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He was nervous, more nervous than ever before in his life. All the lights in the house were out, but he knew he had to wait a while longer. Until they were all surely asleep. There was a light mist forming in the streets, alleys and squares of the Southern Sector, and the moisture made him shiver. It was getting cold at night; the first snow was probably no more than a couple of weeks away.
The wolf boy blew into his hands, rubbing them together, then he wrapped his ragged cloak closer around his shoulders. Just one more hour. He knew that grown-ups didn't always go to sleep right after the lights were out; he even knew some of the things they might be doing there in the dark. Not that he really understood the whys and wherefores, but he knew that there would be danger if he got caught. If he fell into the hands of the town guards, it would cost him his pelt.
Another shiver went through him. The cloak helped a bit, but it was so torn that every gust of wind seemed to reach right down to his skin. Even through his tangled, matted brown fur. He ran his small fingers up and down his arm and made a disgusted face; he really needed a bath. Well, once the night was over, he would get one. A hot bath with lots and lots of fur soap. Maybe he would even invite Patch and Night, if he could find the cat siblings. He knew that they had lately slept in a tool shed behind a bakery, where they had made a little hidey-hole in the back. It had been a while since he had seen them, though, and he tried not to think about what could have happened. Maybe they had just found a better place, or maybe they chose to stay hidden now that it was getting colder. Tiny Patch had been really ill last winter, and Night had confessed to him that she didn't think her baby brother would survive the next cold season.
The boy leaned out of his hading place, and his blue eyes peered up at the sky. The moon had barely moved since he last checked, and he knew that he needed to wait a little longer. Maybe, just maybe, he would never have to do this again. If he were right about this house, about the people inside it, his fortune might be made. Leaning back against the cold brick wall, he rubbed his filthy fur again. He didn't have much in the way of clothing, and without the cloak he would be truly cold. Still, it was better than what he had known, all that time ago, when he had first found himself on the streets of Cendaria, the mightiest of towns. His memory of those days were oddly blurred, as if they belonged to a completely different person in a completely different life. In a way, that was exactly how it was.
* * * * * *
He had been seven at the time, maybe eight. He didn't really know. Just a scrawny pup, scared and lost and with nowhere to go. With nobody who would take care of him. The street kids had taken him in, giving him a sort of home among them, and a new name now that he was one of them. They had called him Magpie, because of his knack for finding shiny things. Usually in other people's pockets. He didn't really like stealing, but he was too small to do any work, and he liked begging even less. It was a dangerous life, he knew that perfectly well. He had soon become one of the most wanted street kids, one that the guards would love to get their rough hands on.
He could still remember that time, when he had gone into his first house. That had also been a winter's night, and he had been scared half to death as he pried a window open and climbed in. The people inside had all been asleep, and Magpie had tip-toed from room to room in search of the gold he knew would be there. The owner of the house was a banker, and so rich that everything he owned seemed completely alien to the frightened wolf boy. It was luxury that he couldn't even dream about. Finding the gold was easy enough; it was as he was about to leave that he made his mistake.
A soft whimper had caught his ear, and curiosity led him to a half-open door down the hall. Inside a boy, a raccoon even younger than he was, tossed and turned in a fitful sleep, clutching something furry to his chest. Magpie couldn't help moving closer. It was a fox doll, small as an infant, and it tickled his fancy something awful. What company couldn't it be during long and lonely nights? And surely the boy's parents could afford a new doll? But just as he touched it, the kid's eyes shot open. For a second, they stared at each other, and Magpie thought he saw only curious puzzlement in the boy's eyes.
Then the screaming had started, and he had been forced to run for his life. It had been worth it, though, because the gold coins he had stolen had kept him warm and fed for the rest of that winter. Pity, though, that he had left the doll behind.
As time passed, he had found to his surprise that he was suddenly one of the elder street kids. He didn't really know how old he was, but he guessed eleven or a small twelve. When and where the others had gone, he didn't know and didn't dare to guess. It was just a part of the street life; sooner or later it would end. He had been the one who took in the cat siblings when they arrived onto the streets. Even though Night was older than him, maybe fourteen or fifteen, he had at first looked after her and little Patch as if they were his own children. Especially Patch had won Magpie's heart; a tiny kitten just a little older than he himself had been, when his old life ended and the new one began. He had given them their street names, and he had been proud to see how quickly they had adapted.
Still, street life was rough, and it was basically each to his or her own. He helped them when they really needed him, and he had let them help him whenever he had needed a place to escape the guards. But otherwise they didn't really see each other very often. Now, almost a year later, Magpie considered them his friends, but like all street kids they kept a certain distance to each other. It wouldn't do to let someone under your skin, that would only lead to hurt.
* * * * * *
He snapped out of his musings, only barely biting back a yelp. A quick look at the moon told him that it was almost time. He chastised himself, both for dwelling on memories and for almost falling asleep. Tonight, he would need all of his wits about him, or he would never live to be twelve. Or thirteen. Whichever.
This house would be the most dangerous one he had ever gone into; the people inside were criminals. Magpie knew that they traded in illegal magical objects, even powerful weapons that were said to be of dragons' making. Whether or not that was true, he didn't really care, but the fact remained; they were dangerous. He had seen with his own eyes how one of them had slit a knight's throat, but had been too scared to help her. That night, he had cried a little, even though he wouldn't admit it to anybody. The soldiers were decent, not like the thuggish guards, and he had even known this knight. She had once slipped him a loaf of bread when nobody was watching. So it was only fitting, now, that he robbed her murderers.
