Chapter 1 - Encounters
Ignoring the loud rumbling from an empty belly, Ivoreth studied the people in the marketplace carefully, satisfied at the large number there to choose from. Neither she nor her younger brother and sister had eaten anything decent for the last two days, and they all would begin to feel it if the day's pickings weren't good enough to find something better than the half-spoiled tossings from the trash heaps on Fourth Circle.
She idly scratched at the red bump where the pests in her bed had feasted on her the night before, and then swiped a hand beneath her nose with a wet sniff before shifting slightly to keep herself in the darkness behind a pillar. Ivoreth knew she was small enough to fit herself into most of the shadows and remain invisible to the crowd while she chose the best target for her day's work.
Once every seven days she had this chance, and she'd learned the hard way long ago not to call attention to herself or allow anything to get in the way of what needed doing. The din of haggling voices, the flapping of drying clothes from clotheslines strung high overhead, the occasional barking of stray dogs, the smell of meat slowly turning sour in the sun, the ever-present hum of gnats, the ringing of the bell up in the Citadel that called the hours, the itch of insect bites – she'd learned to block it all out while watching for the careless food vender to look the other way at the just the right moment.
But today her caution was even more important, because today she needed to do more than simply filch a loaf of bread or a fistful of berries – today she needed to come by coin as well. Her three year old sister had developed a nasty cough and a low fever, and the local apothecary had little time for any without the means to pay for her services. And so she ignored the many details that sought to drag her attention away from the people in front of her. Her gaze flitted from a housewife with a babe settled on a tipped hip to a trio of plainly dressed servants obviously buying for their lord's larder. Plenty of pouches with coin were just waiting the touch of her light fingers that day. Which one would be the best one to tackle?
Who they were didn't matter. All that mattered was that each of them had that which she needed – and she was out to change that. Need was driving her now – a need to provide for and protect her own.
Ivoreth carefully studied and mapped out in her mind the narrow walkways between the booths and outspread blankets piled with goods for sale that was market day in Minas Tirith. Combined with the scaffolding and bustling workmen repairing the damage, there would be a good chance of escaping the square itself, should she be spotted; and she needed to be familiar with all the routes open to her and any obstacles she could hand to any giving chase.
She also quickly located landmarks that indicated the most direct route to the back alleys and child-sized hiding holes of the lower circles of the White City that had become her home since the King had returned. Her brother and sister were safe in the place she'd made for them deep in the maze-like storm drain within the thick outer walls of the city. The bars and barriers along that channel were meant to keep the Enemy out, not children; and many Guards and angry victims had been eluded over the past two years by ducking into one of the openings.
Ivoreth's gaze darted from one side of the scene to the other, counting the number of Guards present and noting their various levels of alertness. The Guards, like the shoppers, grew less wary as the welcome spring sun moved over the Minas Tirith market square; but they remained a real danger to her. Getting nabbed by a Guard meant being tossed into one of the new orphanages the Queen had set up throughout the city, or even into prison.
However, she remembered her Da's tales of being treated like a slave after getting caught himself and tossed into one of those holes by the then-Lord Denethor's justices. The mistress of that particular orphanage had earned herself extra coin by selling her charges into a craftsman's fostering far earlier than allowed by law – and the tales of the beatings and abuse he'd received from the smithy he'd been sold to had given her nightmares when very young. She was determined not to let that be her fate or that of either her brother or sister. A full belly, Da had said to her not long before he'd died in the siege of the city, wasn't worth the ill treatment.
There! Not far away from where three half-grown boys cheered and ran after a rawhide ball, a portly woman bartered with a hefty-looking pouch hanging casually at the back of her hip angrily with a seller of fish. Ivoreth had used the diversion of street urchins' games as a cover before for simple stealing, and she knew her chances this time of getting close to someone paying no attention to her coin pouch would never get better.
Cautiously she pulled the slender knife – the last gift her Da had given her – from its worn sheath on her rope belt and tucked it up against her wrist. It wouldn't do to cut anybody else by accident – or chance it being knocked out of her hand before she'd had a chance to cut the pouch strings. Ivoreth pasted a smile on her face and walked out into the bright sunlight as if she belonged. She put herself in the path of the playful boys, and then laughed and ran with them as if she were part of their game. Every few moments, she would glance at her target to make certain the woman was still paying attention only to the fish seller – and every few moments, she found herself a little bit closer. At last she was close enough – and began to reach out the hand with its concealed blade.
