Interlude 0: The Witch in the Wood
Alicia ran across the wooden bridge, planks clanking one by one with her steps. A gust of wind caught her yellow hair and blew it in every direction imaginable, then died down as she reached the edge of the forest.
She paused for a moment at the edge. As bright and sunny as it was in the field behind her, the forest was just as dark as it always was, and she was frightened of going in the forest alone. Her big brother had always come with her before.
Still, she didn’t hesitate for more than a moment before setting her face and walking in. Everyone said there was a witch in the forest now, and Alicia wasn’t about to go home until she met her. She walked down the road into the forest, to the forest hermit’s old shack. The shack had been run-down and abandoned ever since the forest hermit had, in a fit of industriousness, decided to leave the forest and become a mountain hermit instead. Since then it had stood empty, except for when Alicia and the other children camped there.
It was empty no longer. The holes in the roof had been patched, the doorway had a wooden door in it, and smoke came from the chimney. The sign on the door simply read “Elsenya”. Alicia pushed the door open and walked in.
Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the dimness of the cabin, even after the darkness of the forest. There was an old woman bent deeply over the fire, stirring a giant pot of soup with a spoon almost as tall as she was. Without turning around, she spoke in her creaky old voice. “Close the door behind you, child. You’re letting in a draft.”
Alicia almost jumped in surprise, and turned around to push the door back shut. “My brother said you’re a witch. Is your name Elsenya?” She asked. The old woman wasn’t nearly as scary as Alicia thought a witch would be. She made soup just like Alicia’s grandmother.
“Didn’t anyone teach you it’s rude to ask people questions before you’ve introduced yourself?” The old woman asked sharply, and this reminded Alicia so much of her grandmother that she giggled. “I’m sorry, miss. I’m Alicia. Are you a witch, miss?”
“Why yes, little girl, I am.” She turned around and pointed to one of the two bowls of soup on the table. “Sit down and have your soup before it gets cold.” She sat down herself, and starting drinking the other one.
Alicia walked slowly towards her bowl of soup and nibbled from the edges. She wasn’t surprised that a witch would have a bowl of soup ready – even her grandmother had always had one ready for her visits – but she hadn’t expected the witch to admit it so quickly. Witches were supposed to be secret witches, not just tell everyone who knocked on the door. “Miss Elsenya”, she mumbled. “How did you become a witch?”
The old woman took a long drink of soup before answering. “Oh, it all started a long time ago, when I was almost as young as you are. When I first found out about the tricks I could do, I would steal flames out of the fire and sneak trees into the house dressed up as chairs, until my father said if I was going to do magic all the time I should at least learn how to do it without making a constant nuisance of myself, and sent me off to the mage guild of Tel Antora with the village merchant.”
“And then they taught you how to be a witch?” asked Alicia, pretending to eat the soup (which, to her vast disappointment, tasted nothing like her grandmother’s, and had carrots in it).
“Oh, it was nowhere near that simple. You see back in those days, Tel Antora was just a minor border town, right on the edge of the waste…”
Chapter 1: The Tower of Tel Antora
Elsenya rode over the crest of the hill and, and finally saw the city in the distance. She was sore, but in that moment she paid it no mind. She was fifteen and fiery and fey, and she had all the world in front of her to see.
She slowed her horse to a trot before she outraced the rest of the convoy. She had borrowed it from one of the other travellers, and she worried that she would lose track of the others and never find them again once she neared the bustle of the city. Tel Antora was only a modest town. as reckoned in those times, compared to the great cities of the South like Torrington or El Amadia, let alone the capital of Morrowstar. But Elsenya had never seen a village with more than a dozen houses, and to her it seemed immense: Row after row of great stone houses on the hill, surrounded by the great white walls that any border town must have. And at the top of the hill was the tower, with its three islands of floating stone orbiting its peak with eerie grace. The tower was where she was headed. It was where she was going to learn all the things she could not in her village.
She didn’t want to steal the horse from the kindly old man who had lent it to her, but she also didn’t want to wait for the rest of the slow-moving convoy to catch up with her. She’d joined them as they passed through her village, to ease her mother’s worries about a young girl travelling the open road alone, but she was not one of them, and now that she had reached the city she was free to be on her own at last. She rode back to the old man and gave him the horse’s reins, and then she outraced them again, running to the great stone walls as her legs could carry her. She was tall for her age, and she reached them before the convoy even got to the top of the hill.