His eyebrows furrowed with concentration as Magpie stepped out of his hiding place and crossed the street, quiet as a mouse. He could hear nothing out of the ordinary, nor could he see anything moving in the moonlight. Ever so slowly, he crept along the wall of the house, towards the window he had decided to use. It looked old, and would probably be easy to open. Also, his sixth sense when it came to treasure told him that it was the right spot. The only problem was that it was on the second storey of the house, so he had to climb to reach it. But there were vines growing along the wall, and he wasn't very heavy. They would surely hold. Once he was in position, he paused for a second and glanced towards the sky.
"Watch over me, sister Moon," he whispered. "As you watch over all children of the night."
It only took him a few seconds to reach the window, and then a minute or two to silently pry it open. The corridor inside was dark and quiet, yet Magpie didn't begin his search right away. First, as experience had taught him, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Unbidden, his thoughts wandered to the cat siblings. Were they still alive? Had they really found another place to hide, or had they...? He shook his head angrily. That was not his problem! But they were his friends. Perhaps the best friends he had had since beginning his street life. And he felt an odd kind of responsibility for them, one he didn't really want but that he just couldn't shake off. Gritting his teeth, he did what every street kid quickly learned to do; he blanked his mind from everything but what was in front of his eyes, and shut his emotions away where they could not reach him. It was not always an easy thing to do, but it was vital.
Once he had reached that narrow path where his mind was in balance, he started walking it. Slowly at first, then faster and faster until he was running flat out. The faces and voices and scents were left behind, and so were his worries and fears, and his love. That one was the most difficult to outrun, and this time it nearly caught him before he got away. But soon he was in the clear, standing alone in a vast, skyless place where only he and his goal remained. Only Magpie and the gold he was about to steal.
His unseeing eyes regained their focus as he completed the mental exercise, and he found that his night vision was now as good as it would get. Without a sound, he stood up from his crouching position an sniffed the air. Nothing out of the ordinary. He sneaked down the corridor, letting his talent for thievery guide his way. When he got to the door that felt right he reached into his pocket, the only part of his clothing that he bothered to always keep whole. The little bottle was there as he knew it would be, and he held it up to the door handle. He squirted a drop of oil into the lock, and two more on the hinges, then waited while it worked its slippery, silencing wonder. Sending a quick prayer to whatever gods or guides protected kids and thieves, Magpie held his breath and turned the handle.
The room was even darker than the corridor, since the window blinds were all pulled. Heavy breathing and the smell of unwashed fur told Magpie that someone was asleep in there. Someone quite old, judging by the ragged, shallow breaths. A male, judging by the strong, musky scents. Quiet as a wisp of smoke, Magpie drifted into the room and looked around. At first glance, he found nothing that seemed as if it might contain treasure. No steel cabinet, no heavy-looking chests, nothing. Could he have been wrong? As he searched by the far wall, though, he found something that made his heart beat faster. A hidden door! The hinges were cleverly concealed between two wooden boards, and the handle looked just like a twig hole. A quick sniff revealed the scent of oil; this door needed no persuasion to keep from squeaking. He opened it and slipped inside.
This room made his skin crawl. It was obviously true, every rumour he had heard about this place. All along the walls were weapons, terrible things with sharp spikes and razor edges. Magpie shuddered, but his resolve made him move on. He found what he had been looking for in the back; a lockable steel cabinet. It was a quite crude lock, though, one he knew he could easily pick. Checking that the person in the outer room was still asleep, he went to work. Using two pieces of iron wire that he was just strong enough to bend, he probed the lock until he found the cogs and teeth that would fit the key. Slowly and carefully, he counted them and estimated their depths, then he shaped one of the wires to fit. The lock opened with an audible click, and Magpie held his breath, willing his heart to stop pounding so loudly in his chest. No sound. Nobody screaming or yelling or hurrying to catch him and put all those weapons to use on him...
Magpie shoved those thoughts aside and eased the cabinet open. The first thing he saw was a row of bottles. He picked one up and shuddered at the picture of a skull on its label. After hurriedly putting it back, he wiped his hand on his cloak. Behind the bottles were piles of parchment, and a couple of books. Nothing of interest. The lower shelf, though, was more to his liking. There was a wooden box that looked like a jewellery case, and three velvet-lined drawstring purses. Magpie licked his lips hungrily as he untied the first purse, then had to choke back a gasp. It contained not gold, but long, sharp claws. He recognised dragon claws from a book he had once read, but these were too small. Way too small. An icy hand gripped his heart. These claws had to be from baby dragons. Who were these people!? Barely withholding a snort of disgust, he replaced the purse, and turned to the next one.
What it contained, he guessed he would never know. The objects felt brittle to his touch, like burnt charcoal, and they had a scent that he could not recognise, but which made his stomach turn. He wasted no time returning this purse, too, to its place, and he hesitated before picking up the last one. As soon as he touched it, though, he knew that he had found what he wanted. It was heavy, and made a clinketing noise as he opened it. A grin spread across his thin muzzle. This was more gold than he had ever seen before. More than he could easily carry. He selected a dozen of the largest coins, and wrapped them quietly in a piece of cloth he had brought in his pocket. The weight against his hip felt almost magical, as if he were carrying a whole new life with him. Which, in a way, he was. This gold was easily worth a thousand markers, richness such as no street kid had ever know.
