“Hey, run! They’re catching up!” Carson shouts at me, jumping over a barrel of apples.
“I’m running! Keep up!” I grin, picking up speed as the Jackals' chase after us through the city.
“Stop! You’re under arrest!” Jackal one shouts, raising his fist in the air as two others chase with him.
“Man, they’re fast today!” Carson whines, ducking under a cracked archway after me.
“Come on, we’re almost there.” I round a corner, running a straight before coming up to a metal fence. I slide, nearly missing the crawl space and scraping the side of my stomach as I rush under a small pit we created ages ago. We used it to get through without the guards, or Jackals, as we called them from the palace, to follow us.
“Man, hurry! They’re coming in hot!” Carson pushes my legs through and slides under, with no problem. We don’t wait before we are back on our feet, and we throw loose dirt from a pail we've hidden away in the bush into the small hole.
I throw the pail back into the bush before they round the corner and almost plow face first into the fence.
Jackal two’s face is red and pudgy, gasping for air, as he curses aloud; Jackal one and three following suit.
Carson sticks his tongue out and turns around, throwing down his trousers just enough for his bare ass to stick out, mocking them.
Before long, Jackal one is instructing the other two to lift him over the fence, giving our cue to run. I nudge Carson and we both turn, sprinting down the stone walls, taking a few turns until we make it into an indent into the cobble. An ajar opening, hidden from a normal angle, was our entrance into the sewers.
We both slide in after another, watching for any prying eyes as we disappear. As we slow down into the tunnels, the light fades out behind us. Once the texture changes on the ground into rough cobblestone, I bend down and pick up our familiar spot inside the wall.
A decent sized crack among many, hidden unless you have brought in light, holds a wooden torch and some flint. I strike it against each other, creating flame. We move our familiar routes into the now seeable tunnel halls. I hear distant voices over the skittering of rodents after a while, many off-tunnels to the sides of us, creating the underground city.
After a good fifteen minutes, we come across a larger archway after turning down our familiar turns. A black, worn and torn drape, hangs from the top of the arch. Two sconces on either side of the cobble pillars, marking that we are now in the Black Abbey.
“Hold on to your riches...” Carson whispers to me, sticking close. I nod and continue across the thresh hold, many beggars and suspicious characters littering the area. Indents in the walls holding vendors of the more rare and hard-to-get valuables, some legal and majority otherwise, watch from their stations.
I hold my side, a small inkling of pain and moisture protruding from my shirt. I was bleeding lightly, and I could definitely feel it now that the adrenaline wore off.
“Ah, Malachi and Carson the Red!”
I turn toward the unfortunate familiar voice, towards an older man to what I have always assumed, as he is hunched over, a hooded drape covering the rags he wore beneath. His hands are gloved in the same material and his boots worn in.
“What do you want, Malvius?” I state, obviously annoyed. He picks up on the tone and I hear a snide chuckle in the shadows enclosed where his face remains hidden.
“Oh, you boys definitely gave the Jackals out there a run for their pride!”
I stay silent, but Carson pitches in, “Ugh, can you just get straight to the point, already?!”
By now, we have been unsurprised by how he knows such things. He always seems to be a source of information. “Hmm...” his demeanor changes from a playful trickster to being completely serious. “You’ve heard, haven't you?” he whispers, taking a step closer to us.
“That is close enough, Malvius. I remember what happened last time... Now what exactly have I supposed to have heard?”
He lifts his head. Even though I can’t see through the shadow of his hooded face, I can feel his eyes peering into mine. “The Plague; It took over the town of Caldaris. About a day and a half's ride, Southeast of here. They say it is headed here, next!”
I look at Carson before we both look back towards him. “How do you know this?”
“Oh, boy, I have known many things. I even know-” he starts, but Carson marches right up to him, intimidating him to get to the point.
“Or there was a Denn, shot at nightfall before the morn'. Say he was infected. The Jackals here shot him in front of the Palace!”
“Then why haven’t we heard this before?” I ask, not taking him at his word.
“Ah, but you see... those Jackals who ended the poor fellow aren’t to be seen again!” A small, maniacal chuckle escapes as he holds his stomach and lurches back.
