throw them out b-because they b-bother the patrons, but you’re, you’re different. You stay out of the way. Mostly no one even knows you’re there. M-most others, they make a ruckus, they beg for food and coin and they become d-desperate and they an-annoy everyone and—”
“Do you always talk so much?”
“What? I—” Felgren says. “I’m sorry. Sh-should I stop?”
“No, it doesn’t bother me. I was just wondering. Most people don’t talk to me. I don’t blame them though. I look like I would steal from them as soon as they turned around. I probably would, too.”
“W-well, those people don’t know what they’re missing.”
I look at the ground. “I don’t know what I would say, anyway.”
“I’m sure there’s l-lots you could say. You m-mentioned your f-father yesterday. Is he fighting in the war? Is that wh-why you’re alone?”
“He didn’t want to, but they made him. He said he would come back. He promised! He said I would just have to wait, and be brave, but that’s not so easy to do.”
“What about your mother?”
I let my hands fall to my sides. It’s too hard to always keep them hidden and they feel strange like they’re not even mine now that I’m thinking about them so much. Felgren’s been pulling out the insides of all the new fish he brought this whole time, and cutting the heads off too.
“I don’t know my mother. Father never talked about her, it was always just me and him.” The buckets stink. They remind me of the tavern. “Where do they get the coin to drink every night?”
“Who? Oh, our p-patrons?”
“It’s not the same p-people every night, not really. Sounds like it, m-maybe, but that’s because they all have the same p-problems. The coin . . .” Felgren puts his knife down. He looks at his empty hands and makes fists with them. He’s finished with all the fish. “They f-find it. They have to. I don’t know for sure, but I think that the ol-older you get, the harder the world becomes to face, so you have to find things to d-distract you, like ale, or w-wine, or things to believe in that make the world a n-nicer place. Things that make it easier for you to m-make it over to the next day.”
“That’s dumb,” I say.
Felgren laughs. “You’re p-probably right.” He looks at me again. “I can help you, you know. I know of a place, they take in children sometimes, to help them. If you want, I can take you there. You’d have a warm place to sleep, and you’d have food, and they might even find someone or someplace to take you in for a longer time. Maybe find some work for you, sort of like they did for me.”
“Is it an orphanage? If it’s an orphanage I’d rather stay on the streets. They’re kinder. Besides, I’m not an orphan.”
“N-no,” Felgren says. “It’s n-not an orphanage, I promise. It’s where I’m staying. I p-probably wouldn’t have lasted very, very long on my own. It’s just an oppor-opportunity. In war, you get few opportunities. You should t-take them when they come, or . . . W-well at least that’s what I’ve been told.”
“I thought you stayed here.”
“Here? N-no, this is just— I just do some work here sometimes. I think the p-people I’m staying with, and the o-owner here, have an arrangement. M-maybe you could work here too?” Felgren jumps a little when he hears his name. Someone is looking for him and for the fish too and their voice doesn’t sound very kind. “I have to go. You d-don’t have to decide right now. If you want, c-come find me here before the s-sun sets, and I’ll take you.” Felgren picks up one of the buckets. “Watch this.”
The bucket is the one filled with the insides of the fish. I hurry and step backwards because it looks like he’s going to throw them at me but the insides land on the ground in the alley and some even make it out onto the street. The cats come from everywhere. There must be hundreds. They jump down from the roofs and come from all the alleys nearby and some were even hiding close to me and Felgren behind all the barrels and crates and all the rest of the rubbish. Those ones run past me and they all start tearing apart and eating all the insides and hissing at each other. I’ve never seen anything like it before.
“It was nice t-talking to you. I hope to see you again soon, Ei-Eillie.”
“I hope to see you—” I mumble as I turn around, but Felgren’s already gone.
I turn back and stay a while to watch the cats but it doesn’t take them very long to eat everything. I have to find something else to do now and that’s not always easy. I don’t like it when the sun is up. I don’t like nights much either but at least they don’t last as long. The taverns are usually bright and almost empty and quiet during the day so I can’t hide inside. I tried once but I was found and thrown out and told not to come back. I was told something else too, but it wasn’t very nice and I don’t like to remember that.
I don’t have any friends. Sometimes, to pass the time, I play a game at moving backwards. I walk backwards and I talk backwards too. It confuses people on the streets and that’s funny for a little while, but soon they just start ignoring me again. Other times, when I feel like I can’t stop thinking, I make a game out of running. I pretend I’m being chased and I run as fast and as long as I can. I’ve gotten lost like that a few times, but then I play another game. I explore. I always find my way back again and sometimes I find new places where I can spend my time. That’s how I found the Running Nose.
Today I start running at the market. It’s a dumb idea. Someone might think I actually stole something and the guards might chase me but I’m tired of not being seen all the time. Nobody ever talks to me except when I’m trying to buy something from the merchants and— well Felgren talks to me now too. This way at least they have to look at me until they realise I didn’t do anything and I’m not really worth any attention.