After replacing the remaining gold, he tried talking himself into leaving, but it was no use. Curiosity held him, forced him towards the jewellery box. He just had to see what was inside it. The box's lock was child's play, and as he opened the lid he could not help but gasp. There were no rings or necklaces, no fur clamps or earrings. Just raw gemstones. Enough of them, Magpie thought, to buy the Queen's castle and still have money left for a hot meal and a bath. He selected a few of them that looked like they might be diamonds, then another few that he thought had pretty colours, before he closed the lid and put the box back.
Now it was time to leave. Yet, something caught his eyes as he was about to close the cabinet door. A piece of silk cloth lay just behind the purses, next to the gem box. It had a perfectly round bulge in its centre. Maybe a pearl? Biting his lower lip, he tried to do the right thing and leave with the treasure he had, rather than covet for more. But curiosity won again, and he picked up the cloth. Immediately, he wished he hadn't. Underneath it was an eyeball, lying in a pool of what looked like dried blood. As Magpie watched, horrified, it spun around and pointed its black pupil right at him.
Magpie felt his knees buckle underneath him, waves of panic spreading through his body. The eye stared at him for a second or two, then a thin line appeared just underneath its red iris. A small mouth opened, filled with needle-sharp teeth. For a moment, Magpie thought it would attack him, but instead it let out a shrill scream. The wolf boy nearly wet himself, standing frozen on the spot for several seconds, listening to the ear-splitting scream. Then he spun around and dashed back into the outer room. The man in the bed was just sitting up, muttering something, but Magpie didn't stop to hear what. He ran out the door and slammed it behind him, but it was too late. Already, other doors were opening, and people were blocking the corridor in both directions. A tall, muscular horse man grabbed his shoulder and spun him around, blinding him with a candlelight. Magpie grunted as strong fingers dug into his flesh. This was the man he had seen kill a knight.
"Well, well, what have we here? A little nightbird?"
"Just a pup, Eram," someone said from behind Magpie. "Get back what 'e took and send 'im off."
"Oh no," the horse man called Eram said, his voice low and menacing. "Not now that he's been where he's been. If those damned guards find out about..."
"I saw nothing, sir," Magpie whimpered. "Nothing. And I don't ever talk to the guards, sir. Never. They'll kill me if they catch me, I'll never talk to them."
"Of course you wouldn't." The grip on his shoulder tightened. "In fact, I happen to trust you on that. You won't talk to them at all."
"Eram, please." A third voice, this one female. "Not a kid."
"We can't take any chances, you know that as well as I do." He turned to Magpie and smiled, a smile as deadly as any blade the boy had ever seen. "Sorry, son, but business first. I'm sure you understand."
The screaming from the eye finally stopped, and the old man came out to see what was going on. Magpie saw that he was a wolf, just like him, and that his face was not unkind. Maybe, just maybe, there was a chance. But the old wolf immediately cowered under Eram's glare.
"Just some gold," the wolf answered meekly. "The other things look untouched."
"Looks can be deceiving," Eram hissed, pushing Magpie into the armoury. The others followed. "As when you see a pup, and I see our doom."
Still holding on to Magpie, the horse man searched through the steel cabinet, then locked it. The wolf boy's mind was buzzing with fear; fear of death, fear of whatever else these people might do to him, and a mind-blanking fear of that eye, and whatever other evil things might be in this house. His captors were talking among themselves, but he didn't listen, cursing instead his insatiable curiosity and his fatal stupidity. For a moment he wondered if it would turn out that the cat siblings were the ones who would try not to guess, try not to think of him. Then the grip on his shoulder tightened again, and he returned to the present.
"...taking no chances!" Eram dragged Magpie in front of him, and smiled his cold, deadly smile again. "Sorry, son. I'll make it quick."
The horse man reached out to the wall and grabbed a long, thin knife that looked viciously sharp. Magpie stared at it as he raised it, trying to think of something that would save him. A plan, any plan. Suddenly, he screamed at the top of his lungs. The blade froze in mid-air, and Magpie let his body grow limp as if he had fainted. It worked! He slipped out of Eram's grip and fell to the floor. As he landed, he spun around and kicked out with both legs. He felt his feet impact on Eram's knee, and heard a cracking sound as the horse screamed in pain. Before anyone could stop him, Magpie was on his feet and bolted out into the corridor. Curses flew after him as he ran, but he did not look back. Instead he flung the window open and jumped out. It was quite a drop from the second floor window, but he rolled as he landed, and immediately sprinted for the nearest alley.
* * * * * *
It was dawn when he finally dared to breathe normally again. He had darted in and out of alleyways all night, crawled through drain pipes and squeezed himself through narrow spaces, to throw off his pursuers. A couple of times, he had heard them, but with daylight also came the safety of the crowded streets. Nobody would murder him in the midst of a square or in front of the eyes of the knights. He had stopped just outside the Southern Sector's garrison, and hid behind a cart that had been parked there. Not daring to sleep, he had waited and waited for daybreak, and now that it was here, he had formed a plan in his mind.
