“You’ve come, have you?” Jahlena greeted Rasine. “We’ve been very busy tonight. I would have been upset with you if you hadn’t showed up.”
Rasine stared up at the bigger woman who was the bouncer at the Inn of the Shattered Spear. The thought of the way Jahlena had threatened her daughter Oriel earlier that day filled her with dread. Her entire mind burned with one question: how to keep Oriel safe? The fact of the matter was that Oriel would never be safe in all of Dargon after Jahlena had decided she wanted Oriel to entertain at the Spear, much like Rasine herself did. Therefore Oriel’s safety could be assured only if the child was not in Dargon. Rasine was unable to think past the impossibility of getting her daughter out of Dargon.
“Rasine, pay attention!”
She jerked her wandering wits back to the other woman. She knew Jahlena would never hit her in so public a place and so she took a deep breath to calm herself before taking a quick look around. The common room was more crowded than usual, full of smoke and men, some looking dangerous and the rest merely dirty. There appeared to be a card game going on in the far corner, generating loud shouts of laughter.
“See that man?” Jahlena pointed to a thin, dark-haired fellow sitting at the bar talking to Jamis, the owner of the Shattered Spear. “Go. The room with the chains. The key is in the soup bowl.”
There was another shout of laughter from the card table. Rasine stared at the customers as she made her way behind the bar, stopping as she always did to look at the shadows on the ground and the wall from the crockery on the counter. Someone had set three mugs close together, and it created a shadow effect rather like cutwork embroidery; in fact, just like the blouse Jahlena had been wearing that very day. Momentary anger gripped her as she thought of how much money Jahlena had probably paid for it.
Still thinking about the money the bouncer spent on her own adornment, Rasine bent and pulled out a key from the soup bowl. She fumed at the thought of the manner in which she, Rasine, earned the money the other woman used to buy herself fancy blouses and jewelry. She came around the counter, intending to take her customer upstairs when she looked down at the key in her hand. It was the key to Jahlena’s strong box. Annoyance surged through her as she walked back to the soup bowl. That key had been there the previous night as well. What was it still doing in there anyway? It occurred to Rasine as she dropped the key back in the bowl that it would serve Jahlena right if she took the key. She rummaged for the key to the room with the chains, savoring for just a moment the thought of taking Jahlena’s strong box key before shrugging i t away.
Rasine came around the bar and then stopped, staring at the dark-haired man who, despite being thin, had a big belly. He had come in the previous night as well, and she remembered overhearing his conversation with another customer. He had been talking with a fat man about Heahun. What had he said? Something about a ghost killing the cooks at the Heahun Inn, and the merchant’s wagon that stopped there on its way into Dargon, *and* on its way out of Dargon. As she realized that a way out of Dargon did exist, faith blossomed in her mind — a faith that she could save her daughter. The next step though, was how to find the merchant. She would find the merchant; she would make him take them out of Dargon; she would save Oriel. It was a chant. A litany. A vow.
Later that evening when Rasine came back to drop the key back in the soup bowl, she hesitated. The strong box key was still there, and both Jamis and Jahlena were busy serving customers. What would happen if she were to take some money from Jahlena’s strong box? Jahlena could hurt her badly, she supposed. A small voice inside her mind pointed out that Jahlena would never know it was she, Rasine, who had taken the money. Besides, she wouldn’t take much at all: just a Round, or perhaps two. Rasine considered that dispassionately for a moment.
A part of her mind mocked: what about right and wrong? Right and wrong were things one taught to children. She herself had taught Oriel that a wrong was always punished. But real life wasn’t like that. People didn’t get punished for doing bad things; quite the contrary, Rasine thought bitterly. Jahlena, who hurt people, was rich and always had new clothes.
She extended her hand to the strong box and retracted it. It was wrong! The thought thudded through her mind with the force of a hammer. But Jahlena was bad. Rasine looked up, peering through the dim smoke. Jahlena still sported the dark hair, but she was wearing a cutwork blouse tonight. Since the blouse was fairly plain, she had added jewelry, and lots of it. More than one chain hung from her neck, each one slightly longer than the previous. The last one hung to almost her waist. They glittered in the firelight, inviting attention.
