I hopped up onto a rock along the road and squinted up at the sun. Someone once told me you could tell the time by the position of the sun. Of course, I had no idea how to do this, but I tried anyway. I could tell it was near midday, but whether it was before or after was beyond me. The time I had spent on the road offered me no reference, as these days had all run together like a dusty stew. A horrible analogy, I know, but what could you expect from an amateur storyteller with no formal training? Make that an amateur storyteller, performer, poet, dancer, flipper and countless other things with no formal training. I sighed and set down my pack. I looked at it for a moment, wondering how I ever fit my entire life into that worn and patched-up bag. As I undid the straps I tried to remember where in the Kingdoms I had acquired this sack. Not a gift, since no one I have ever known could locate me. It couldn’t have survived all of ten years … I stopped. *Ten years*. I couldn’t believe I had been wandering and doing this gods-be-damned show for ten years. Why didn’t I listen to my mother …
I shook my head. No, I loved doing the show, and I knew it. Lately however, I’d found it hard to keep my spirits up, as well as my strength.
You see, my partner, Nessis, decided to terminate our partnership nearly two weeks ago, just prior to my departure for Dargon. Actually, “ran off” would probably be a better phrase. Nessis was a boss of sorts, although he constantly insisted that we were equal. He performed a little so I could rest, and took care of publicity and managed our funds, which always seemed to be smaller than what I had collected from the performances. In fact, that was what I confronted Nessis about the night before he left. I told him I remembered specifically that there had been more than twenty copper in the plate when I had closed the show, and yet he still told me I hadn’t made enough for a meal that night. “Balor,” he said. “Balor, I love ya like ya was me own son. I would never lie ta ya. Trust me.” I told him I did. Maybe it was his sentiment that made me overlook the smell of roasted meat on his breath.
Lost in the past, I didn’t notice when the pack finally opened. To my surprise the bottom of it fell out, scattering my belongings out onto the dust. I paused a moment, a little stunned, but I noticed that the wind was gathering speed. I grabbed a few costumes and noticed, to my dismay, that my signs were skipping down the road like a … well — I don’t know. The stiff parchment offered no ballast, and the wind tossed them about; scattering them everywhere. I ran as fast as my legs could carry me, grabbing the signs I passed and trying to keep up with the ones still ahead.
When I had gathered them all up, I carried them back to the rock and the rest of my things. I laid the signs on the ground and stacked a few costumes on top of them, to make sure I wouldn’t have to hunt them down again.
I picked up my pack and surveyed the damage. The bottom had simply ripped from its lining. A quick fix was all that was required. Grabbing a few old costumes, I made the patches I would need. I hated to do it, as I couldn’t replace them, having no money. But what’s the use of having a load of costumes with nothing to carry them in? I dropped to my hands and knees to find my needle. Looking for a needle on a dirt road was harder than it seems. ‘Needle on a dirt road’
… say, that’s one I should write down.
I found what I was looking for, patched up my pack, and started to stuff my meager belongings back in. The costumes went first, and seeing each one reminded me of a different time in my life, whether I wanted to or not. The frilled red one brought back memories of being thrown out of the finest palaces and castles in Baranur. And the wolves’ fur coat made me recall the cold nights I had spent sleeping in doorways. I picked up a leather jerkin, and as I did I could feel my blood run cold. I stuffed it into the sack, my hand getting caught on one of the many hidden pockets it held. I tried not to think too much on the memories that this costume had; how I was forced to make it and use it just so I could eat. I wanted to toss away that jerkin right then and there, but I knew that would be foolish. I had to eat, and if — I hated to even think it — stealing was the only way, so be it.
I finished packing and bitterly continued down the road. Why, *why* did my life have to be like this …
The sun had nearly reached its peak when I entered Dargon. The number of people there raised my hopes of actually eating that night. My musings were cut short when I was shoved forward by the incoming tide of people through the gates. “Best be getting started,” I thought, and moved into a doorway. In that niche I opened my pack, minding the newly repaired bottom, and withdrew the ten signs that advertised my show. I stared at them for a moment, scrutinizing them, but I found it was hard to scrutinize your own work. I had had to redo the signs after Nessis ran off, and none too well, since he took all of our funds and supplies. Still, I liked them.
Closing and securing my pack again, and clutching the signs close to my chest, I rushed out into the crowd. “So many people,” my mind repeated, “but how many of them will pay?” Best not to dwell on that, I had found out a long time ago. That was back when I was younger and would throw myself into my performances, receiving nothing for my work.
I was wading through the crowd, looking for places to post my signs, when I realized that I had no idea what to look for. Actually, I did. It was fairly simple, really. Put them where everyone will see them. But the problem was, I couldn’t find anyplace where I wanted to leave them, for fear they would be vandalized or stolen. They were all I had; They were my work. Eventually, I convinced myself that I had to get over that maternal feeling for my signs. Something I just realized, though, about being alone: you have to be your own antagonist.