He made his way through the morning's first crowd, keeping both eyes open for any sign of his pursuers, or for guards. At a café, he begged for a scrap of paper, which he got from a kind lady just before the owner shooed him away. Using a piece of charcoal he found in a garbage can, he wrote a letter. It was painstaking work, trying to make the words seem right and to make the letters look good. He was a better reader than writer, but before too long he had written down his tale, including the address of the house and the name Eram. He signed it with his mark; two spread black-and-white wings.
Once back at the garrison, Magpie waited until he saw a young squire about to enter. One who didn't look too intimidating. He ran up to the boy and gave him the letter, asking him to give it to the Knight Captain. Before any questions could be asked, he took off, heading back towards his hideout. Home to Magpie was a place he had found by sheer luck. Maybe it had been a cellar once, or a place some other street kid had built for himself. He didn't know and didn't much care.
Just where a bridge crossed the river that ran through the town, there was a small space where no house had been built, and which had turned into a junkyard. Between a kart with a broken wheel and an old oak tree, Magpie had found a small hole, which led to an empty underground chamber. It was just large enough for him to sleep in, protected from the worst of rains and colds.
Careful not to be seen, he slipped in and pulled the boards that served as door over the hole. Slowly, his racing heart began to calm down, and he found that he was really sleepy. First, though, he checked his pocket. Luck had really been with him, as Eram had completely forgotten to take back what he had stolen. The gold was still there, but he had dropped a couple of the gemstones. Well, that was no matter. He was still alive, and hopefully the knights would soon rally to catch the one who had murdered one of their own. Maybe he would even get to see Eram getting hanged at the square. That thought made him smile, and the smile stayed with him as he went to sleep.
* * * * * *
He woke up to the sound of a scratching on his door. A quick sniff told him who was out there, and he felt his heart leap with joy. While he stretched and yawned, there was another scratch, and he hissed a soft reply.
"It's us," came Night's whispered reply. "The whole town's gone crazy. Can we come down?"
The boards shifted slightly, then Magpie felt a tiny body slam into him, and he grunted as scrawny arms squeezed his waist. Patch purred as Magpie hugged him back, then they both moved aside to make room for the cat boy's sister. It was a tight fit, the three of them inside Magpie's cramped hideout, and they barely had room to greet each other. The place was too dark for him to see very well, but he didn't need to see his friends. He knew perfectly well what they looked like. A small, thin boy kitten with soft grey and black striped fur, white-tipped ears and the black spot around his left eye that had given the boy his street name.
Night had earned hers with her jet black fur and her deep dark eyes, which looked just like her brother's. She was taller than Magpie, but still quite small for a girl who was almost a woman, and thin like all street kids. He still thought of her as a little sister; something she had objected to at first, but as time passed she began calling him little brother. The two of them touched hands, then noses, in their usual greeting, then sat quiet for a while. The only sound that could be heard was an occasional giggle coming from Patch as Magpie tickled him. He was alarmed at just how thin the boy had become. Every rib lay just underneath his skin, with no fat at all in between. As if sensing his anxiety, Night took hold of his hand, tapping it gently in their private silence code, telling him to keep quiet. He tapped his understanding back.
"So what's happening?" he finally asked, once Patch had started squirming with boredom. "The guards bust some house, and find some guy they'll string up at the square?"
"They busted a house, all right, not that I know how you know." Magpie could feel movement as she shook her head. "But they didn't catch anybody."
"Nobody's saying anything, but they've been searching the whole town."
"What? What's wrong?"
"That means they might be after me."
"That house... I went into it tonight." He gave a quick recapitulation of his adventure, feeling them move closer to him as he told about how narrowly he had escaped death. "And so I left my letter to the Knight Captain, then came back here. I thought that'd be the end of it."
"And you think they'll..." Night didn't complete her thought. He nodded. "Oh, Magpie..."
"They were meanies, right?"
Patch's hushed question brought a smile to Magpie's lips. Even though nearly a year had passed since they first met, The boy sounded even younger than he had then. It was a ruse, he knew, playing on his small size to make people more willing to slip him a snack or a coin. And at times he stayed in character even among his friends. Magpie didn't really care; if anything, this made the kitten even more adorable. He tousled Patch's unkempt grey hair, earning another soft giggle.
"Yeah, they were meanies. Really bad meanies. They had... they had some pretty awful stuff." He hadn't mentioned the skull-marked bottle, the dragon baby claws or that terrible eye; the weapons and the knight's murder had been more than enough to scare the cat siblings. "And they got a good look at me. They'd know me if they saw me."
"What are you gonna do?" Night asked in a trembling voice. "Can't use our hideout, it's been blown."
"Yeah, I was kind of wondering where you've been," Magpie said. "Just 'cause... you know, wondering."
"Not worried, were you, little brother?" The teasing tone made Patch chuckle, then yelp as Magpie pinched him. "Hmm?"
"No, 'course not!" he lied, knowing that they wouldn't believe him. "Just wondering. I thought maybe... maybe we could go for a bath, you know. Together. I mean, you guys stink."
"You don't smell no good either, Pie," Patch muttered where he lay, his muzzle pressed into Magpie's side. "Kinda like a drain pipe."
"That's 'cause I crawled through one on my way home!" the wolf boy hissed in return. "And I still don't stink like I've been stealing fish guts down by the docks!"."