Elsenya paused at the gates, intimidated. There was a line of people and horses and wagons trying to go through, with the guards stopping many of them for a talk before waving them through. She wondered if the guards would stop her, a strange girl from faraway that no one here knew or had ay reason to trust. She imagined how the guards might grab her, sneer, and throw her out again, thinking she’d be just one more problem for them to deal with in a city of thousands. She didn’t know what she would do if they did.
But when she reached the gates the guards did none of that. They were simple enough men, one tall and thin, one short and fat, both a little awkward in their armour, and they waved her through without a second thought. She ran, excitedly and nervously, into the city, and didn’t stop until she saw the cat.
It was slinking along the edge of the street, tabby and grey enough that she almost hadn’t noticed it against the stones.
She ran up to it, happy to see a familiar sight in this big strange city. Her home village had been full of cats, and she had talked to them all.
“Hello!”, she told the cat. “Can you tell me how to get to the wizards’ tower? I was planning to go straight up to it, but this city’s so big and I got a bit lost.”
She wasn’t really lost, yet, though the city certainly confused her. But it was a good way to start a conversation with a cat. They liked to feel they knew more than you.
The cat meowed at her questioningly, and she suddenly felt shy. Of course, it made sense that city cats would speak a bit different from the cats back home. It was much further away for them then it was for her, and cats didn’t travel much. She tried asking it again, but more slowly.
This time the cat seemed to understand her. It shook its head and mrowlled at her. Its accent was a bit confusing, but clear enough that she understood it was asking something about why she wanted to go there. “I have to learn from the wizards”, she explained. “A wandering magician who passed through my village said I had the gift for magic, but he couldn’t teach me and I had to go to one of the great wizard towers to learn. So I came all the way here, because I want to learn, and they’re the only people in the whole wide world who can teach me.”
The cat mrowlled again and shook its head in doubt, but it started walking down the street. Elsenya followed, suddenly worried. It wouldn’t do to ask why the cat was so doubtful. Cats never answered direct questions.
The cat led her along a winding path uphill through the stone alleys, avoiding the crowded streets running along the centre of the city. Elsenya ran after it, trying to see as much as she could of the stone buildings and the statues and the fountains as she ran. She’d only seen one stone building in her life, and never a statue or a fountain.
They arrived at a great stone courtyard, strangely empty in the middle of the busy city. Elsenya’s steps echoed on the empty stones. The great stone tower rose ahead of her. Far above her head, the three stone islands floated in their winding paths, their shadows drifting over the courtyard below. The cat walked up to the tower and stopped by the door. It would lead her no further.
Nervously, Elsenya walked through the door and into a small anteroom inside. She walked through it, reached for the door on the other side –
“Ahem!”, she heard someone say, and turned around to see a large middle-aged blonde man looking at her with a grouchy expression. For a wild second there she thought he had appeared from thin air, until she saw the wooden desk he had been sitting behind. It was covered with so many stacks of paper that she thought he must have been impossible to see anyway, even if she had looked right there.
“Ahem!” he said again, more definitively. Elsenya found herself fascinated. She had never met anyone who could ahem definitively. “Who are you?” she asked.
“Who am I? Who am I, you ask?!” the man threw his hands in the air. “I, young lady, am Morris. I, young lady, am the doorwarden. And who, young lady, are you? And what do you think you are doing here?!”
She took a step back. She had never imagined someone who spent his days behind giant stacks of paper could be sarcastic. She had assumed sitting behind those heavy stacks would make him weighty and serious. “I-” she began.
“Let me guess,” he interrupted. “Young girl like you, you want a love potion. Or maybe you’re a bit young for that, you just want a potion that can make you fly. Or maybe…” He paused, and before he could come up with something even sillier than a flying potion, Elsenya interrupted him. “I’m not here for any of that,” she said firmly. “I’m here to learn how to do magic.”
