It was cold, terribly cold, so cold he thought himself a dragon as his hot breath collided with the frigid air in plumes of smoky-looking steam. He and his sister huddled together, leaning dangerously close to the rusty trough they used as a fireplace, trying to keep the cold out of their bones. It was the coldest winter Albion had seen in a decade, and they were growing increasingly closer to the end of their rope.
The gypsy family that had passed through Old Town the previous winter hadn't returned, leaving the boy and his sister in their makeshift shelter with only each other, the fire trough, their clothes, and her diary. Even food was getting harder to come by as more and more people kept their leftovers to add to stick-to-your-bones stews, and the two adolescents had no way of making money.
The colder and hungrier they became, the more persistent Arfur grew to be. They were getting so desperate he knew she was very seriously considering the lowlife's offer, even though she wouldn't admit it. Their only other option was trying to get by on the kindness of strangers in Bowerstone proper, and even that wasn't likely to pan out; the bourgeoisie didn't often take kindly to proletariat beggars like them.
And, as if to make matters worse, a sparrow defecated on the boy's head. He yelped, startled by the sudden coin-sized spot of heat in his hair.
"What was that?" his sister asked.
He turned away from her and tried to comb the excrement out of his lank hair with dirty fingers. "Something just shat on me!"
"Oh, yuck!" she said, recoiling and grimacing as he shook out his hair. "Well, I hear that's lucky, like finding a four-leaf clover. Though I think I'd prefer the clover."
"So would I," he said bitterly as he resumed his post beside her near the fire. They sat in silence for several minutes, listening to a group of people chattering loudly on the next street.
The girl sighed deeply. "Castle Fairfax looks so nice in the snow. Imagine the grand dining hall."
"I bet Lord Lucien's having roast duck this time of year," he said, thinking back to when their parents would get a tiny duckling or scrawny guinea hen for their Winter Solstice dinner.
"Mm," she said, sighing again. "If only we could live there. We could hide in the walls, like mice. We're small enough no one would notice us. We could come out at night to raid the larder. There's probably so much food no one would notice any was gone."
"If only," he said.
A loud cheer rose up from the adjacent street, making them both jump. She drew her threadbare jacket around herself as she stepped away from the fire to investigate. "What is going on over there? Come with me, Sparrow."
He reluctantly followed her away from their little sanctuary and down the narrow, desolate, and dingy street. He tried not to dwell on the fact that Arfur, the filthy creep, was standing outside the home Sparrow and his sister had lived in not six years ago.
"Hello there, young Rose," Arfur drawled. He pointedly ignored Sparrow's presence entirely, grinning what was meant to come off as a friendly smile to Rose, but instead came off as lecherous and vile. "You look hungry. Have you reconsidered my offer?"
She put her arm around Sparrow's shoulders, guiding him away from the current tenant of their former home. "We'll never be that hungry. My answer's still no."
"You'll be back. I'll be waiting for you." He smirked wickedly, crossed his arms, and waggled his fingers at Sparrow. "You, too, boy."
Sparrow glared at him, nostrils flaring and jaw clenched, but he allowed himself to be lead away. He made a point of accusing Arfur's mother of doing something horrible with a troll before they turned the corner.
"That filthy creep," Rose said, shuddering. "I hate him."
They hurried along down the street to the source of the commotion in the town square. A brightly colored and gaudy caravan full of odds and ends and some things that looked very valuable sat parked and open for all to see its wares. A rotund man in his middle twenties with a fantastic red moustache and coiffed hair in a foppish purple suit and top hat stylish several years past addressed the crowd while a funny-looking machine piped out music.
"A-ladies and a-gentlemen, I have traveled around, accumulating many wondrous and mysterious objects, which I now offer to you for the modest price of five gold," the man said.
Rose frowned. "Oh, it's just a trader."
"I was hoping it was the carnival," Sparrow mumbled. Rose snorted with laughter beside him.
"Consider this," the man continued boisterously. "This is truly a magical mirror, for as long as you look into it, it will make you beautiful."