"But we can't go now!" Night said, breaking up the two boys, who were wrestling and snarling, trying to bite each other. "You can't go nowhere!"
"But I gotta..."
"No! You're staying here. Patch and I will get you some food and drinks, 'til it's safe. 'Til they've caught the meanies."
"But what if they don't!" Magpie whined. He did not fancy the thought of spending days alone in his hole. "I'll go nuts."
"Quit it, guys." Night sighed as she put an end to yet more snarling, simply by pressing the two boys' closer together. Immediately, Patch started purring as Magpie automatically lay his arms around the kitten. "Seriously, Magpie, if they are as dangerous as you say..."
"Believe me, they are!"
"Right, then you gotta stay clear."
"But I've got..." He reached into his pocket and fished out the cloth with his gold. For now, he let the gemstones remain his secret. "Look!"
Both cats gasped as the felt the heavy coins. They sat in silence again, and Magpie knew that his two friends were thinking just what he had been thinking when he first opened that purse. What now, what would happen next? If any other street kids had been there, Magpie would have been more cautious. Friendship and camaraderie meant only so much, when thoughts turned to riches and bright futures. But he knew that he could trust the cat siblings to death, and beyond if such a thing existed. And in return, they knew that he wasn't just boasting his newfound wealth. They knew that he would share with them, which was just what he intended to do. As they sat there, a plan began to form in his mind, but he couldn't share it. Not yet. Instead, he reluctantly let the pair leave, promising to return soon with at least some bread and water. They all agreed that it was far too dangerous to start spending the gold right away. The last thing they wanted was for rumours to start fluttering around streets and alleyways. Before climbing out of the hole, Patch gave him one last hug, and a kiss on the cheek.
"Don't worry, little guy," Magpie whispered as he returned the kiss, wiping a tear from the kitten's cheek. "It'll be okay."
* * * * * *
Two of the most boring days of Magpie's life followed. A couple of times each day, one or both cats returned with eats and gossip, but as there was no news about the meanies he was forced to stay hidden. He spent the long hours in between visits either sleeping or daydreaming about the future. The plan slowly took form during his time alone, but only in a kind of dreamish haze, that he didn't dare to put into words or even coherent thoughts. It was just there, breaching through the mental defence of the street kid Magpie, as he dared to hope and wish to be more. The danger that all street kids must avoid at all cost. Making plans like this, he knew, could only lead to despair and misery. Day by day, step by step, that was how it should to be. The future was not for a street kid to ponder. Still... With the gold he had won from that house... It could be possible. It just could.
On the morning of his third day of isolation, first Patch then Night arrived at his hideout, panting and smelling of fear. They wouldn't say anything at first, but shared some cheese and a just slightly too old sausage with him. They ate in silence, huddled closely together in the dark den, until Magpie couldn't stand it anymore.
"All right, what is it?"
"What's what?" Night asked, her voice a little bit too high. "Nothing's what..."
"Come on!" Magpie growled. "Don't pee in my shoes and tell me it's raining!"
"You don't got shoes."
"Magpie..." Night began, but she had to swallow a mouthful of sausage before she could go on. "They found a couple of guards this morning, just a couple of streets down from here."
"Their throats had been cut," Patch whispered. "Just like you told us about."
"There are guards and knights everywhere." Night's voice was filled with despair. "And you're almost as wanted as that Eram guy."
"The guards don't believe that letter you wrote. They think you know more, that you were trying to blackmail Eram. And that... that... Oh, Magpie!""
"That you helped them get away from that house," Patch filled in as his sister broke into sobs. "That you changed your mind."
"Great!" Magpie almost yelled, causing the other two to hush him up. "So now I've got some freaking madman after me, and all the guards and knights as well? That's just foamin' great!"
"Please be quiet!" Night hissed. "They might be searching here any moment. We've gotta get away!"
"I think the knights believed you, Pie," Patch whispered. "At least that's what Swift told me."
"Swift is an idiot. He might just try to cash in on the reward for me."
"I don't think so," Night interjected. "The knights are usually good, you know."
"Not when someone's killing 'em. Well, I'm not gonna get hanged on the square!"
"Pie!" Patch squealed as the wolf boy got to his feet and moved towards the opening. "Pie, what are you gonna...?"
"Come on! I've got my plan ready!"
This was not true. Magpie had no real plan, just the vague mental image of a wonderful future that he hadn't been able to rid himself of. But if there were one thing he had learned in his years of going into houses, it was to think quickly, and on his feet. He peered out of his hole, squinting at the sunlight, but could see no threat. Waving impatiently for the cats to follow, he jumped down to a ledge that ran along the river, a secret path that he had used many times and that he felt sure nobody else knew about. He helped Night get her footing on the slippery ledge, then they both lifted Patch down to join them. As quickly as they could without risking a fall into the chilly water, they made their way to the edge of the Southern Sector. At the bridge that passed into the Western Sector, they had to stop and hide as a band of mean-looking guards walked by. No doubt searching for Magpie.
Once they had crawled under the low bridge, Magpie led the others away from the river, via a couple of alleyways to one of the main streets. They stopped just out of sight of the busy crowd, in a space between two tall houses where a tree grew. Lithely, Magpie climbed up to the first branch, then took hold of Patch as Night held him up. Once the cat girl herself had reached them, they followed Magpie upwards until they could jump to the roof of the westernmost house. Patch let out a squeal of delight at the sight that stretched out before them. Rooftop after rooftop, so close together that even the little cat boy could easily make the jumps. It was like a street, except there were no people, no knights and no guards.
