Previously: The infectious discontent of Patrolman Perath has been quieted by their leader, Quwee. Their sense of duty has been restored in the face of Jaak and Jaan’s arrival at Honor Alley through a tear in the dimensional Ley-levy between Fahlden and Earth. Their parents and distant relative may have discovered a clue to Jaak and Jaan’s whereabouts now that the atmospheres through the two sides of the dimensional breach has equalized.
Chapter Nine: Home
The way through the crowd of marketers was always changing. A Runner had to be able to see through and ahead, while anticipating and adapting to the stationary and mobile obstacles, avoiding contact harder than the barest brush of clothing. Every now and then there was some misbegot who found enjoyment at being an impediment to the smooth operation of the Pee-Wees. A foot quickly jutted out to trip a Runner could cause injury in a fall, disruption of market business, interruption of high-stakes bargaining where eye-contact and facial or body language is paramount to bluffs and haggles. At the very least, it could slow down or halt an important message going to a Patrolman when time was of the essence. Pee-Wees chosen as Runners tended to be short and young so that they could disappear among the crowded streets below normal eye-level. They were a specialized network of organized orphans waiting for the day that they could become full Patrolmen. The Patrolmen and their Runners, while partners, were also like family. Runners weren’t always orphans, Patrolmen sometimes had lawful families – not often, because that could pose a danger on the lines of hostage or blackmail – and Runners were often the children of that or those Patrolmen. Those who were orphans sometimes lived with single Patrolmen or were housed within the quadrant headquarters where they were taught unarmed defense, guerrilla combat, and tactical avoidance.
It was a bright day over Fahlden. The agreeable weather belied the growing disquiet in the cobbled society still trying to find its way in the relative new world of Otherplaces, Otherfolk, Gateway travel, and the alliance with the dragon. A kind of common-tongue was being birthed among the visitors in Honor Alley. The various ‘Places were discovering that their languages were not that dissimilar. This led to speculation that there was a common ancestry in the past of the four Mysts, and given that the Gateway hub was on Fahlden, it was possible that the shared ancestry started in Fahlden’s long-forgotten past. Just a possibility. One of the theories countering that was the fact that before the Gateways were opened, Otherfolk were being dropped on Fahlden randomly, and some did not come from one of the four Mysts. Therefore, the wellspring of life may reside elsewhere.
Among the throng of marketers, a boy, small of stature due to his young age, slipped a money-holder from a slowly wandering man’s pocket. He was skinny and warted, the man was. His attire was tattered, but casual and he had no idea that deft fingers had invaded the flap of his jacket. Two Patrolmen from either side of the street moved in on the young man’s position. Like a wraith, the small boy melted into the crowd only to reappear at the elbow of an elderly man patting his cloak’s pockets in front of a cooking stall. One of Patrolmen reached out and snagged the wandering man by his arm in an iron grip. The other zeroed in on the boy tugging at the sleeve of the elderly man.
“Pardon me, sir!” the boy called up to the frantic man. “You dropped this a moment ago.” He handed the money-holder to the man and smiled broadly.
The man exclaimed ecstatically, relieved that he had not lost his money. “Oh, thank you, young man! Thank you!” He reached in and paid the cook his due.
The Patrolman was on the boy in a moment, rubbing his head proudly. “Good work there! That guy had been slipping us all day.”
“Has has a woman’s kit in his inside pocket. It belongs to that woman over there in the bright head-wrap. She doesn’t know it yet.”
The Patrolman craned his neck around to see where she was. “Got her. Good work Pee-Wee, you’ll make a fine Patrolmen in your age.”
The Patrolman signaled to the other with the pickpocket and they pushed through the crowd to the woman the Runner pointed out. The cook called to the boy as the elderly customer was leaving and tossed him a freshly baked stump of bread. But before the boy could catch it, the bread was intercepted by a blur motion that darted into the undulating sea of marketers. Fast, but not too fast to be seen by the quick eyes of a Runner. The boy took off after the bread thief.
It was an intense chase at breakneck speed. The thief was good, but at a slight disadvantage because the prize had to remain undamaged and unsoiled. The boy could run with near abandon, taking shortcuts over and under obstacles where the thief could only avoid. The two had nearly made it from the bustling markets of Honor Alley when the thief darted left just outside of the Pee-Wee Quadrant between a leafray stable and a storage hall. Panting profusely, the thief gave up the run. She held out the stump of bread for the boy to take back.
“Half.” He panted at her and signaled for her to tear the bread in two. “I would have had you if not for the snout. I had to slide under the leash.”
His sister laughed tiredly. “Please, Slowfoot. That snout is probably the only thing you’re faster than.”
He laughed along with her as she handed him his half of the cook’s gift. They sat down on some low crates that had been stacked along the stable’s wall. While they had on practically the same thing, shirt and overalls, his clothes always managed to get just a little dirtier than hers. Their shoes, although scuffed and worn, had sturdy and durable soles. Perfect for the job of Running.
After a while the boy began to tell his sister of his day’s adventure. They were both Runners for the Patrolmen, but he also kept his eye out for grifters, con-men, and pickpockets. He talked about how he was going to rise up in the ranks to maybe be Kweg. Maybe even lead a Patrol in some other quadrant, although he liked the market at The Alley.
His sister listened to him go on about how he pictured his life progressing and the more he talked, the sadder she looked. He had torn through his bread, while she only nibbled at her own. She wasn’t really hungry. The news she had been given had ruined her appetite. All she wanted to do was run as fast and as far as she could, but fate brought to her brother. Of all the places in the market, they wound up together. She handed him the rest of her bread and he ripped through it as fast as he had with his own half.