Later that evening I posted my last sign on the side of a building. Stepping back, I had to admire my own work. It read: ‘Balor Hardwin’s One Man Amazement’ followed by pictures of dancing and flipping figures. Lots of color, to attract the eye. I hated the title, but you need a gimmick to get the big crowds, right? At least that’s what Nessis had told me.
I stepped back a few more paces, trying to see if the light fell right upon the sign. Something caught my foot, and I stumbled to the street. My fall was cushioned and I just sat there in my newfound seat, admiring my work once again. It really was a great piece of work.
Suddenly, two things happened, the first right on the tail of the second. First, I caught the stench of what I was sitting in. Then, I felt something brush against me. One or both of these things prompted me to leap up, this action causing bits of garbage and a small, dark, squeaking object to fly through the air.
I reminded myself where I was, and surveyed the stain left on my clothing. Despite the reek and the circular, brown colored mark on my posterior, I was none the worse for the experience. My eye caught movement from the heap that I had been sitting in, so I looked directly at it.
Two rats, almost identical to one another, (not that I know much about rats, mind you,) were running along the heap. One was on top of the pile, obviously shadowing the other. The Top Rat suddenly pounced on the other, killing it quickly, and began feasting. I felt sick.
As I turned away, the episode reminded me that I might have to resort to similar measures if I didn’t perform that night. That thought made me sick again, this time giving way for my meager lunch to take a second bow. Giving one last glance back at the rat, who was now covered in blood and seemed to be very much enjoying itself, I snatched up my pack and walked off to select a site for my show.
That evening’s performance was truly a memorable one. I had selected my “stage”, a busy market-area, and begun my show. My hopes were being realized as a crowd slowly formed. As my performance progressed, I realized how hard it was to try to keep up high energy for long periods of time. Maybe having Nessis wasn’t all bad. I thought it would be just as easy to do the same show as always, except I would do both of the parts. I found out how wrong I was. Still, the feeling of being the center of attention was exciting. In fact, the exhilaration made me want to do my show-stopper, a high leap into the air followed by two half turns and a near fatal fall, right then and there. No, I corrected myself, save it for the bigger crowds.
Instead, I did a few backflips and stopped near my pack. Quickly, I flipped through my things and withdrew my panpipe. I began playing a simple travelers song, and added a few tumbles for the effect. Then, when I was right at the height of the song, I was smacked in the head by something small and hard. Needless to say, my song ended there. I whirled around, just then beginning to notice the snickers from the crowd. Out of the corner of my eye I caught swift movement. Not stopping to think, I tumbled to the ground, hearing something fly over my head. I winced as the thud and cry that followed told me that the projectile had found a new target. Obviously that was what caused the fight that ensued. Swiftly gathering my things and retreating through the milieu, I wondered who had cast the first stone …
After the failure of my show, I tried to sleep in the stalls of one of the inns in town, in order to forget my hunger and embarrassment. M’Kivar, help me, I thought. Without Nessis I was lost, running around like a shoruck with its head cut off. Gradually, my hunger replaced all other thoughts, and I reluctantly grabbed my pack and sifted through it. Finally I found the leather jerkin, and for a fleeting moment I wondered how people who called thievery their “profession” lived with themselves. I pulled on that cursed garment and readied myself for what I had to do. By M’Kivar, I hated to do it, but I guess a person just has certain natural tendencies, like hunger, and must obey them. Shoving my belongings under some straw, I slipped silently out of the stables.
It’s a strange thing, when you’re an “acquirer”. You have to look at people not as people, but as things that must be rated and gauged, tested and preyed upon. You may wonder where I learned this from. My only teacher has been necessity. Well, actually, necessity and two guard-house terms for theft. I hated it. I was good at it, but I hated it.
So there I was, leaning back against a wall, and feeling like a vulture. I stood there, trying to blend as best I could while still allowing my eyes to roam. Like I said before, when you have to steal, you learn to notice the good targets, and I found mine. A richly clad, noble looking man was wandering through the streets, his purse in full view. My last thoughts of restraint faded as the image of food — real food — took their place.
So I closed in, my head was up but my eyes were always on that purse. Twice I was bumped and pushed aside by a passer-by, but I still had my eyes on my target. Side-stepping a rather large woman, I found myself behind the noble. I felt my fingers tingle. It was an odd sensation, one that I never really got used to. I just counted it as anticipation.