"I'll take it!" a man shouted. The crowd laughed, and the trader with them.
"Very wise, sir!" he chuckled. "But remember: the magic only works if you look at it in complete darkness. Ah, but now this—"he held up something neither Rose nor Sparrow could recognize—"This small, unassuming box is actually a device created by the ancients, as used by the Old Kingdom rulers themselves. Turn the handle three times and you shall be granted a single wish."
Rose scoffed. "There's no such thing as magic!"
The crowd muttered in agreement quietly, dispersing slowly. Clearly, they were unimpressed by the Old Kingdom relic's supposed magical powers, and decided to waste their gold elsewhere. Sparrow continued to stare at the box's ornately carved side panels, the delicately curving handle, and wished he had the five gold pieces to buy it. He was only vaguely aware that only one of the onlookers lingered with him and Rose. Her gypsy robes were faded scarlet and dull white, fringed and haphazardly stitched together like his and Rose's own. The midday sun glinted dully off her well worn and tarnished metal jewelry.
"These are grim times indeed if the young are too world-weary to believe in magic," she said. "Most children your age believe eagerly."
Rose waved her hand dismissively. "I can see your eyes are bad, but I'm telling you that music box thing is rubbish."
"That's what the seller thinks. He has no idea what he's stumbled upon." She turned her milky white eyes on Sparrow and smiled. "But you have an inkling, don't you? Some part of you wants to believe its magic."
"Do you really think it could be?" he asked before he could stop himself. Rose looked at him strangely, like she couldn't believe he still believed in magic at eleven years old. The gypsy woman's smile grew wider.
"For five gold coins, you could have your answer."
"For five gold coins, we could eat for a week," Rose grumbled.
The gypsy cocked her head, her smile fading. "Listen to me, Rose: at the end of that week, you'd be no closer to your dream, no closer to the inside of that beautiful castle." As if to let her words sink in, she walked away toward Bowerstone Market, her soft leather shoes padding on the cobblestone street and fringed skirt swaying, her metal jewelry jingling as she walked. She moved with surprising ease for a blind woman.
"What if it is real, Rose?" Sparrow asked. Rose eyed the music box as if she expected it to turn into a miniature balverine and attack her. "It's only five gold pieces. What've we to lose?"
"Nothing," she admitted sullenly. "Come on. I'm sure there's someone around here who will pay us gold to do... something."
They involuntarily glanced back down the alley where Arfur stood waiting for the reply he hoped would come. Sparrow grit his teeth, Rose shuddered, and they shuffled into the town square, pushing the criminal lowlife out of their minds. The square was mostly empty save for them, the guard on duty, and the trader in his tawdry musical caravan. It was no wonder the square was empty; it was unbearably cold and windy, snowflakes swirling on the breeze and stinging. The boy and his sister stood, looking for someone who looked in need of some assistance, and felt hopeless until a gust of wind ripped a stack of papers out of the guard's gloved hands.
He cried out and dashed after them until they whipped through the air and out of sight down a neighboring street. He swore and returned to his post with a foul expression on his round, ruddy face. Rose and Sparrow looked at each other and hurried over to him.
"What was on those papers that blew away?" Rose asked innocently. "They seem important."
"Arrest warrants," the guard grunted. "The sherrif'll have my head for losing them."
"Can't you go find them now?"
The guard frowned. "I'm on duty and can't leave my post." He considered the children in front of him with their thin, dirty faces and ragged clothes, the desparation in their eyes. "What say you lot go get them for me?"
Sparrow and Rose looked at each other again.
"We'll do it for a gold piece," the boy said. Rose nodded.
The guard's frown returned. "Justice is it's own reward."
"We need to eat," Rose countered. "Give us a gold and we'll get your warrants back."
"Have it your way," he grunted. "They went off down that alley, near the funny bloke with the picture box. There's five in all."
The siblings made their way in the direction the guard indicated, and saw another small crowd of people at the end of the street. They could just barely see the top of some sort of tapestry hanging from the wall behind the crowd, but could see the flash and smoke from the picture box a block away. The crowd twittered appreciatively.