Morris blinked in surprise, but it didn’t last long. “That’s wonderful”, he said unenthusiastically. “May I have your official letter of recommendation?”
“My… my what?”
“Your official letter of recommendation. Since your dress and your accent and your lack of manners all clearly indicate that you are from some tiny mud village in the middle of nowhere, I assume your gift was ‘discovered’ by some wandering tinkerer of a magician. And presumably this ‘discoverer’ gave you an official letter of recommendation, signed with his official magical pen, that officially recognized you as a young magical talent worthy of our attentions so that we could distinguish you from the dozen little boys and girls without a crumb of talent who come in here every day and tell us about their amazing hidden talents that we would surely discover once we spent a year trying to stuff their empty little heads full of knowledge.”
“Oh, that. Um, you see, when he came to our village, he said he’d just ran out of paper for letters…” Elsenya said weakly. It didn’t sound particularly believable, she thought to herself, but it was still less embarrassing than the truth.
Morris sighed. “Okay, little girl, you’ve had your fun. Now go home.”
“But, but…” she tried to argue. She felt like she’d swallowed a cantaloupe. Morris gave her a sympathetic look, or at least the closest he could get while still looking grouchy. “Listen kid, if you really want to go… we do tests here sometimes, for the city kids. Every other Thursday. If you can come up with ten silver coins for the test fee, come on Thursday, and one of the students here will check you for the off chance you actually are any good and didn’t make up that whole story.”
Elsenya swallowed. She still wanted to cry, a little, but the cantaloupe in her throat felt smaller now, only the size of a grapefruit. She didn’t know how she could possibly get that much money, but she was sure she could find it somehow. People always found money in big cities, in all the stories she’d heard. It occurred to her that the people who didn’t find money might not have talked about it much, but she brushed the thought aside. She wasn’t going to be one of those people. She walked back outside, and it was only when she was three streets away from the courtyard that she realized she had no idea where she was going.
She sat down in the middle of the street and hugged her knees. Today was the worst day, she decided. The very worst. A few people walked up and down the street in front of her. She hugged her legs closer to her face so they wouldn’t see her, and thought about how bad her day was extra hard. This helped her feel a bit better.
She felt something brush her leg, and looked up to see it was the cat again. It stared at her for a moment and then walked off, gesturing for her to follow. She got up and ran after it, down the street and around the corner. After all, she reasoned, her day probably couldn’t get any worse.
The cat started running faster, and Elsenya ran as hard as she could after it, trying not to get lost. It went around one corner then another, losing her for a moment each time. She run into a strange man in a green hat, then untangled herself and ran past him. She thought she’d lost the cat for a moment but then she saw it rounding the corner at the end of the street, and ran after it before it could turn around another corner and lose her. Down they went, through three more streets and down one staircase, then another. The walls around the street got higher and narrower, and then suddenly they went under an arch and she realized they were underground.
She stopped, unsure how to go on in the dark. The cat went back for a loop through her legs. She put her hand on its back and crawled forward after it, into the dark.
They went on like that for a long time. How long, she couldn’t say. It was hard to tell time passing, in the dark, with only the movement of the cat under her hand to tell her time was moving at all. It started feeling like this was happening forever. The dark, the stone floor under her knees, and the warm fur in her left hand.
When she started hearing noises she thought she was imagining things. But they grew louder and louder as they moved on, until she recognized what she was hearing. It was the sound of running water.
“Are we close to the city’s water supply?”, she asked the cat, who mewed at her short temperdly to be quiet. She started to ask it why it wanted her to be quiet so much, but then she heard a new noise. Voices, coming closer. She lay down close to the wall of the tunnel, and hoped they wouldn’t found her. She didn’t want anyone to find her, and she probably wasn’t supposed to be there. Wherever there was.
“…and he’ll bring them over through the north tunnel, once he has the socklances”, one of the voices said. It sounded excited, Elsenya thought, but she wasn’t sure why it also made her uncomfortable.
“I tell you again, you can’t trust him.” This voice was deeper, more reassuring. She almost felt better until she remembered where she was.
As the voices got closer, she saw light coming down the tunnel, and she finally saw the water she had been hearing. There was a river at the end of the tunnel, wider and deeper than she had expected any underground river to be. The was flowing uphill.