My fingers, which had been trained to toss knives and any number of other things with great precision, barely twitched as they silently edged toward the stuffed purse. Time slowed to the speed at which the grass grows, and my face flushed from a mix of excitement and fear. First one finger touched it, then two, then the rest. Anxiety crept in, and I fought to control it. Then everything came crashing down around me.
I heard it initially as a far off cry, echoing outside of my head. Then, as I became aware of it, it grew louder and louder, until it was everything I could hear or think. It was like those dreams you have as a child, when the benda-wolf is chasing you, and you suddenly realize you can’t escape. Terror gripped me as I realized what was happening. Someone was calling my name.
Things began to run through my head. Who was it? Did they really know me? Maybe it wasn’t me, just someone else. Did someone see what I was doing?
Suddenly I jerked back to reality, and noticed, all too late, that my hand was still on the man’s pouch. I tried to do something, but my body was numb. The man continued forward as I stopped. I had thought at first that maybe he wouldn’t notice, that maybe his pouch would fall off and I would be fine. That idea came to a crashing halt as I realized my grip had tightened on the purse and the man was pulled to a stop. He looked to his belt and whirled around, sending me straight onto the street. The man’s eyes opened wide as he raised his booted foot, preparing to crush me. Instinct took over and I rolled away. Pushing and stumbling through the crowd I ran as fast as I could towards the nearest alley, the cries for the town guard fading behind me.
As I ran through the alleys, I found myself thinking about what would happen if I were to be caught. These thoughts were accompanied by a feeling that my mind wasn’t part of my body. No, not in a spiritual sense, like a near-death experience, just a feeling that my body and my mind each didn’t know what the other was doing. I really couldn’t explain it. But then, I didn’t have much time to think, because I was interrupted by an irregularity in the ground beneath my feet.
Like I said, my body and mind weren’t in mutual contact at the time, so it wasn’t until I was flying through the air that I realized something was wrong. To tell the truth, I really don’t remember tripping, either.
Either way, I ended up in mid-air, but that, too, ended with a painful thud that was the product of my abrupt and intimate meeting with a wall. For a second, I couldn’t think or feel anything, save for the pain that coursed through every region of my body. I might have lost consciousness at that point, but I can’t really recall that as well. The next thing I *do* remember is the sound of footsteps advancing quickly in my direction.
I resigned myself to whatever consequences that might befall me, partially due to the fact that I could no longer move. The footsteps came closer and closer, until they slowed and finally stopped directly next to me. I started to pray, and ended up wondering why people become so religious when they’re in trouble.
“By the gods!” a voice said, “Are you all right?”
I tried to answer but the only thing that came from me was a low, rumbling moan. I released my eyes from their clenched state and thought for a fleeting moment that I had done severe damage to my head. It took me a few seconds more to realize that I had landed upside down.
I shifted myself as best I could and flipped over with help from my newfound benefactor. There was no little pain involved in the process, believe me. My pleas to the gods for a quick death went unanswered.
When the pain reduced itself to a numbness and dull stinging, I looked up at my mysterious savior, the obvious questions in my mind.
“Thanks. For the help, I mean,” I said. I winced as I thought about my words. I always had performed and written far better than I spoke. “Who *are* you?” Stupid, Balor, stupid! I decided it best to limit my monologue to that. As I mentioned, my mouth tends to get me in quite a bit of trouble, and loses me more friends than I care to mention. I thought of Nessis, but he wasn’t a friend, was he?
“‘Who am I’? You really don’t recognize me?” The man asked.
“Not with that damned hood pulled over your face, I don’t.” M’Kivar! I was beginning to wish I was mute.
The “stranger” withdrew his hood, revealing a face I hadn’t seen in years, nor ever expected to see again.
“Dalis!” I exclaimed.
The smile that found its way across the man’s face told me I was correct. Dalis Benn, by M’Kivar! My childhood friend reached his hand out to me, as a gesture of greeting. I grabbed it and used him to pull myself up, clutching his shoulder and stumbling over words to describe how I felt. He had changed, which can only be expected, but he somehow seemed the same. Same hair color, same eyes, same quiet voice, same …
“Whoa! Balor!” Dalis said, stopping my torrent of mixed greetings and questions. “A moment ago you were running like the demon of Gil-Pa’en was after you. Why?”
“Huh?” I said, this time not pausing to reprimand myself on bad grammar. I remembered suddenly why I *was* running.
“Oh, damn all! Come on, Dalis! I’ll explain later. Right now we have to go!” I started off toward one end of the alley.
“Balor, wait! This way! I have a room at an inn near here.”
So, just like that, I was reunited with a long-lost friend and was changing seasons, so to speak. Yes, another bad analogy, and I apologize, but it is appropriate. My life, until this point, had been what some, in fact most, would call mediocre. But that one day started something bigger than I would have expected; so big that now I long for mediocre.