“I’m sure I can find something menial for you to do.” he was saying.
“Slowfoot,” she said with quiet sorrow, “You’re not going to be here.”
“What do you mean I won’t be here? Of course I will. Well, maybe not– maybe I’ll assign somewhere else– maybe though the Gateway. You’ll come with me of course. Family sticks together.”
“Yes, but Patrolmen and Runners must perform their duty. “She looked out toward the open fields past the portals of Honor Alley as if seeing somewhere else altogether. “You’ll never be a Patrolmen here. Your life will be away from us.”
“You mean I’ll be a Crossrunner like Marklo, Destan, and Freih. In and out of the Gateways and Otherplaces… I’ll still be able to come home and visit like they do.”
She shook her head sadly. “A time is coming. A time when all this will be almost gone. The Alley will be no more, and even the dragon will be gone. A dark time is coming for everything – all the Mysts and Otherplaces – even darker than now. But you won’t be here to see the descent of Fahlden.”
The boy gasped and drew back.
“You’ve Seen.” he whispered. “You have Mother’s eyes. You’re haunted.”
His sister slowly dropped her head. “Today. It happened this morning. I saw where Habb is – what Kweg is doing to him – or going to do to him.” She shuddered as a tear slid down her cheek.
Her brother took her hand in sympathy. The family knew from their mother that having the ability to See is not a joy. Little in life would be a surprise to her from now on. She would be haunted with knowledge at any time. A touch, a sound, a smell, a breeze – anything could trigger her to See. Their mother coped by writing down what she saw. She put her haunts to paper. Often, they were about the lives of a family. She called them papered, because she wrote so much about them. Their mother would recite those stories to her children at bedtime in poetry. Which made them easier for the little ones to remember. Sometimes she told stories of the time before the Alley, when she and their father were but children themselves. There was a story of one papered child that was fast as the wind, but slower than his siblings because he had a slight limp. The limp was the result of a jealous Runner who tripped him while the boy was bringing an urgent message to the Habb from the Barter King.
“Watch where you are headed, young fleet of feet. Be sure of your step around the street. A rival’s foot may bring you down while you run with Hye-word from The Crown. The rival may run the word instead, but fate may find that wicked one dead. Delay could allow the enemy time to execute a bladed crime. The Hye-word may never reach the quad, and Patrolmen may find it rather odd that market news was worth a life, but then begins a time of strife. Still fleet, but slower, the lesson learned is attention could that day have turned, if pride had not been the Runner’s stride, even the rival may not have died. Now one-foot limps among the fast, and slow-foot always comes home last. So, watch where you’re headed, young fleet of feet. Be sure of your step around the street.”
He blinked at his sister. “Are you saying I need to be careful? Everyone needs to be careful.”
“No. you need to pay attention to details.”
“I do. I’ve never once fallen, stumbled, or tripped while running.”
“Not like that. You have a story. Mother has Seen it too.”
“Wow.” he said quietly. “You’ve had a busy day…”
“What she saw was different from my sight. Hers goes like this; Two young will fall to the Alley’s ash. They will make their way along the path. The child of paper will find the egg. The egg of fire long gone dead. The fire will grow to glorious flame. And the people will know him by the roar of his name. His flame will spark the engine new and split the portals for travel through. Thus, the realms will stack in peace. The all-destruction will quickly cease. Heroes will rise with uniting fists and revive the land of Autumn Mysts.”
“What am I supposed to do with that?”
“Exactly. Where you are going… you must make sure that this thing happens.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“Father is coming. He’s going to talk to everyone. He’s going to ask for one of us to perform a duty that’s almost too important to believe. The others will say no, but you need to say yes.”
She shrugged. “Because I have Seen it. You are the one that has to put it all in motion. You are so very important.” She began to sob.
“Then why are you crying?”
“Because you’ll have to leave, and you’ll only be paper to us after that.”
“Am I going to die then, wherever it is I’m going?”
“We can’t See across the Mysts. We can only See from where we are… I wish you didn’t have to go.”
“Am I leaving right away?”
She shook her head. “Not for a long while. Preparations have to be made. A plan needs to be formed…”
“Then we need to make the best of the time we have.”
From a distance the children heard their father calling after them.
“Does father know?”
“Not all of it. Not about you specifically. I’m the only one that has seen that.”
“Well,” he sighed, “You’ve been calling me ‘Slowfoot’ since I started running.”
“Because you’re always the last one home.”
“I think it’s time I gave you a play-name too.” He tapped his lip in thought. “I think Hauntess suits you now.”
“POHAL!” His father called. “YOU AND YOUR SISTER, COME TO THE QUAD RIGHT AWAY!”
He pulled his sister up to her feet. “I’ll race you?”
She smiled sadly. “You’ll lose.”
“Did you See that too?” He sighed with annoyance.
“No, silly,” she said. “Because you’re a slowfoot.”
With that, she took off running like a flash, leaving her brother flatfooted and slack-jawed.
“HEY! You cheater!”
The two Runners wove through the crowd of marketers barely brushing the kaleidoscope of colorful garments standing and moving to and fro from stalls, stands, and tents as the natives and visitors made deals to buy, sell, and trade wares, goods, and information. The children made their way to the Pee-Wee Quadrant to begin their journey toward a dark future.
To be continued…