Magpie warned his companions to watch out for bird droppings while they were jumping, then they took off. It was an easy route. Magpie had been up here before, and knew which way to go in order to avoid the longer jumps and the roofs which had sloped steeply. Soon, they were within sight of the town walls. When the street of roofs finally ended, and they peered down from the edge of the last one, they were just a few hundred metres from the western town gate. Night let slip an audible gasp as Magpie stopped for a rest.
"You're... you're going to run away," she whispered, causing another gasp from her brother. "You're going to leave!"
"But..." Patch said meekly, his eyes brimming with tears. "But that's impossible. Street kids can't leave. Outside the town there's... nothing."
"I've been thinking," Magpie said, his voice low but determined. "There are times when I almost remember... remember what it was like. You know, before."
"That's impossible," Night said again, shaking her head. "You're a street kid. The outside you is... dead."
"I don't think so. I think he still lives somewhere in here." Magpie patted his chest, where his heart was now pounding rapidly. The immensity of what he was about to do had only now fully hit him. "And I think we.. him and me... can really make it."
"The gold helps, but..."
"Not just the gold, Night!" Both cats shied away from him, frightened by something in his eyes. "Please believe me. I can make it. If I stay, I'll die. Nobody can hide long from both guards and knights."
"You'll die out there, too."
"No, I won't! All I need to do is get through that gate. After that... well, it's better than dying."
"That's why you brought us," Night said, her eyes suddenly turning impassionate the way only a street kid's could, when subduing emotions. "For a diversion or something. Well, I'm not gonna do it! I'm not gonna help you throw your life away!"
"M-me neither," Patch piped up, now crying openly. "Pie, you can't leave. I... you just can't!"
"No diversion." Magpie shook his head, opening his arms for the sobbing kitten, who fell into them. "Don't you get it? I want you to come with me. I couldn't leave you behind."
"Us?" Night clasped her hands to the sides of her head, as if to stop the world from spinning. She sat down, staring at the gate where people were going in and out of Cendaria, closely scrutinised by a full dozen well-armed knights. Her eyes were filled with wild fear. "Us, outside? Magpie, you're crazy!"
"No, I'm not. Night, please understand! We could have a better life. You know there's something out there. Otherwise, where did we come from, before we were street kids?"
"I... I don't..." She rubbed her temples vigorously. "Before...? There was a... before?"
"Please? For Patch's sake? You know that the first snows will come soon. And you know how ill he got." They were all crying now, as Magpie wished for her to understand, as she fought against all the wisdom gathered through countless years by countless street kids. "Please? For Patch?"
"Big sister, I wanna go," the kitten whimpered. "I wanna go with Pie."
"All right!" Night screamed, a cry that sounded as if her throat was ripped apart from within. The three of them quickly ducked out of sight as heads turned on the street below. Panting as if from a day of hard work, the cat girl slowly turned towards Magpie. "All right. It's crazy, but I'll do it for Patch. Not for you, for Patch."
"How are we gonna get out?" Patch asked, peering down at the gate again, careful not to be seen. "There's so many of them."
"I dunno yet," Magpie admitted, looking guilty. "But I'll think of something. If nothing else works I'll run a distraction so you can get out, then I'll join you later."
"No!" both cats said sternly, then Night continued. "Either we go together or not at all. We'll have to find some other distraction."
* * * * * *
"They're even checkin' inside barrels and boxes."
Patch was sitting close to the edge of the roof, watching the line that had formed inside the gate. Apparently, the knights were kept on high alert, thoroughly making sure that none of those wanted got away. The three of them had been waiting for hours, and now the sun was going down. Magpie's hope that they could somehow sneak out once it got dark died away as the knights lit torches all around the gate. Well, maybe in the morning they would get a chance. Sleeping on a rooftop would be cold, but if they huddled close together they would make it just fine. He shuddered as a sudden gust went right through his tattered clothes. A little while earlier, he had wrapped his cloak around Patch, pretending that he didn't need it. The pragmatic part of him wished that he hadn't, but he hushed it. Now was not the time to be selfish, especially since he was the one who had all but dragged the cat siblings up there.
"I thought you said you weren't cold." Night's whispered voice from just behind his ear made Magpie jump, lost as he was in his own thoughts. She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him tight against her, resting her chin on his shoulder. The heat from her body was most welcome, and he let out a slightly purring sigh. "Just don't get any funny ideas, sir."
"I won't, ma'am," he whispered back, smiling. "Thanks."
They sat still for a while, cheek against cheek, sharing their warmth. No words were really necessary, and Magpie found that he enjoyed the silence. Some street kids would talk all the time, as if the noise itself was the only thing that kept their minds from wandering. But Night had a talent for silence, an air of peace and quiet about her that Magpie enjoyed. Little Patch shared this gift, too. With them it was possible to just sit still and be. Nothing else, and nothing else needed. The kitten soon saw them cuddling, and raced to join. He crawled onto Magpie's lap and rested his forehead against the wolf boy's other cheek. That was how they fell asleep.