"Impress your friends with a lifelike instant image!" The bloke in possession of the picture box seemed to have taken a cue from the pudgy trader in the florid caravan, using a big, boisterous voice and grand gesticulations. "Cheaper than portraiture, and far less time consuming! And, it don't take up nearly as much space as a statue. Ah, children!" He said, seeing Rose and Sparrow push their way through the crowd, his beaky face alight. "Would you like to help me with a demonstration of my wondrous device? I'll even give you a gold each for it."
"Gladly, sir!" Rose said, pushing Sparrow in front of the scenic tapestry before his shy nature could protest. She threw her arms around him to hold him in place, whispering in his ear that they needed the two gold pieces to buy his bloody music box. He smiled tightly at the ridiculous contraption pointed at him and tried to think of pleasent things like sweets and clean socks while they waited for the birdlike little man to take their picture. It only took an unending five minutes for the box to flash and smoke again, and the crowd again chattered excitedly.
"Splendid!" the picture box man said, handing the children their gold pieces. "This cam-er-ah thing'll be more popular than the pox, just like Gordon said. It'll be three months for the picture to developerise, and then you can start showing it around."
"'Three months' he says!" one of the onlookers laughed. "What a swindle."
"That was easy," Rose commented as they slipped out of the crowd. "But that bloke's a bit scatty, isn't he? I hope he's alright-" Something cried out in pain on the next street, halting her train of thought. A group of smaller, younger children ran past, effectively changing her train of thought altogeher.
"Come on!" a small boy shouted. "Rex's got a dog, and he's gonna beat the crap out of it!"
Rose and Sparrow followed the youngsters, pushing several of them out of the way to get to the dog first. A boy, roughly the same age as Rose and as loathsome as Arfur, kicked savagely at the young dog, making it yelp again and cower into the corner it was backed into, wimpering helplessly.
"Whassa matter, poochie?" Rex taunted. "Does it hurt?"
"Hey!" Rose shouted, running behind him and smacking him upside his shiny bald head. "What the hell are you doing?"
Rex curled his lip in a frightful immitation of a smile and ran his hand through her hair. "Having a bit of fun. Whassit to you?" He grabbed a fistful of her brown hair and headbutted her. She swayed on her feet and staggerd back several steps before she collapsed onto a crate. The onlooking children gasped. Sparrow's heart lept into his throat, his belly burned, and the edges of his vision turned red.
"He hit a girl!" someone said.
"Yeah," Rex said proudly. He turned his beady, hateful sights on Sparrow. He was smaller, younger, and weaker: a perfect victim. "And now I'm gonna hit another one."
He lunged at Sparrow, his crude wooden sword swinging wildly. Sparrow snatched up a piece of a broken crate and imitated the way Rex was holding his sword, and swung it in a wide arc, catching the side of Rex's head. Rex crumbled like a wet piece of parchment and wimpered like the dog he'd been terrorizing not a minute before. Sparrow's chest heaved angrily, adreniline coursing through his veins, his heart beating in his ears, no longer cold.
"Touch my sister or that dog again and I'll give you worse," he spat. "Picking on what can't fight back. Coward."
Rose and Rex got unsteadily to their feet. Rex cradled his head in his hands, blood seeping through his fingers where Sparrow's makeshift weapon cut him, while Rose aimed a kick at his groin. Rex fell to the ground once more with a groan.
"Thanks for that," Rose muttered. "I could've taken him, though."
"I don't care. He needed a taste of his own medicine." Sparrow glared at the other children still lingering around them. "Go home and play with your toys!"
They scattered like chickens. Rose stepped toward the terrfied puppy, holding her hand out for it to sniff. It cringed away, whining pathetically with its tail between its legs.
"You poor thing," she cooed. "You've had a horrible time. Don't be scared. We won't hurt you."