Rasine’s mind rebelled at the beauty of the chains. Each one had been paid for with blood, her own and others’. Did that make it right to steal from Jahlena? Rasine shook her head, and fidgeted. The bouncer had systematically taken money from her for so many years. Didn’t that make it Rasine’s money? She worried at her lower lip, unable to reach into the strong box, yet unable to walk away.
If it was Rasine’s money, then taking it wasn’t wrong. She reached out to the strong box, inserted and turned the key and then flipped open the top. Coins lay heaped inside the box, glinting dully in the dim light. Rasine stared down, her heart thumping so loudly that she wondered why the others in the room could not hear it. She had paid her debt many times over during the past few years. Surely it couldn’t be wrong to take the money? She picked up two coins and stared at them.
“Rasine, you’re still here!”
She gasped and looked up, shutting the strong box quickly. It was only Jamis, the owner of the Spear. She slid the key and the two coins into her purse.
“Could you walk Tira to the back room upstairs, the one over the stable? I don’t want any of these scum here bothering her,” Jamis nodded to the crowded room behind him. “The key’s right there, in the soup bowl.”
Rasine nodded limply, feeling weak with fear and relief.
Jamis turned to his daughter. “You, be sure to lock your door, you hear me?”
Rasine went upstairs slowly, followed by Tira. A mene later, she returned downstairs and walked slowly behind the counter. The strong box sat there, the dark, polished veneer of the lid gleaming dully. She stroked the lid and swallowed. She closed her eyes for a moment but it didn’t seem to matter like before. Quickly she pulled the key out of her purse, opened the strong box and grabbed some more coins. And so the deed was done. She was richer by several Rounds. She left quietly after locking the strong box and dropping the key into the soup bowl.
Events progressed quite nicely after she left the Spear that night. Searching for the merchant who planned to stop at Heahun on his way back to Magnus was easy. She found him at the second inn she had tried and he agreed to let them join his wagon from Dargon to Heahun, provided she paid him a Round. It was a steep price; indeed, it was highway robbery.
The little voice at the back of her mind rose annoyingly to remind her that it was *she* who was the thief, not the merchant. But she had merely taken a small portion of what belonged to her, she reasoned. Who was going to know that she had appropriated some money from Jahlena? Anyway, it wasn’t as if Jahlena was the nicest woman in Baranur.
Rasine climbed the steps to her rooms with a sense of satisfaction. She unlocked the door and entered her rooms, ignoring the aggravating voice in her head. Even if what it said was true, she had no time to argue right now. Still, convincing herself that she had done no wrong was proving futile. She admonished herself to stop thinking about it. She had more pressing things at hand. She had to get ready, because the merchant was leaving the next morning. Rasine woke Oriel and dressed the child in the warmest clothes she had.
“Why are we getting dressed, Mama?” Oriel asked sleepily.
Rasine smiled with pride at her daughter, full of questions even when she was half asleep.
“We’re going away, dear. Hush, now. Here, put on these shoes; I’ll be right back.”
Rasine went to her room to change. She pulled out the small pouch of money she had secreted in her clothing earlier that evening. It occurred to her that it was quite fitting for Jahlena to pay for their safe passage to Heahun. The thought that she had hit Jahlena where it would hurt the most, her strong box, would be enough to make Rasine smile all the way from Dargon to Heahun. It was something to balance the guilt she still felt at stealing money, even if it was from Jahlena.
She went back out and saw that Oriel had slipped on her shoes and was sitting on the one chair that they had, asleep. “Oriel, wake up.”
“M-Mama, why do you want me to wake up?” Oriel murmured.
“Come on, little one,” Rasine half picked Oriel up and walked her to the door. The little girl walked obediently, with her eyes still closed. After they were outside though, the chill air woke her up.
“Where are we going, Mama?” Oriel asked as they started walking west along the oceanfront toward the docks.