Magpie woke up just as pre-dawn light was chasing away the last of the stars. At first, he couldn't remember where he was, or why he was so cold, but then he discovered the bundles of fur in his lap. At some time, Night had moved around them, and was now lying on top of her baby brother, pressed against Magpie's chest. He watched the two sleeping cats, a warm fondness helping him chase some of the chill from his aching muscles. As he stroked a stray tuft of hair out of Patch's face, he was brutally reminded of why he had woken up. As gently as possible, he eased his friends off of his lap, then dashed to the edge of the roof. He sighed with relief, a grin spreading across his muzzle as he wondered if someone down below would think it was raining. When he was all but done, he was joined by Patch, who giggled happily as Magpie shared his thought.
"Boys..." Night sighed, shaking her head as they returned to her. "Anytime, anywhere, never a care."
Both boys saluted her, then rolled over laughing. She pounced them, and being the stronger of the three she soon had them pinned down and started tickling them without mercy. What had started as wrestling turned into a game of tag around the nearest rooftops, and for the next hour their troubles were forgotten. Fun and laughter eased away their anxiety, and when they finally settled down to watch the gate again they all felt relaxed. Down below the security was just as tight as yesterday. A few early morning wanderers and merchants' carts were being checked by the knights.
"They even look 'neath the carts," Magpie sighed. "And I was kind of hoping we could get out that way."
"What if we wait for the next cart, then steal the horses?" Night asked. "If we cut the reins quick, then hop up, we could ride past them."
"Can you ride?"
"Me neither," Patch said. "But it was a good idea."
"What if we just slap their rumps and hang on?" She rubbed her temples, deep in thought. "No, suppose they don't wanna run out?"
"Can't we go by the river?" Patch asked. "You now, sneak on a boat or maybe swim."
"They're sure to check the boats as well," Magpie said, shaking his head. "I guess we could swim, but if we get out all wet we'd freeze to death. Let's just wait until they're busy checking carts, then make a run for it."
"I can't think of anything else." He turned to Night. "Patch can ride on your back, you're faster than me. We can't wait up here forever."
"I guess so..."
"Nice plan, little nightbird. Too bad you won't live to carry it out."
* * * * * *
Magpie's guts froze to solid ice at the sound of the deep, raspy voice. He spun around to stare into Eram's black, deadly eyes. The horse grinned, and Magpie caught a gleam of steel in his hand, reflecting the early sunlight. The kids backed away, but Eram had positioned himself with care, and they had no place to go.
"Thought I heard little birds twittering up here." He waved his knife back and forth, as if taunting them. "Little baby birds."
"Is that...?" Night whispered. Magpie nodded. "What are we gonna do?"
"You're gonna scream, little girl. Scream really loud. And while those knights check out what's going on..." He nodded towards the gate. "I'll be gone."
Magpie's mind was working furiously, trying to think of a way to escape, to survive. The horse man looked totally mad now, so there could be no reasoning with him. And he was stronger that all three kids put together. Probably faster, too. The wolf boy thought about calling for help, but that would be no good. Either they would all be dead before anyone could reach them, or they'd survive and get caught. As it always was, the street kids were on their own. He noticed that Eram was still limping, favouring the knee that Magpie had kicked. Maybe he could use that. They had almost reached the edge of the roof now, and he had to act fast if at all. Edging a little closer to Night, he reached out and took her hand.
"How sweet," Eram leered. "Wanna die with your girlfriend, nightbird?"
Magpie didn't answer. Instead, he used their silence code and tapped one word into the cat girl's palm. Run! She tapped back No!, but he insisted. Run! Without showing any sign of having communicated, the two acted as one. Night took off at highest speed along the edge of the roof, while Magpie tore his cloak off of Patch's shoulders, pushing the boy down flat on his belly. As he had hoped, Eram took one step towards the fleeing cat girl, stumbling slightly as he stood on his bad leg.
With a snarl of rage, Magpie jumped over Patch and threw the cloak over the horse's head. Eram slashed out with his knife hand, and Magpie felt the blade cut through the skin on his arm. Blinded, Eram struck again, this time hitting only air. Magpie ducked beneath his flailing arm, then got down on all four and rammed his head into the horse's bad knee. Eram cried out and lost his balance, and Magpie grabbed his legs, pushing him towards the edge of the roof. Both of them screamed as they fell towards the street below.
Magpie felt a mad rush of air around him, then his hands found what he had known would be there. The drainpipe creaked under his weight, but held. He swung his feet up just as the horse man's scream ended with a dull thud. The cracking of bones could be heard all the way back up to the roof. His heart still racing, Magpie climbed back up until the cat siblings got hold of him and pulled him to safety. Together, the three of them watched as, unbelievably, Eram staggered to his feet. A knight came running from the gate to see what had happened, but was rewarded with a blade between his ribs. Night gasped, while Patch clung on to Magpie, shaking with tears. He grabbed them both and ran back across the roof. There was no time to waste.
The three of them hurriedly made their way down to the street, while listening to shouts and screams, trying to figure out what was happening. Once down, Patch jumped up on his sister's back, and they started running towards the gate. It was empty. Holding back a whoop of joy, Patch sped up to keep Night's pace, but just as they reach the gate, he felt that irresistible pull of curiosity again. He slowed down, ignoring Night's hissed curses. Almost walking now, he turned his head toward the commotion, just in time to see one more knight fall before the fury of the horse man. As Magpie watched, a Knight Captain raised his sword and swung it, and Eram's knife hand flew through the air.