Sparrow crouched beside her and touched the dog's head. It flinched at the touch, but relaxed as he stroked it softly. It's fur was long and dirty, like his and Rose's hair, a light golden yellow soft as spun silk. Sparrow knew the name of the pup's breed once, and had forgotten it when such trivial knowledge became less important than immediate survival needs. The puppy, a Golden somethingorother, looked up at him, dark eyes pleading. It's pink tongue licking Sparrow's hand while he scratched it under the chin.
"You need someone nice to look after you," Sparrow said. "Little thing like you shouldn't be on your own."
The pup whined and crawled into Sparrow's lap as if it knew he really meant it no harm.
"Oh, we can't keep you," Rose sighed. "We haven't enough food for ourselves."
"I'm sorry." Sparrow lifted the small golden thing off his lap and put it back on the ground. It's dark eyes looked like it was on the verge of tears, and Sparrow wanted nothing more than to scoop it up and take it home with them. He shook his head and stood up. "You stay here and rest."
He and Rose started off down the alley, and Sparrow tried to ignore that the puppy was following them, whimpering. It's cries broke his heart. He forced himself to watch the ground ahead of him instead of looking back at the tiny dog. A piece of paper was caught in a shutter on a nearby house, shivering in the wind. There was a Fairfax family seal on it.
"Is that a warrant?" he asked, pointing at the parchment. Rose quickened her pace and tugged it free of the shutter and grinned. "Is it?"
"It is!" she laughed. "The others must be close by, then. Keep your eye out for them."
She folded the parchment and tucked it into her boot for safekeeping as they scoured the alley for the remaining warrants. Rose peaked behind the shutters on the adjacent buildings while Sparrow dropped to his knees and looked under rubbish bins. The puppy yapped and darted ahead of them toward a pile of trash. It pawed at an overturned crate, grumbling to itself and looking back at Sparrow and Rose expectantly. Sparrow flipped the crate over and saw nothing.
"What're you playing at?" he asked the dog. It cocked its head and sniffed at the crate. Sparrow turned the box over in his hands, and found most of another warrent trapped between the slats of the crate's side. As he carefully pulled it free, the puppy's spindley tail started wagging. He smiled and patted it's small head. "Good doggie."
Rose came over and took the a from him, stowing it away as she had the first one. "I can't find anything else here. The others must've gone off toward Cemetary Road. Let's keep looking." To the dog she said, "See if you can't find us another one, eh?"
The puppy wagged its tail and trotted off down the street, and the two siblings followed it toward the edge of the city, all the way to the warehouses where all the city's imports from Oakfield came in. The cemetary loomed down the street, the rolling hills of graves and mausoleums blanketed in snow. The white powder managed to make the dour cemetary mansion look homey and warm, as if some magic had transformed the damask facade and returned it to its former stately glory. Even at that distance, it was easy to see the dark-clothed mourners and grave keeper walking around the headstones. Despite the gloom of the adjacent graveyard, it was always busier in this part of Old Town, as there were usually crate carriers and carriages unloading their goods and prostitutes waiting for the laborers to finish working and take part in their wares.
The puppy led them to an alley between two warehouses. It was filled to the brim with odds and ends of trash and discarded furniture, old posters for traders and the carnival stacked all around and grotesquely broken and used toys sat as if waiting for a tea party to begin. In the back corner of the alcove was a man, one the youths knew in passing as Magpie, leaning against a strangely pristine chest with a bottle of Oakfield Sour cradled to his chest and papers spread over him like a blanket.
"What's it brought us here for?" Rose asked. As if in response, the puppy looked at Magpie. "What about him?" The puppy sniffed in the beggar's direction. "I don't know what its trying to tell us, Sparrow."
The puppy grunted and stood on point, facing toward the beggar. Sparrow stared at him, trying to understand what the dog was fussing about. Rose did the same, and she patted her brother's back.
"I see it," she whispered. "A warrant with Nicky the Nickname's name on it. It's part of his blanket."
Sparrow saw it and nodded. "So do I. How do you reckon we get it without waking him up?"
The puppy cocked its head at Sparrow. It sat down and sniffed the air, it's tail wagging slowly. It seemed like it was waiting for him to say something.