“Oriel, I want you to listen to me. This is very important. Do you understand?” Seeing Oriel nod, she continued, “We are going to go on a long journey. I’m taking you to wait for me in a special place.”
“What special place, Mama? And why?” Oriel yawned.
“Hush. We’ll be there soon.” They continued down the docks until they reached the river and turned toward the causeway. The warehouses along the riverfront had been destroyed during the war and some of them had been restored. The last three were the smaller ones and they were in greater disrepair. Beyond that lay the marshland and then the causeway. The first warehouse was being rebuilt while the remaining two were yet to be. When they reached the last one before the swamp, Rasine said, “Here we are. Now, I’m going to go back to take care of something. Here, keep this.” She handed the purse to her daughter.
“What’s this, Mama?”
“Just hold it for me until I return, little one. I want you to stay here, and hide. Don’t come out at all, do you understand?”
Oriel nodded vigorously. “But where are we going, Mama? And why are we going?”
“Do you remember Jahlena, the big, tall woman you met in the marketplace the other day? Well, we’re running away from her. She’s a bad woman.” Rasine paused, frowning. “But, we’ll be safe when we get to Heahun. Oriel, you must hide here until I come back. Don’t come out, no matter what; do you understand?”
Rasine hurried back to the lodgings she rented near the oceanfront, northeast of Dargon and outside the city. When she arrived at her destination, she knocked at the door to the lower part of the house and waited. When there was no answer, she went up the stairs and paused outside the door to her rooms, staring up at the sky. The stars seemed unusually brilliant. Were they proffering their blessing on her? Was it a blessing for the journey or a blessing for the task at hand, or neither?
Enough, she thought. There was work to be done. She went in and pulled all their bedding to the center of the living area. The heather and hay she had gathered for Oriel’s bed landed on top of the pile. When at last she was satisfied that everything that would burn was on the pile, she went to the small kitchen area and lifted a tiny container of oil. She had been saving it to roast the eels for Oriel’s birthday. Oriel loved the way she prepared eels. She sighed. The oil dripped gently, slowly through the bedsheets and crept through the little gaps in the heather. Rasine turned her attention to the mud oven where she had banked the coals before leaving earlier that night.
The coals still glowed, albeit dimly. She scooped up the live coals with a ladle and flung them upon the pile in the center of the room. Nothing happened. She bit her lower lip in vexation, wishing the coals would burn. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. She drew close to the pile and tried to blow on the coals, but still, nothing happened. Rasine glanced from the pile to the mud oven, debating what to do. The pile had to burn in order for Jahlena to believe that she had perished in the fire. She picked up a coal, intending to carry it over to the oven.
“Ow!!” Rasine cursed aloud. She was far too old a hand in the kitchen to be doing something so stupid. She picked up the coals again, this time with a scoop, and dropped them into the bottom of the mud oven. She blew on them gently, turning them over until a small flame crept up. And this time, when she flung the coals upon the pile, it blazed upwards obediently. She clapped her hands to her ears — the noise was incredible! After the chill of the outside the heat initially felt pleasant, but already she was beginning to perspire inside her tunic and she knew that it would only get worse.
It was time to go. She exited hurriedly, making sure to shut the door behind her, and clattered down the staircase. The cottages on either side of the house were empty, so hopefully the fire guard would be able to quench the fire before it got out of hand. She would make sure they knew of the fire before she went back to the warehouse to get Oriel. This way, no one would know where she had gone, or indeed, if she were gone at all. A nice plan, thought Rasine, congratulating herself.
She stepped off the last stair and looked upwards to the top floor of the small cottage. She couldn’t see the fire, but she could certainly hear it. Surely those awake inside the town’s perimeter could hear it? But it was close to the seventh bell of the night, so perhaps people were asleep. Suddenly there was an incredibly loud sound. What was it? Thunder! She pulled her hand off the banister as if it scorched her: the banister was reverberating. Her heart began to pound.