"Don't bleed too death!" he heard someone shout as the knights subdued the screaming horse. "Got a nice thick rope waitin' for ya!"
Then, one knight turned back toward the gate, and let out a yell. Magpie turned and ran, just barely making it through the gate before the first arrow struck the ground right next to his feet. Lungs burning, he dashed at full speed after the cat siblings, heading towards a row of trees ahead. He tried to remember what a place of trees was called, and what might be in it, his thoughts straying anywhere except on the arrows that now whooshed past him, on the pain that would surely come soon. On his death. Then he heard the Knight Captain's voice ring out.
"Let the kids go! No need to get 'em, we've got all the others now!"
Two more arrows flew just above his head, then it was over. They were safe! Magpie still kept running, though, until he reached the trees. There, Night was waiting for him, but his greeting stuck in his throat and his grin faded from his muzzle. Something was wrong. She was crying. The elation of escaping died down, leaving his mind strangely empty as he reached out and touched her shoulder. She was kneeling on the ground, sobbing loudly as she cradled her baby brother. Magpie felt his heart break as he watched that tiny bundle of fur lying motionless in his sister's arms. The shaft of an arrow was sticking out of the little body, and blood was staining the green moss below them.
* * * * * *
* * * * * *
He hummed to himself as he strolled along the forest path, enjoying a fresh summer breeze through his fur. No real melody, just something he made up as he walked. The trees were few here and not so dense, and hot sunlight trickled down through the leaves onto his near-naked body. All he wore today was a deerskin loincloth, which had been easy to remove when he dived in the lake for fish. He had made quite a catch, so they would eat well tonight.
A year and a half had passed since the narrow escape from the town of Cendaria, and Magpie had grown quite a bit. He was still not as tall as Night, but at least he wasn't skinny anymore. Still slim, but he had started to fill out with muscles. The biggest change was in his deep blue eyes. They shone with life, and happiness. His street life was almost as forgotten as the life that had preceded it, and only once in a while these days did he wake up sweating from bad dreams. And even then, he always had a warm, furry body to cuddle up against for comfort.
Still humming, he rounded a bend and entered the clearing. His tail started wagging, as it always did, when he saw the house. Home. A home he would never have to sneak in or out of, and which he would never ever have to leave behind. It was no luxury, just a small cabin that had taken most of last summer to build. But it was home. He spotted Night, who busied herself with building a fence for their small garden. Grinning, she waved at him, and he waved back. He picked a raspberry as he passed through the garden, and enjoyed its sweetness as he opened the door to the cabin. Immediately, a small body slammed against him, and arms that were now more slender than scrawny slipped around his waist.
"Hey, little guy," he said, tousling Patch's hair and enticing a soft giggle. "Didn't miss me, did you?"
"A little," the boy mumbled, rubbing his muzzle against Magpie's neck. "You could've woke me up, I wanted to go fishing, too."
"You were sleeping so nicely," Magpie said, remembering how he had eased his way out of bed that morning. "I thought you deserved the rest, you've worked hard all summer."
He sat down on Night's bed and pulled on his usual summer clothes; a sleeveless shirt and a pair of cotton shorts. Then, the two boys quickly cleaned the fish, and Patch laid them in a spicy marinade. The boy's shoulder was still a bit stiff after his wound, but he kept getting better and better. The first couple of months after their escape had been bad, and they hadn't even known if he were going to survive.
Once up and running, Patch had uncovered a knack for cooking, and had become the one who prepared their meals. Meat from hunting or setting snares, berries and fruits from the forest, and fish from the lake just a short walk away, and they had some herbs and spices growing in the garden. Whatever else they might need, which wasn't much, they would buy in a nearby village. A place where they could be just like everybody else, where they didn't need to sneak around or watch out for guards. And so far they had only scratched at the top of the fortune that Magpie had brought with him from the town. That was the best thing, Magpie thought, that he would never again have to go into a house, or beg for a meal.
After wiping the table clean, they went outside and down to the tiny creek that passed the edge of the clearing, and washed their hands. Before they were done, a game of splashing had started, and they were soon wet all over. No matter. The warm summer sun would have them dry in no time. They sat down on the bank of the creek, and as if drawn there, Patch found his way onto the wolf boy's lap. Magpie gently stroked the kitten's hair, enjoying the loud purr this brought on.
Caring and being cared for had brought fledgling feelings to full flight, and even though they were both still too young to bond for life, Night used to tease them by calling them old marrieds. At first this had annoyed and embarrassed them, but these days neither cared. Magpie's heart fluttered as he felt a small hand push him down to lie on his back. Patch followed, and their lips met in a soft kiss. Just then, Night walked by, pausing to smile down at them.
"Boys..." she sighed as she stepped out of her work clothes and slipped into the cool creek water. "Anytime, anywhere, never a care."
The two boys pretended not to have heard at first, but soon first Patch then Magpie broke into giggles. Getting to their feet, they too tossed off their clothes and charged into the creek, splashing water everywhere. Both of them pounced the cat girl, and happy squeals of laughter joined the noise of the water fight. She was right, Magpie thought even as the cat siblings ganged up on him and dunked him. Never a care. Never again a care.