“Ugh... you’re just wasting our time.” I say, shoving him aside. He never gives straight answers. Carson feigns to go at him, but Malvius only laughs harder, others turning to look.
“Let’s just go.” I say, willing my hotheaded friend to listen. After a few seconds of Carson eyeing Malvius and then looking at the crowd that has formed, he stops and quickly turns to step into stride with me.
We move through more of the major tunnels, leading off to more private vendors, but we continue forward, only turning when we know the tunnel which leads to our private stash.
We continue walking, nearly there and out of earshot from the Black Abbey, when Carson whispers, “Do you think what crazy Malvius said was true?”
I take a few more steps in silence before answering, “I don't know... If that is true then the Palace’s Jackals who could have been too much in contact with the Denn, they might have got infected...”
Realization sparks on both our faces. “Does that mean... the plague is already here?” Carson says, eyes wide.
I stay silent, thinking. Crazy Malvius has always led us in crazy directions, dancing around the truth, but he has never lied to us full out. Maybe left out some detail, but what he has ever said, generally is part of the truth.
“Do you think the royals are keeping it from the city? Not to cause panic?” Carson asks.
“I don’t know. If the plague is here, then what do we do?” I think about the Denns, the smaller villages guards and how they must have been quickly silenced. How little their lives matter; ended in an instant and wondered if that was our fate as well.
We both make it to our stash, hidden by some wooden panel, a crawl space leading down a small way to its own indent of a section. Our room.
Carson takes my spoils to which I give him willingly, and sets it in a secret compartment under the floor as I watch the tunnel leading back into the majors. “So, what do we do now?”
“I don’t know. I think it might be worth seeing if Malvius' claims are true, though.”
“I agree with you there.” Carson says, cocking a hip and leaning an arm against the cobblestone wall. “You think we might have to leave the city, then?”
“I guess we will find out.”
“Well, come on. Let’s go check out the city and see if we can find out anything.” He straightens, eyeing me to lead.
We both head out, careful when we exit our space before heading back towards the Black Abbey. When we reach it, we both silently survey the area for Malvius, but with no luck. Not paying as much attention ahead, specifically myself, I walk headfirst into a very muscular, firm back.
“Fuck!” I shout, grabbing my nose and looking at the figure to whom I have abruptly face-planted into.
A large, muscular man turns toward me, his dark hair wrapped behind him in dreads and his clothing full of pieces of armor. Scars etch his jawline, and an entanglement of tattoos wrap themselves around visible skin. His dark eyes meet mine, unkind and unforgiving.
“J-Jarvis...” Carson stutters, taking a step back.
Jarvis, captain of a group of mercenary-pirates who sail the coasts and causing havoc to certain villages and towns. Word is he secretly works under Her Highness in the palace, collecting taxes and is turned a blind eye to crimes of his own will. Rumors and claims of himself that he has his own personal militia and friends around all the major king and queendoms.
“What do you want?!” Carson says, readying himself for the expected confrontation.
“Hehe, Carson the Red and Malachi...” he crosses his arms, a wicked smile turning up. His goons on either side of him block our entrance, closing in on the limited space. “Any gifts for me, eh?”
The fourth and fifth final goon, one with a cap and crooked nose-the other with greasy dark hair and beany eyes grab either of us, patting us down despite our protesting.
“Capt’n, nothin’ here.” Crooked nose shrugs in disappointment as beany eyes spits in our direction.
“Probably already deposited from the looks!” Beany eyes states.
Jarvis glares, enclosing the space between us, getting a few steps too close, towering a couple of feet over us. “Where’re your spoils, boys?”
We both stay silent, glancing at each other, ready to make a break for it.
Jarvis extends a hand out, ready to take a fistful of my shirt, but I dart out of the way, being faster and shout, “Scatter!”
Carson and I burst out in the opposite direction, disappearing into the crowd of onlookers. We both curve toward the entrance of the Black Abbey, not daring to look back as we sprint outward toward the route of tunnels to the outside.
Footsteps sound a little distant behind us, and I know it is his crew chasing after us. We had practice in this, not being the first time to outrun his goons.