A huge metal-studded paw wrapped itself painfully around her wrist, stopping her action before anything had happened. The force of the grip numbed her hand, and the little knife fell to the cobblestone of the market square. "Just what do you think you're doing?" a rough voice demanded.
Ivoreth cried out in pain as she was hauled back hard against a metal-clad body by an armored arm about her throat, her empty knife hand twisted behind her and pulled up nearly to her shoulder blades.
Where did they come from? I thought I'd seen them all…
"I think we got us a thief," another voice replied triumphantly.
Ivoreth's eyes watered as she squinted up into the sunlight to peer at the helmeted face towering over her, and she shivered at the sight of the calculating coldness in the eyes of a second Guard before her who held up her Da's knife. "I didn't do nuthin'…" she whined, squirming to try to ease the tension on her arm. The one that held her arm behind her jerked her hand even further upward, nearly pulling her arm from its socket. "I didn't do nuthin! Lemme go!" she screamed again, this time in real pain.
"Not because you didn't try, girl, so shut it!" A heavy hand cuffed the side of her face, staggering her. "You don't want all these people to be witnesses against you, do you?"
Ivoreth gazed about her wildly. A few of the shoppers were glancing curiously in her direction, but their gazes didn't linger before looking away again. Of course the looks on the faces of the Guards would scare anybody into looking away.
The Guard in front of her bent down and peered at her, then licked his lips. "You know what they do to thieves?" He asked softly, with a leer that made her blood run cold.
Ivoreth swallowed hard, but glared out at him. "I ain't no thief."
"Of course not," he said in a tone of voice that told her that he knew otherwise. "But it sure looks like you were going to cut somebody's pouch strings with this here little blade." He waved her Da's knife in front of her eyes again. "A person doesn't run around with something like this in hand without meaning to do somewhat of a mischief." He bent down close enough that the sour smell of wine made Ivoreth's stomach turn over. "Now answer my question – what does the King do with thieves?"
"Prison?" she squeaked in terror. Da said he'd heard they don't even feed a person there!
The second Guard's laugh made her shudder. "Aye, for a night or two – but only until they set you against the dungeon wall and put an arrow through you. You ain't worth the coin to keep longer than that."
Ivoreth began squirming again, despite the agony in her arm.
Raini! Daren! Who will feed you now? Who will keep you safe?
"Please…" She gazed back and forth between the Guards as she tried to slip from the unforgiving hold. "I didn't mean it… I promise…"
The Guard who held her arm let go of her throat and gave her a shove forward that he controlled with her twisted arm. "Oh sure! Now you're all innocence and promises. But that little knife of yours tells a different story. They may even put that arrow in you tonight for that."
Ivoreth sobbed in dread. This was worse than her Da had told her – to die like this, over so very little!
"Indeed," the second Guard agreed all too quickly. "Who's to say that you weren't going to shove that blade into that poor woman?"
"I wouldn't…" she protested, beginning to understand that her words meant nothing to these men.
"Yeah? Who's gonna believe a gutter-snipe like you?" the first Guard snarled, pushing Ivoreth into a narrow lane between buildings, back away from the crowds.
Ivoreth blinked in confusion. This wasn't the way to the prison or the orphanage! "What are you going to do? Where are you taking me?" Her pitch climbed as her horror doubled.
"She's a bit young," the first Guard said in a low voice.
"I like 'em like that," the second replied, giving Ivoreth a leer that made her stumble in terror and disgust. "Why shouldn't we enjoy ourselves before taking her in? It'd be a real shame to waste this one by letting her die unspoiled."
The first Guard's reply rang like a death knell. "Aw – why bother taking her in at all when we're done? She's just like the others – nobody will miss her."
Ivoreth began to struggle in earnest. She'd seen other girls being dragged away by pairs of Guards into the deepest shadows before; she'd heard their screams echoing through the night even into the depths of the storm drain – and seen what was left of them in the morning's cold light. But never in her darkest nightmares had she ever thought that she'd end up as one of them. "Let me go!" she screamed, deliberately ignoring the agony of her twisted arm and shoulder to kick backwards towards the leg of her captor.
"She's got fire," the second Guard commented, then thrust his face into hers. "Scream all you want now, little girl – we're gonna make you scream anyway."
Ivoreth managed to duck and slip away just enough so that she could turn and take the pressure from her abused arm. She screamed again wordlessly and sprang at her captor, grabbing at his helmet and trying to rip at his face with her teeth.
"Sauron's balls!" the first Guard yelped. From behind her came the clutch of violent hands at both shoulders, and Ivoreth was torn away from her captor. Pain exploded within her head as her nose and face slammed into the stone of a nearby wall, and she heard the tearing of cloth as she fell into a bottomless pool of darkness and knew no more.