The tunnel she had come down intersected it crosswise at its end. Maybe it was for the city people to get water, she thought. But that didn’t explain why nobody was using it, or why it was so dark.
There was a walkway over the river, and two men walked down it (or was it walking up, she thought, since they were going against the current?) One had a giant beard that covered his whole face. The other’s face was shrouded in the shadows.
“I don’t have to trust him”, said Beardface. “Once he brings the containers, we’ll be able to use them to find the wellspring. All we have to do is tune into the harmonics, and then he won’t have any leverage anymore.”
“Then why give him any socks in the first place?” The hood asked. At least, Elsenya thought it was the hood asking. It didn’t move when it talked.
“I don’t want him finding some way to rat me out. Once we have the harmonics, we can just dismiss those as another chief making things up to protect his wellspring. He’d be silenced like the others.”
“Very well. Sell him all the socklances you want. Just leave me out of it.”
“So you don’t want your share of the containers either?”
“I didn’t say that. But whatever you do…” the hood trailed off. “Someone’s listening.” He mumbled something else Elsenya didn’t hear, and his torch flared up, lighting up the tunnel all the way to where she was hiding.
She shrunk in her corner, burying her face into the wall, clenching her teeth. If they saw her…
The cat suddenly jumped, hissing, down the hall and into the light. Beardface cursed, and grabbed Hood’s arm. “It’s just a cat, man. Don’t start playing around with magic down here like that. You never know where old Whiteshirt might be. Or how he’s listening to you. If he catches us down here…” As he grabbed Hood’s arm, he somehow drained the light back out through it, until it was only as bright as an ordinary torch again.
Hood pushed his arm off, annoyed. “If I were you I’d be more worried about sewer rats than that spider at the top of the tower. If he were onto you he would’ve done something by now.”
Elsenya’s heart stopped hammering quite as loud. She had to get out of here; whatever these men were up to, she didn’t want them to find her. She crawled back away from the light and towards the tunnel entrance, as fast as she could without making any noise. Behind her, the men kept walking on.
Eventually she crawled back out of the tunnel and into the light of the still-abandoned alley. Her clothes and face were grey and covered in dust from the tunnel, but at least she’d managed to keep her hair clean, she comforted herself. She got up and started walking. She needed to prove she was worth teaching to that smug Morris person, and for that she needed money. Her mother would have told her to pull up her sleeves and get to work. And since her mother wasn’t here, she would have to say it to herself.
First thing, she decided, was to find something to eat. She looked around, hoping to see some sign of food, and saw a column of white smoke, rising from somewhere on the other side of the hill. Where there was smoke, she reasoned, there would probably be food. She walked down the street towards the smoke.
Ten minutes later, she walked into the inn’s big smoky kitchen. The big woman working over the stove didn’t seem to notice her coming in, so she walked right up to her. She’d decided this wasn’t going to go like her meeting with doorman Morris.
“Hello, I’m your new maid. Where should I start?”
The cook didn’t miss a beat. “Go sweep the rooms upstairs, Old Maid already did downstairs. Broom’s in the cupboard by the entrance. Dinner’s in three hours, be done by then.” She never even looked away.
Elsenya took the broom and went up the stairs. City people were strange, she decided, but at least brooms were the same everywhere.
There were six rooms in the second floor. She started out by sweeping the hallway, gathering the dust up to the corner by the window then scooping it out through it into the street. The street was already grey, so she figured no one would notice a bit of dust on it.
She went through each of the six rooms, one after the other. They were all empty of people, although two had messy beds that she made before sweeping, and the last one had a plate on the table with half a fish on it. She wasn’t sure what to do about the fish, so she left it off until she finished sweeping. As she dumped the dust through the room’s window, she heard a meow behind her. It was the cat again.
This solved one problem. She gave the cat the fish, then took the plate downstairs and left it in the kitchen. The cook turned to Elsenya, nodded at her, and went back to work.
Elsenya went back up to the second floor, then took the back stairs up to the third floor. She was starting to worry. It had taken her more than two hours to clean the second floor, and if the third floor was as big as the second she wouldn’t be done before dinner. It was starting to get dark outside.