Distant light peeks around us, several yards out as we round a corner. We don’t stop running as we get closer and closer, my lungs on fire as we make it to the shift in the ground beneath us. I stop as does Carson, huffing in rasp breathes, we try to listen. Faintly, we still hear some running. I fumble my hand toward the familiar spot in the wall, setting in what is left of the torch and with one more glance at Carson, to which he nods, and we jog out.
We jog all the way through the various parts of the slums, making it to the drop where the different levels beneath us, separate us from the other side of the water. We usually try not to use the same route getting out. The river that runs through the city has multiple cobblestone bridges, separating the market district from the poor district. One on the ground level, then one-two more levels below, closer to the water, other bridges leading to vendors and brothels and taverns built into the earth. Some tunnels lead into the sewer system of different communities within the poor on this side of the river.
We slow down over the bridge, having outrun his goons. We cross over on the ground level to the other side of the river, where the market district stretches to the wall separating the district from the wealthy.
“Should we split up?” Carson asks.
“Yeah, I think we should. Meet at Vigil Square in an hour?” I ask, to which he nods in agreement. Vigil Square is the center of the market district. I would go through one side of the district and meet up with Carson in the middle as he goes the opposite.
I pick up my pace, burning time, asking familiar vendors and traveling merchants' word on the plague. I listen to more wealthy buyers, huddled here and there, rich with not only spoils, but gossip. Several rumors and worry talk about the plague, the royals, our borders on the other kingdoms and queendoms.
“I heard the queen opened up trade with King Harion in Delton. Since when did we work with our enemies?”
“Since I heard the queen and the city of Valantis cut off our trading. How can she let her own people starve and side with our enemy?”
I circle around into another group, picking at my nails and on standby as I listen: “I heard Caldaris was struck with the plague!", “That city is less than two days ride!", “We should believe in our queen! It is just rumor!", “Rumor from the jackals!”
I sigh in frustration. Yes, Caldaris falling was common knowledge. I just needed to know if our city was next or even if the plague was here already.
“I hear they’re disappearing!” I tune back in at the comment. “Few days ago, some Denn, sickly gray skin walked up to the palace! The queen won’t allow anyone to leave the city now! I have to get back to Valantis and restock my goods!”
I perk up at the information, listening closer. That’s why they cut off trading! The other contender puts in and continues, “They’ve probably heard about the Denn! What if it's the Sparrow?”
“We’re all doomed! What does the queen plan on doing?!”
“Careful with that talk, lad! Before ya get a knockin'!” The man cocks his head toward a group of Jackals on patrol. I watch them pass by, as do the two merchants, before they continue, “So many jackals around lately. The rumors must be true!”
I sigh, bringing my head back against the wooden post, arms crossed, my one leg supporting me as my other one I bend against the post, relaxing and taking in the sun. If Valantis cut off trading, the only close trading is to be done with King Harion of Delton. Normally an enemy, I wonder to myself what the queen had to give up to get him to agree to such trading terms. Did the King know about the situation with the Denn?
I pass by more merchants and nobles, gossip about the latest, but no more of anything I didn’t know already. I eventually head to Vigils Square and take up the similar position against a post, waiting for Carson. As I wait, I examine the area; Jackals are more concentrated in this area. Non too familiar with me, however, fortunately.
“Damn the queen!” I hear, a little too loudly to my right. A merchant, selling various fruits to an angered customer, nods but gestures for the man to whisper.
“Closed the palace doors on top of the city! My family is in Caldaris! I was supposed to leave this mornin’!”
“She’ll doom us all!” says the merchant, a bit more warily than his now-quiet customer.
“Damn royals and their fancy palaces! What about the people? What about our families and our needs? Trading halted and working with the enemy for their poor excuse as trading!” The customer complains, throwing his arms before continuing, “Should burn with the rest of the infected!”
A slender figure, whom I hadn’t noticed near me, steps up quickly towards the enraged man. “How dare you! The queen is doing everything she can to help you!” A woman's voice.
The man slowly turns to her with wide eyes, eyeing up the stranger who had been listening to what he thought was his private conversation. “Close your mouth, girl, before I close it for you! You must be one of them wealthy for saying such things!”