I keep running until I’m out of the market and I’m on the streets where people live in big houses where it’s only one or two families per house. No one’s chasing me. There’s some inns here too and a few bigger shops but most of them are always closed. I keep running still and I run into the Warehouse District. I don’t like coming here, it’s big and wet and dark and usually empty and abandoned, but sometimes I just can’t help it. Today I hear voices. I stop running and tiptoe and peak around the corner to the next street. I see two men. They’re not that old and they’re not dressed as guards. They should be in the army fighting in the war. They yell at each other and one of them turns to walk away. The other man pulls out a dagger and the first man realises what’s happening. He knocks the dagger away but not before he gets stabbed. The other man then pushes him to the ground and puts his hands around his neck. He doesn’t stop squeezing.
I’m back outside the Running Nose. I was shaking and I couldn’t feel anything and I thought I made a noise when I stumbled backwards so I hid. I stayed hidden for a long time hoping the killer wouldn’t find me. I stayed hidden some more after that too but I don’t think he ever looked. I went to see the body after, to see who the dead man was. There was so much blood around him and his eyes were wide open but they couldn’t see anything. I didn’t recognise him but this time I knew that he was dead. I didn’t think that he would stand up and walk away like last time. He’s still there. The priests won’t come for him. No one knows where he is except for me and that man who killed him. We have to share that. I don’t like having to share something with a killer.
“I’ll come,” I say, “if you’ll still take me.”
Felgren’s sitting on a barrel and he almost falls off. He looks at the knife he was using to pick at his hands, and then looks at me.
“Wh-where’d you come from? You scared me. I c-could’ve hurt myself.”
“I’d like a place to stay. I don’t want to be alone or live on the streets anymore.”
Felgren’s looking at me but it looks like he’s seeing and thinking about something far away. He nods and slides down from the barrel and hides the knife away somewhere in his clothes.
I don’t know where Felgren’s going. He’s walking a little fast but I keep up just fine. He’s not talking very much. It’s not like him to be so quiet but maybe he has other things he’s thinking about. I get like that sometimes too. I don’t even notice and I stop paying attention to what’s happening around me and what the people around me are saying, and when I do pay attention again the people aren’t the same anymore, though they’re usually still talking about the same things. Everyone’s moving out of our way on the streets. I don’t know why they would do that, but at least they see us. I guess this is what it’s like when you’re not alone all the time. Once one person sees you then everyone else sees you too.
“I wish I could just leave and find Father, wherever he is. If I was older I would.”
“A l-lot of kids would like to do that, I think,” Felgren says, “b-but that’s war. It p-pulls things apart, and t-takes things away, and . . . changes us.” He looks back at me and slows down. “Not always in-into something we like. Why did you d-decide to come with me?”
I look at Felgren and try to mimic his footsteps. I fall behind and run to catch up to him. “I saw two men fighting today. One of them is dead now. They didn’t see me. Why would they do that? He’s probably still there, the dead one I mean. Do you think I should tell the guards?”
“N-no. They were p-probably just thieves, or p-part of some gang. M-maybe one had something the other one wanted. Everyone always wants something, and some p-people will do bad things to get them. Besides, I d-don’t think you should t-trust the guards. They might think you did it to s-steal something. I’ve known kids that would do that. People can be d-desperate sometimes, especially if, if they’re afraid, or some-someone’s making them, or they d-don’t really know any other way, or all three.”
The roofs of the houses here look like hills and I can see some stars coming out behind them. I’m normally in a tavern by now looking for someone to steal from. Maybe I won’t have to do that anymore.
“If they wanted to fight, why couldn’t they just fight in the war? Why could they stay but Father was taken? It’s not fair.”
“You ask hard q-questions, you know that?” Felgren says. He stays quiet for a while. “You’re right, it’s n-not really fair. Some of us were lucky, others probably b-bribed someone, or hid, or they were too fat to fight like, like the owner of the Running Nose. M-most of the people that stayed behind, they’re n-not good people, like those two you saw. We are what we make ourselves, and they m-made themselves into, into that. Your father, he’s not like them. He’s a hero. Heroes f-face what others are afraid of.”
“I’m glad you didn’t make yourself like them.”
“What? Oh.” Felgren puts his hands in his pockets. He looks at me but then looks down at his feet. “I’m t-talking too much again,” he says. “Were you in an or-orphanage? B-before you lived on the streets?”
There’s a big puddle in front of us, some of the cobblestones are missing from the road. I stop and jump over and I barely make it to the other side. Felgren walks around.
“Only for a little while,” I say. “They came for me after Father was taken. There was a lady there, her name was Matron, and she made us work every day, and she punished us if we didn’t work hard enough. She made me sew and she yelled at me when I did it wrong. I’d never sewn before. She said I should be happy and thankful for the work, that I was helping and that we all had our part to play in the war. She was mean and I remembered what Father said so I ran away.”
“He t-told you to be brave, right?”
“He said things will be hard, and that sometimes I’ll be scared. He said not to be afraid to run away if someone’s being mean and makes me feel like I should. He said I can’t always count on people being good but I can always count on myself.” I didn’t notice but we stopped walking. “And he told me to be brave.”
I still remember how hard Father squeezed when he hugged me before they took him away, but not as well as I used to.
“Your f-father was a fool,” Felgren says.
“No he wasn’t! You said he was a hero!”