But when she got up to the third floor, she saw it only had one room.
It was bigger than any of the other rooms, and far more cluttered. There was a miniature tree growing in the middle of the room. A giant table in one corner was full of scrolls and at least three pens thrown around. Another corner has three huge bookshelves, and a third had a bed with more books thrown all over it. The fourth corner had a hanger with a brown cloak and a hook with a dusty green hat with a feather in it.
There were three chairs in the middle of the room. One had a pile of books on it, and another had a potted plant. The third one had a man with brown hair, giving her an odd look. She couldn’t figure out how old he was: He looked almost childlike, and his hair had no grey in it, but something about him felt old, older even than anyone she’d ever met.
He was still giving her the odd look, so she decided to ignore it and get to sweeping the parts of the room that weren’t covered by books or potted plants or trees. That didn’t leave much to clean, which she found reassuring.
While she cleaned, she heard the cat meow behind her. She turned around, and saw it had jump onto the man in the chair, who was still looking at her oddly. It growled something at him, too fast for her to catch what it was saying. The man raised his eyebrows, and petted the cat on the head. “She says you were in the tunnels today,” he said softly.
Elsenya was surprised. Not a lot of people could talk to cats anyway, but a cat volunteering information was almost unheard of. The man went on, unconcerned. “She enjoyed the fish, so she has decided to help you, even though your accent is atrocious and you have the manners of a country cat, which she does not approve of.”
“What is she going to do?” Elsenya asked. The cat had seen her meeting with Morris. If she could help her find a way around him… the cat growled again.
“She says she already helped you find where you needed to go three times today. Don’t be greedy.” The man gave her a disappointed look.
“But that was earlier. I only gave her the fish ten minutes ago.”
“Oh, that. Since you were nice to her, she was nice to you, but she doesn’t really care about the order of things. Cats… they don’t really see time the way you do. They find it dreadfully boring, the way people do everything in series, just one thing at a time one after the other. You’ll never see a cat go through time like that.” He looked at her sternly. “You could learn a lot from them.”
This man, she decided, was as strange as her uncle Abbie, who had once gone off to live in a cave for three months because he was tired of sleeping under a wooden roof. She finished sweeping the last bit of bare floor, and turned around to go downstairs. It should just around be time for dinner, and she suddenly realized she hadn’t eaten all day.
“Wait a moment”, he said as she walked out the door. “Watch out for the men from the tunnel.” She turned to ask him if he knew them, but before she could, he added, “I take my dinner late, so you can wait until you’re done before bringing it up here. You’ll be working here for a while, so go ahead and make that a habit.” He turned back to his book. She didn’t bother asking anything. It was clear the conversation was over.
She walked downstairs, where the cook was just putting two plates on the table. “Eat up”, she said gruffly. “You can sleep upstairs for now. Last room on the left.” She went back to the kitchen.
Before Elsenya could wonder too much who the other plate was for, another girl came running out of the hallway. “Miss Lacey! Am I late for dinner? I wasn’t sleeping, I promise, I was just – oh!” she blinked, seeing Elsenya there instead of the cook. “Are you the new maid? I thought we were just about due for a new one. I didn’t know Miss Lacey had hired anyone yet though, I thought she -” The girl stopped for breath, then went on – “Anyway what’s your name? I’m Marie. I’ve been maiding here for the eight months now. I hate doing the upstairs though, it takes so long. Are you going to be doing them now?”
“I.. guess so? I’m Elsenya”. She had met anyone quite so talkative. Marie looked only a few years older than her.
“Well that’s good”, Marie said happily, then hopped over to the table and began to eat. Elsenya started eating too. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was.
Marie, it turned out, had the almost-supernatural ability to eat and talk at the same time, which she went on to demonstrate throughout the meal. Elsenya was hungry enough to eat twice as fast as usual, but by the time she finished Marie had managed to both finish eating and fill her in on the town’s gossip. Real cities, Elsenya discovered, had much more interesting gossip than obscure villages. Everyone in the city was saying (according to Marie) that the lord mayor was planning to adopt a street lout to be his new heir after his sun had fled the city in disgrace, that there was a monster in the sewers that crawled out in the night to steal people’s teeth, that the Waste Riders were going to invade any day now and the wizards in the tower would raise an army to fight them. Marie was just starting to tell her about the new royal guard regiment that might be coming to town any day now (“we are a border town, and I could catch me a soldier boy…”) when Miss Lacey came out of the kitchen and shouted “that’s enough! Time for bed!”. Elsenya was disappointed. The most exciting gossip her home village ever had was when the mayor had gotten a new cat without clearing it with his old cat first.