She stays silent for a second before answering, “I am a peasant, just like you! Our queen is doing what she thinks is right during this time of need!”
“Hey...” Carson meets me, whispering and nudging me as he looks toward where I had been watching at the spectacle forming ahead.
Some people around come to gather, encircling the area to stare at the enraged, agitated man and the small, cloaked girl, spilling her fondness for the palace to which wasn’t well opinioned in this area.
“You wench,” he starts, bringing his arm back to backhand her. I quickly dash forward, grabbing his arm as he swings. His eyes widen and a tinge of wildness shows in his eyes.
I begin, “Sir, I hope you were not just about to hurt my younger sister. She is unfamiliar in this area, the idiot,” I glance toward her, dropping the man’s arm and bringing her in close to me in a big-brother swoop, putting a hand atop her hooded head. “My apologies if she angered you. First time in the city!” I give him a warm smile, but keep my eyes sharp as blades, to which he gets the message.
She stiffens under my touch, her head coming to my chin, but says nothing. “Well, keep her in line, talkin’ like that! Get her in trouble!” he states, nodding, his cheeks red in irritation but backing off, embarrassed at the crowd forming.
“Will do!” I say, Carson coming beside me.
She grunts, bringing up her arm and pointing at the man. “And you should learn a bit more respect for the people who help this city!”
A glint nearly blinds me for half a second and I realize the trouble we're in before she does. The man stares in short-lived disbelief, before looking from her face to her arm, a golden armlet encased around her forearm. Murmuring whispers gather in the crowd at the look of pure gold atop this girl's arm.
“So, you are a rich bitch, then.” He says, taking a step closer as we take a step back.
Jackals step in with their own greed flashing in their eyes. A couple individuals in the crowd come closer, eyeing her golden armlet, promising her free lodging or their own goods in hope of getting her to go with them, the thieves.
The man grabs her arm, pulling her inches from him, bending down to face her as she is pulled to her tiptoes, her hood falling behind her. Bright golden-brown hair shines in the sun. Her piercing eyes glare deeply into his before he moves his gaze towards a matching pair of golden earrings with emerald stones glimmering in the sun.
I nod to Carson, who knocks the guy's hand away as I step in to grab her and pull her back, separating the two. She glares up at me, to which I give her a deadly stare. She stiffens and throws her hood up, keeping her mouth shut beside me.
“Alright, I don’t think this needs to get ugly.” Carson says lazily, holding the man at such an angle that nobody notices the small dagger hidden between the two, Carson yielding it to the man’s gut in warning.
The man stares out in silent anger, watching the girl beside me with a burning in his eyes, if looks could kill.
“Hey, you!” The four of us look at the shout, revealing the Jackals from earlier that had chased us under the fence. “You three are coming with me!”
“Shit, scatter!” I shout, grabbing the girl’s arm and dashing through a group of the onlookers, pushing them aside as they protest, off balance.
Carson does the same, darting to my side as we make a run for it, as he holds up a coin purse. We hear the man shout behind us and I snicker, knowing he had just robbed the asshole before he dashed out of there. The Jackals, the man and some of the more crooked onlookers on our tails. “Split?”
“Yeah.” I huff, separating from Carson. I risk a quick glance behind me, the jackals on my end, as the man and others that were following must have chased after Carson.
“What are you doing! We can’t run from the Guards!”
I look at her in disgust, pulling her harder as a warning to keep running and to hopefully shut her up.
“This way,” I say, rounding a corner, but I skid to a stop, feet grinding against the dirt and a not too soft jerk to her as I try to steady her into a halt. Three other Jackals, joking and drinking, look at us, blocking our path. Behind us, the other two Jackals stop, blocking our exit from which we came. Realization passes over the Jackals ahead of us as they sneer, one throwing a half-eaten apple to the ground as they ready themselves, pulling out their swords.
Both groups walk towards us, watching our every move. I dart, nearly dragging the girl with me as we run faster, weaving in and out of other people, avoiding other lurking Jackals. We twist and turn, making our way towards an alley Carson and I often used, as well as other kids like us, to get towards the bridge.