“You’re just a k-kid! You c-can’t know when people are good, or bad, b-because you don’t know anything! You have n-nothing to compare things to! You could have stayed at that or-orphanage, you could have l-learned how to sew, and you wouldn’t have to see people kill each other in the streets! Instead, you, you ran away because of something your f-father said, and now you’re here with m-me, and you don’t even know where you’re going! That m-makes him a fool!”
“You’re taking me someplace nice, someplace that helps kids!”
Felgren’s holding me now. I try to get away but he just grips me tighter.
“You see those t-two men, d-down the street? They’re not nice men, and I’m t-taking you to them.”
I look past him. They’re there like he said and they look like they’re looking at us.
“B-because that’s what I do! That’s what I m-made myself!”
“I don’t believe you!”
“I don’t have a ch-choice! They m-make me do things, and they d-do things to me if I don’t, and sometimes— They’re b-bad people and—” Felgren’s grip slips a little and I think he might start crying. He was looking at me before but now he keeps looking away. “We all have our p-part to play in the war. That’s what that l-lady said, right? Are they coming yet?”
“She doesn’t sound so b-bad. You have to run now. You can r-run, can’t you?”
Felgren’s dumb. Why didn’t he run too? He wouldn’t have to stay with those men anymore or do whatever it is they make him do. We could look out for each other and be friends and I wouldn’t have to be alone anymore. I should’ve said that. I should’ve made him come with me but I just twisted away and started running. I hear someone screaming behind me now and the sound of things falling and breaking. I can hear someone running behind me too but I don’t look back. I have to be brave and I don’t know if I could be brave if I looked back and saw who was chasing me.
I’ve ran here before. I remember there was an alley here with rubbish stacked up high enough that I could get onto the roof of an old house. The houses here are close together too so you can go pretty far without having to climb down. I run in and think it’s the right alley but the rubbish isn’t as high as I remember. There isn’t anywhere else to go so I start climbing and I hear the man chasing me run into the alley and curse. The roof is too high so I jump and catch the edge and try pulling myself up. I look down and see the man climbing behind me too. All I see is the top of his head and I scream and kick and push against the wall with my legs and I finally make it onto the roof.
I keep running. I feel like my heart is beating so hard it’s moving around inside of me more than it should. I jump onto the next roof and trip and fall on my knees. They sting but I just push the pain away and keep going. I think I hear the man chasing me yell, and I think I hear things falling and breaking again. I jump onto another roof and run to the other side, but there isn’t another house nearby. I try to stop but I slip and start sliding down the roof. I try to catch something but there’s nothing to hold on to and I kick and kick trying to slow myself down but it doesn’t do anything.
I open my eyes. I try to move and they just fill with tears. My left arm feels like it’s twisted and torn but when I look at it there isn’t any blood. My head hurts too. I think the ground wanted to keep going but my head got in the way. I sit up and all the pain just gets worse. I start crying but I stop myself. I can’t stay here. I didn’t run very far and I don’t know if those men are still looking for me. I don’t really know how long I’ve been here either. I stand up and start walking away from the house I fell from. Holding my arm helps a little. The pain in my head seems better at first too, but then it just gets worse again.
I didn’t sleep a lot. Whenever I heard voices or footsteps I ran and found a new place to hide. There aren’t many people on the streets at night and I don’t really know what those men looked like and I didn’t want to run into them by accident. The pain wouldn’t let me sleep much anyway. My head and my arm hurt all night, and I scraped my knees and hands and other parts of me too. I thought about going to the guards for help, but what would I tell them? They probably wouldn’t believe anything I said. Felgren said not to trust them too, but I guess I can’t believe anything he said either. I think I fell asleep eventually because the next time I opened my eyes it was morning. I wasn’t any less tired and everything still hurt, but at least nobody found me.
I don’t know what to do now. I shouldn’t have gone with Felgren. I’m hungry but I don’t have anything to spend because I didn’t steal anything yesterday. There’s only three merchants at the market. There’s a few other people and some guards walking around too, and some of them are already watching me. My bruises probably make it hard not to notice me. I still have to hold my arm, but it doesn’t hurt too much if I don’t move it. My head hurts just as much, but only in the back where I must have hit it instead of all over. I don’t know why I came here. I can hear everyone whispering and there’s no reason to whisper when trying to buy something so they must be talking about me. Looking at the food just makes all the pain worse and I know when I’m not wanted, so I leave.
There’s more people out on the streets now. They all look away and pretend to be doing something else whenever I look at them. I know they’re watching me, but they don’t see me, not really. They just see someone who wants their food and coin and they don’t care about anything else. I avoid them too and try to keep to the alleys. It’s been like this since Father left. I thought Felgren could see me but he was only doing what those men made him do. I hope they didn’t hurt him. I slow down at the edge of the alley and look around the corner. Matron is standing outside the orphanage and she’s talking to someone. She probably won’t see me anymore either.
He could’ve fought them. It didn’t have to be like this. He could’ve hid or bribed someone I don’t care if it would make him a bad person at least he would be here with me. Everyone blames the war for something. I blame it for only one thing. I blame it for taking Father away.