She lay in the bed in her new room, thinking about her day. The cat with the city accent had been strange, and old Morris the doorman, and those men in the tunnel. But the strangest thing about the day, she thought, was the strange man with the green hat in the third floor. Something about him bothered her, but she was very tired, and she fell asleep before she could think of what it was.
By the time she got up in the morning, the stairs to the third floor were there again.
Elsenya stayed at the inn for a while, and her days soon fell into a rhythm. In the morning, she cleaned the upstairs floors. If there were guests, she brought them breakfast. In the afternoon she ran errands for Lacey, going to a hundred little shops scattered around the town. In the evening she brought the guests food again, finishing with the man on the third floor. She wanted to ask him what he knew about the men from the tunnel, but whenever she thought about it he gave her a strange look, like he knew what she was thinking and didn’t entirely approve.
Lacey seemed to have confined to the kitchen floor; Elsenya never saw her anywhere else. Marie seemed to be everywhere, constantly dashing by on her way to everywhere else. Occasionally the Cat would come by, and Elsenya would give him the remains of someone’s lunch.
The guests were interesting, although (except for the man on the top floor), none of them ever stayed more than a day or two. Most of them were merchant farmers, who could only talk about carts and horses and vegetables. A few were soldiers or adventurers, who would never say where they were going but always had wildly unbelievable stories about where they had been. One time there was a ship captain, who stayed for three whole nights and only talked about different kinds of wood. Elsenya didn’t know what he was doing there. Tel Antora was two hundred miles from the nearest sea.
At the end of the week, Miss Lacey called her to the kitchen to give her her weekly pay. It would have been a lot back home. Here in the city, it looked like only a few coins. She would have to save up for a while, she calculated, to pay for the tests in the tower.
When she was running errands, she often thought about those men in the tunnel. They had said something about socklances, and wellsprings, and chiefs. It sounded like something to do with weapons, and she thought about Marie’s rumor that the Waste Riders were planning to attack. She remembered the man from the third floor telling her to keep an eye out for them, and for a while she examined every man on the street to see if he was one of them, causing her to get some strange looks back. But it wasn’t until three weeks later, when she had almost given up, that she finally found a lead.
She was running down the street to pick up some vegetables for Miss Lacey when she saw a man in a green hat from the corner of her eye. It looked like the man from the third floor, but she had never seen him outside his room. He went around a corner before she could be sure, and she ran after him. She had to know.
She got to the corner just in time to see him rounding another corner, and kept running to that corner, only to see him rounding yet another corner. By that time she was sure it was him, and that she’d catch him at the next corner. But when she rounded it, he was nowhere in sight. Instead, there was a man in a long dark cloak.
She hid behind the corner and looked, but there was no one else in sight, and he couldn’t have vanished that fast. She examined the hooded man again, trying to remember if the strange man had been wearing a hood under his hat (it seemed like a strange enough thing to do that he might have done it), but it made no sense, the hooded man was more than a foot taller.
But before she could figure it out, a gust of wind blew off the man’s hood. He grabbed it and put it back on in a second, but she had already recognized him, or at least his beard. It was the beard-faced man from the tunnels.
He hurried down the street, and she followed. He walked down one street, then another, then into the tunnel entrance. Elsenya followed, hiding behind corners and doorways, trying to stay far enough not to be seen. Fortunately for her, he seemed to have stopped looking around. Then he turned, and walked into a tunnel.
This tunnel was darker than the tunnels she had been in before, and she didn’t know if she was ready to enter it. A small voice in the back of her head told her it was stupid to run after an unknown and dangerous wizard into a dark tunnel for no good reason.