Rearing towards the alley, nearly exhausted from sprinting, our breathing coming out in near-painful gasps, we turn the corner, coming into the alleyway. Horror flows through me-our exit blocked with crates and barrels. I release her hand, looking it up and down, noticing an open window, the panel of the wood left open.
“Come on,” I say, grabbing her arm, but she shrugs it off.
“I don’t want to go with you!” she shouts. I look at her, wondering if she was not only stupid but mental.
“Don’t give me that look!” she crosses her arms, but behind her, five Jackals now block the exit. I debate making the run for it myself, but I fight against the instinct to save myself in knowing what will happen to her if I just leave her with these men.
“Thank you, but...” she turns towards them, “Please, this man meant no harm. I am safe and-”
“Grab the girl and take her riches. Do what you want with her but leave the boy to me.”
Surprise and horror vibrate through her. I notice the slight shake as she stares at them in disbelief. I curse under my breath, “Now do you get it?! Stupid girl...” I say, grabbing her and pushing her up the crates. “Go and get to the bridge.”
She only stares back at me, wide eyed, as she sees me taking out my own hidden daggers, readying myself for what was about to ensue.
The Jackals march forward, closing half of the space between us before she shouts above my head, “Wait!”
The Jackals look at her, barely giving her time to speak. “I am the... The princess’s personal attendant.”
I look back at her in shock; the Jackals paused in their tracks as they contemplate their actions.
“If you let us go, I will not tell the queen of this atrocity.” She says, standing tall on the crate, arms crossed.
“Give us your spoils then and leave this... boy,” the one from earlier says, saying that word in disgust. “Then you may go.”
“No, I won’t-” she starts but I jump up, grabbing her and pulling her to me, covering her mouth and holding my dagger to her throat.
“Well, that changes things...” I say. Fear shines in her eyes, and the Jackals grunt, shouting different dis-pleasantries in my direction. “Give me your armlet.” I order.
She hesitates and I adjust the blade, cool against her skin, showing I could slice at any second, I so choose. She gulps, taking off her golden armlets. “Put them in my bag, to your left on my side.” She listens, a stray tear falling on my hand.
“Now, the earrings.” She looks up incredulously at me, but does the same thing, setting them in harshly in my bag.
“Dogs of the queen,” I start, the Jackals eyes looking at me. “I have her spoils. I am only three strides away from getting away. Walk away and she lives, so you don’t have to explain to the princess and the queen about this... unfortunate situation.”
They look to themselves, seeing the two options I show to them: either let us both go, or I kill her and make a run for it-or so they think.
The one Jackal makes a motion, them all stepping back slowly, towards the edge of the alley. He glares, watching me intently before saying one last thing before disappearing with his goons, “Next time, you won’t have an escape.” And he was gone.
I wait a second, making sure they don’t come back before I relax my hand from her throat, setting back my dagger before I grip her arm and haul her with me.
“What-” she protests as I haul her up, not too kindly, to keep her on the same level with me. “Let me go!” she demands.
I take a deep breath, closing my eyes, straining from yelling at her.
“I need to go back!”
“SHUT UP!” I grip her with both hands now. “Don’t you see? If you would just keep your mouth shut, none of this would have happened.”
“It is MY fault now that I spoke? I-”
I cut her off, “Do you know what they do to pretty, stupid girls like you?” I heave her into the window. Not a beat later, I am in by her, landing gracefully as she struggles to stand back up from my push inside. “They do bad things, horrible things to girls like you. I’ve seen it. You almost didn’t make it out alive or unscathed. Don’t think for a second, the next time, which there won’t be a next time, I won’t leave you behind to be ravished by-”
A swift change in direction as I stare through the attic of the wooden building and a welting sting later, I hear her trembling voice, “I wouldn’t let that happen! I merely was sticking up for-” she thinks of her words carefully before she finishes as I look back at her, a deep glare in her direction. “Sticking up for the royals. They don’t treat us bad.”
I rub the forming handprint on my cheek, “Well lucky you,” I say, grabbing her arm, a little less aggressive this time as I lead her out the other end of the house, “We are little more than rats in their eyes.” This time, she keeps silent.