Reality returned to Ivoreth gradually, the intense pain slowly began to overwhelm her senses.
I'm not dead yet?
Her nose and cheeks felt as if they were on fire, she couldn't seem to open her eyes, nor could she move her right arm. From the depths of the darkness that still surrounded her, she tried to scream her pain, fear and desperation – but all that emerged from her lips was a low moan.
"Get those animals out of here!" A rough man's voice ordered sharply from several paces away, the harsh sound of it making Ivoreth flinch violently and then moan in renewed agony – but it wasn't the voice of either of the men who had caught her.
"She's a thief and a murderess," shouted the first Guard. "We were only doing our duty!"
"What you two were intending to do to this child most certainly was not your duty – even if she were the things you say! You bring shame to your office – and to yourselves." the rough-voiced man replied angrily. "If you'd gotten any further, the lord there would have been within his rights to run you through." Sounds of scuffling and cursing gradually faded away into the distance.
Are they gone? I need to get up – I need… Get away… Before someone else comes…
In an attempt to calm herself and think of a next action, Ivoreth breathed in through her nose; and then she coughed as the air dragged with it a choking, coppery liquid. The cough was pure agony, and she moaned again.
Ivoreth felt a soft cloth wrap over and around her, and only then did she realize that she was naked. Very careful arms picked her up from where she lay and cradled her close. "Easy, child. You're safe now." A deep and musical voice sounded very close to Ivoreth's ear. She turned her head slightly and then whimpered when the agony exploded anew as she brushed her cheek against the chest of the one who held her now.
Who is this? What has happened to me? Why can't I open my eyes? Why can't I move my arm? Let me go!
"Hush now," the musical voice soothed into her ear. "All will be well, little one."
Ivoreth could tell she was being carried forth – but to where? And would she be imprisoned once there – leaving Raini and Daren to starve or to be caught and thrown into an orphanage and then sold as her Da had been?
Daren doesn't know how to steal things without getting caught – I didn't want him to have to do that. And Raini's getting sick too often now on the bad food from the trash heaps. What am I going to do? They're going to die just like Evien did!
She shuddered in fear and despair, and then moaned as the tremors only brought forth sharp, new aches and pains to join those already tormenting her. The steps taken grew faster, longer – more hurried.
"Merciful Powers, my lord!" A woman's voice sounded this time as the movement that surrounded her came to a sudden halt. "Bring her in here – and let me call…"
"I can care for her myself," the musical voice announced with calm patience. "Prepare a draught of poppy juice – and then a warm bath."
Ivoreth felt herself carried a few more steps and then very gently deposited on something soft and comfortable. The soft cloth was removed and another cover brought over her body before she had much of a chance to feel a chill. She heard the sound of water, and then a cool rag was laid very carefully over her aching nose, eyes and cheeks and another was then used to wipe over her mouth and at her forehead.
"Listen to me, little one." The musical voice had moved close to her ear once more. "Your eyes are swollen shut – and this is why you cannot see. Your nose is broken. But to care for you properly, we need to know all that is amiss. Do you hurt anywhere else?"
Ivoreth swallowed hard. "A…arm," she finally managed.
"This one?" Gentle fingers touched her right shoulder. The soft touch was another bolt of agony. Ivoreth whimpered and tried to squirm away, only to cry out from the pain of even that small movement.
"Here is the draught, my lord – and the bath is nearly prepared."
Strong arms slipped carefully behind Ivoreth's shoulders and lifted. "Drink this, little one. It will help you sleep so that we might tend you without hurting you." A tiny cup was put to her lips, and Ivoreth gagged on the first, bitter sip.
She pressed her lips tightly together and shook her head.
No! I can't sleep! I need to get back to Raini and Daren! Let me go!
She would have struggled, but her body still wasn't paying attention to what she was asking of it. Just trying to move made her shoulder explode again, and she whimpered her pain.
"Yes, I know it tastes horrid," the musical voice seemed to sympathize even as the small cup was returned to Ivoreth's lips. "But you need this. Finish now."
Slowly, sip by sip, Ivoreth choked and gagged the bitter draught down, grateful at last to be returned to her comfortable cushion when it was gone. A tear eased its way past swollen lids to drip down the side of her face and into her ear.
What will they do when I don't come back?
A large hand picked up her left hand and cradled it comfortingly – and this time, when the darkness came for her, it was warm and welcoming. And terrifying.