A few feet ahead, she saw a light, as the wizard held a handful of flames to light his way. She resolutely decided to ignore the voice and go after him. She hadn’t listened to little voices telling her not to do things since she was ten, and she wasn’t about to start now.
She followed Beardface into the tunnel. It was smooth and dark, and at least now there was no risk of him suddenly turning around seeing her, so long as she stayed out of the circle of light of his flames.
The tunnel seemed to go on forever. It was hard to keep track of time, walking in the dark, always staying ten steps behind the fire. Once or twice they turned into different tunnels. In the dark, she was sure she wouldn’t have been able to find her way back anymore even if she gave up. By the time they got anywhere, she was sure they would be coming out in the middle of the countryside. Instead, they were in what looked like a warmly lit library. There was a fireplace, and shelves of books, and a few crates by the wall. She hid behind a bookshelf and listened.
Beardface hummed to himself. “Crates are ready, location set, everything planned. Time to get the cart and move the goods. But before that, just one little thing…” he whistled, and suddenly Elsenya froze, and fell over. Beardface turned around the corner. “Catching the little rat that’s been following me. Hello girlie.” He took a rope from one of the shelves, and started tying her up. “I was hoping I’d catch the girl who overheard my plans before I had to carry them out. I hate leaving loose ends.” He finished tying her up, and whistled again. She felt her muscles unfreeze and tried to move them, but she was tied up too tight. Beardface picked her up, ropes and all, and put her behind the tunnel door. “I’ll finish taking care of you soon enough, but I have a delivery to make first. Be a good girl and stay right there until I’m back.” He turned around, and walked away upstairs.
Elsenya felt her muscles thaw as soon as he left, and struggled frantically against the ropes. It did her no good. The knots were too tight to undo, and the ropes were too thick for her to wind through.
She thought about shouting for help. But she was afraid Beardface would hear her, and decide he was safer just killing her now. And however worried he’d been about her death being noticed, he wasn’t worried at all about her making noise.
She tried struggling again, tried looking around for something she could use to get away. Fear clawed at her, but she didn’t let herself break down. She couldn’t afford to. She kept looking, trying to think of something, trying to stop her mind from racing. Then she heard a meow behind her, from the tunnel entrance. It was the cat.
She didn’t say anything, didn’t ask it how or why it had found her. She just swallowed the lump in her throat, and turned around to expose as much of the ropes as she could to it. The cat jumped next to her, rubbed its side against her face, then jumped on the ropes and clawed at them. Then as soon as the rope was cut through, it turned away and ran back into the tunnel.
Elsenya got up at once and ran up the stairs. She couldn’t risk getting lost in the tunnels without a light, and she had no time to spare. She had to warn someone about the crates, whatever it was that was in them. Maybe they’d protect her.
She ran frantically up the stairs, around and around, past doorways and, eventually, windows. She ran until her legs hurt and her lungs were burning, and then kept going. She had time to be quiet, but she did not have time for exhaustion.
Near the top, she saw two men walking away from her. One of them was tall and dressed all in black. The other one was slightly shorter, with sandy hair and a white shirt. She remembered the men in the tunnel worrying about a Whiteshirt, and wondered if this was him. She didn’t recognize either of the men, but neither of them was Beardface, and that was enough for her. She ran up to them, and they turned to her, concerned.
“Man… downstairs” she gasped. “Beard on face. He was… selling weapons.” The man in black looked confused. The sandy-haired man in the white shirt looked more concerned. “Catch your breath and tell me everything.”
She bent over and breathed. It felt good to have someone handle problems for a change, and she almost expected him to see her brother’s dark red hair. But when she caught her breath it was still just the two strangers, though they both seemed sympathetic now.
She told them everything, from the story about the water tunnel to the man who’d tied her up. It took less time than she thought.
Whiteshirt stood up, and looked at the other man. “So Erlich’s trying to get his own wellspring by selling socks to raiders. I’ll go sort him out. Keep an eye on the girl.” He walked away towards the stairs, but just before he opened the door, he turned around and looked her in the eye. “Thank you”, he mouthed. It almost seemed insufficient after all she’d been through, but she suspected this man didn’t say even this much lightly. He closed the door, and hurried down the stairs.