“Oh Stevene!” She swore aloud. What was going on? Time to get out of here, at once. She turned to go and stopped, mid-stride. A child’s wail. From inside the lower level of the house. No, no, no, she screamed silently. The house was supposed to be empty. Who was the child? The cold air enveloped her. She still perspired. Unwillingly, she turned. The wail came again. A child, Stevene forgive her! She rushed to the downstairs door, but it was locked. She tried to juggle the handle, but it was so hot that the skin on her hands was scorched. The hurt did not penetrate her distraught mind. The wails from the inside continued, the high-pitched sound now distinctly panicked. Rasine became even more frantic, every instinct responding to the terror in the child’s cries. The front door remained well and truly locked against all her tries.
Back door! She ran. This door had a trick catch. She pushed. It didn’t work. She pulled. That didn’t work either. What now? Slowly, try it slowly, she thought. She swallowed her frantic haste, and closed her mind’s ears to the child’s cries that seemed to be getting softer and slower. The trick was that the door had a latch on top and one at the bottom, and both had to be opened at the same time. She took a deep breath and coughed. Umph! The air smelled very bad. She told herself sternly to concentrate on the matter at hand.
She pulled at the top latch, and pulled at the bottom one. If only she were taller! Just a little more, a little more. There. Done. She pushed against the door, the cries inside fading in and out. No, she would not be too late. Uncaring, not looking one way or the other, she ran inside. There was a gaping hole where the ceiling should have been. She realized that that had been what had caused the tremendous noise and reverberation.
“Who’s there?” she shouted. “Child, where are you?”
“Here, in here,” the answer came back faintly.
In the front bedchamber, then. No wonder she had heard him. Thank Stevene he had been in the front room. She skirted the red haze in the center area and entered. It was the landlord’s grandson. The little boy cried with relief as she went to him. The small bed was surrounded by fire on three sides; on the fourth side was the outer wall. Young as he was, he had been paralyzed with fear. She extended her hands, and the boy leapt into her arms and almost choked her with his grip. She loosened his hands at her neck and coughed again. Quickly, she grabbed a sheet from the bed and wrapped it around the child’s head so that he, at least, would be less affected by the smoke.
She slipped back into the central area of the house, but the way to the back door was now in flames that danced all the way up to the roof of the house. Fear clutched at her mind, threatening an avalanche. She *had* to get the boy to safety. She couldn’t let the dread envelop her mind.
Rasine turned back and forth, her tired brain bereft of ideas on how to get out of the house that had turned into an oven before they baked. Literally. She giggled. As a cook, she had baked lots of different things in her life, but never people. Somehow that seemed very funny. Rasine, the cook, baker of breads, exotic desserts and people. She giggled again. Dimly she realized that this wasn’t funny, but the giggles just would not stop. She gagged in the smoke and then giggled again.
The child coughed again and again, his tiny body shaking in her arms. The child! Cold clarity entered her mind. She focused again, and jumped over what seemed like a small flame. It was not small. The heat from the top of the flame seared her legs. She screamed, and the child screamed with her.
“Don’t. You’re safe,” she managed. The open back door! Could she reach it? A rafter had fallen directly across the room and burned merrily between her and the door. She turned again, like a cornered rat. She had to save the child. Save the child, save the child. She recited the litany like the prayers she had taught Oriel: prayers to avoid temptation, prayers for mercy in punishment. Dear Stevene, was this punishment?
She prayed. She prayed to save this child; she prayed to save Oriel and she prayed to save her own life. The prayers infused her with a new determination. She would save this child. Her mind cleared. Front door. She was taking the boy out of the front door and her prayers would work, she thought grimly. The sheet around the child’s head had worked loose. She pulled it tight, wrapped it around his head as loosely as she dared, so that he could breathe and yet the fire would not grab his hair. And then she ran. Through the fire. To the front door. But it was locked!
She turned again, and ran blindly, past coherent thought. She tripped over the rafter. She couldn’t get through to the back door. Darkness beckoned in her mind; she fought against it because she knew she had yet another task to complete: Oriel. She threw up another prayer to the gods to help her save Oriel, but the smoke was too much for her. She couldn’t breathe. She tried to stand, but her knees gave way, and she fell face down again. Her final thought was that if this was indeed punishment, then so be it.