The tall man grabbed her arm and led her into a different room. “You shouldn’t have listened in on us”, he told her. He didn’t look aloof or concerned anymore. He looked sad. “I’ll have to leave now. Erlich will tell the old man I was involved. I’ll have to leave… everything.” His hand shook for a moment, but then he firmed himself. “Well, if that’s how it is, that’s how it is.” He lifted his hand, and she saw that it was wrapped in fire. “It’ll take him a while to figure things out, if he comes back upstairs and can’t find you here”, the man said, almost apologetically. “No help for it.” He raised his hand, and she felt the intensity of his magic thrum through her bones. She had nowhere to run, and there was nothing she could do to stop him.
Then she saw a green hat come through the solid wall behind him, followed by the rest of the strange man for the third floor. He grabbed the man in black’s arm, and suddenly the fire disappeared, along with the feeling of tension. And strangest of all, the air suddenly smelled wilder, like her village after a rainy day. She hadn’t realized how different the smell of the city was until this moment.
“Sleep”, the man in the green hat said, and the man in black collapsed. He turned and scratched the cat behind the ears (of course the cat had come in with him, Elsenya thought. He wouldn’t miss another chance to not-say-anything about her needing rescuing again). He nodded at her, and turned to open the door. Whiteshirt walked back in, dragging an unconscious Beardface. He blinked in surprise when he saw who’d opened the door for him.
“You should be more careful who you trust, Arthur. With your luck, it’s almost a sure thing that you’ll end up leaving your witness with the one person in the conspiracy you haven’t caught yet”, he said conversationally.
Whiteshirt smiled, the first real expression she’d seen on him. “Good thing you walk through walls then. I didn’t know you were in town. I haven’t seen you since… well, since Maradon.”
“Just passing through, really. Did you get all the crates these two were trying to smuggle?”
“I got him on his way back, so he got at least on box out. It’ll be a problem, but we won’t get overrun by the barbarian hordes anytime soon. It’s all thanks to this girl, really. Did you send her?”
“I… nudged her. I didn’t want to get directly involved, but then you had the appallingly bad judgement to leave her alone with the one other conspirator she could have given away.”
Elsenya was still confused, but she decided she was annoyed with them talking over her head like this. “You knew what you were getting me into?” she said. “You could have at least warned me.”
“Would you have still gone if I had?” he asked.
“Then what’s the problem?” He turned back to Arthur. “She wanted to be a student here, but your doorman put her off. Will you teach her? You owe her for this.”
Arthur frowned. “I’m sorry. There could be other people involved in this conspiracy, and they would want revenge on her. The tower wouldn’t be safe for her.” The he grinned, in a way that was not entirely nice. “You know, you were the one who got her into this mess in the first place.”
“I’m not in the guild anymore, Arthur. I don’t do things the way you do anyway.”
“Then teach her how you do things. Stars above, we could do with someone around who has some idea about that next time you go vanishing for twenty years.”
“I… don’t think that would work. But I could teach her anyway.” He turned around, and looked her straight in the eye for the first time. “Would you like to learn? I can’t teach you the way they do here, but I can show you all the things that even Arthur doesn’t know.”
She nodded. Nothing today had went like she’d expected, and now instead of saving money for the test she’d never be able to take it at all. But she wasn’t sure she liked this tower, with its secret paths and conspiracies and eerie silences.
“It’s all settled, then,” he turned around and led her by the shoulder. “I’ll see her home, Arthur. We’ll meet again soon enough.” They turned, and walked together out of the tower and onto the busy streets.
They were almost back at the inn before she remembered to ask him what his name was.
“So that’s how I met Sorin”, the old woman concluded. Alicia was almost done with her soup (at least the important parts). “Of course, I had no idea who he really was until much later. But I started learning. Between that and the work at the inn, it’s amazing I had time to get into so much trouble.”
“You got into trouble?” Alicia asked.
“Of course I did. Eat your carrots.” She said sternly. “If you don’t chew enough you’ll lose your teeth. And there’s monsters out there that steal teeth from little girls.”
“There are?” Alicia said openmouthed, then closed it, in case one of them was looking.
“Of course. I met one of them, just a few weeks after I came to the city…”