"I'll try to filch it," Sparrow said. The dog's tail wagged faster and Rose looked alarmed.
"Are you mad?" she asked. "Magpie's a nutter. What if he catches you knicking his things?"
"I'll be careful," Sparrow said. He summoned up the courage to cross into Magpie's alley, careful not to tread too close to any one thing. He watched the ground as he took each step, hunched his shoulders to avoid brushing against anything, and held his breath to ensure he didn't disturb any of Magpie's treasures or breathe the rank odor of the place.
As he neared the sleeping urchin, he dared to glance up from his feet, and his eyes fell upon the pristine chest Magpie was using as a pillow. It made his skin crawl, the hairs on his arms and neck to stand on end, his gut churn, and his heart to beat in his ears. Over the din of his own pulse, he thought he heard someone giggling. The voice was too reedy and high-pitched to belong to Magpie or Rose, and Sparrow's voice was tucked somewhere in his stomach where it couldn't be heard. He buried the urge to run away from the ominously gleaming chest and moved closer to Magpie.
"Whassit?" Magpie muttered. Sparrow froze, every fiber of him screaming to run and not get caught, the giggling growing louder in his ears. Magpie twitched and rolled over still very much asleep, his paper bed crinkling under him and his paper blanket shifting. The warrent slipped off the beggar and lay just within Sparrow's reach. He crouched down and used his arm for balance as he reached for the parchment with his other, sliding it on the ground before he dared to pick it up.
It crinkled loudly in his hand. Magpie shifted in his sleep again. Rose gasped. The dog whimpered. The giggling turned into a cackle.
"Moon's made of cheese," Magpie muttered. "World's round."
He continued to utter nonsense, and Sparrow turned on the ball of his foot and scooted back to Rose and the dog as quickly and quietly as he could. The laughing in his head stopped once he was back on the street.
"Got it," Sparrow said. He handed Nicky the Nickname's warrant to Rose. "Let's go before he wakes up."
Rose and the dog didn't need to be told twice. They moved closer to one of the warehouses that wasn't teaming with activity, and sat on crates waiting to be loaded into a carriage and take to Rookridge.
"I though for sure he'd wake up," Rose said. "I was so scared for you."
"I was scared for me," Sparrow admitted. He decided against telling Rose about the chest or the laughing he'd heard, for fear she'd think he caught some madness from Magpie. The dog got onto its back legs and stretched agaisnt Sparrow's leg. He stroked its golden fur and smiled.
"I like him," he said. "Can we keep him, Rose?"
"Like hell we can," she snapped. "I told it we don't have enough food for us. How are we supposed to feed it, too?"
Sparrow looked into the dog's pleading face and endlessly dark eyes. "But he's helping us. We can bring him with us to our castle, and none of us will ever go hungry."
Rose snorted indignantly. "Fine. We'll keep it."
"We can?" Sparrow's eyes lit up and the dog's tail blurred behind it, it's tongue lolling out of it's mouth.
"Yeah, we can." She pressed her mouth into a line to keep from smiling at her little brother's joyful face. "Shut it."
Sparrow jumped up and threw his arms around her. The dog danced around their feet. "Thank you, Rose! I promise I'll take good care of him. I'll feed him and play with him and wash him and teach him tricks and-"
"Oy, kids!" They turned to see a man better dressed than the laborers carrying a sheaf of parchment under his arm. "Would you like to earn some gold helping a man out?"
"That depends," Rose said warily. She'd heard that line from Arfur before. "What you want?"
The man's moutache quivered. "This here's my warehouse, and it's crawling with giant beetles. I can't rid the place of them myself because I, um, am... allergic to them. Yeah. So, kill the little blighters and don't touch my stock, and I'll give you a gold. What say you to that?"
"We could use the gold, but I can't," Rose muttered to Sparrow. "I hate beetles. They give me the willies."
"I'll do it," Sparrow whispered back. "I'll do it, sir."
The man's moutache curved into a smile. "Brilliant. I'll let you in over there. I have a shipment of Sandgoose ale coming in and I need to get inside."
The warehouse's owner unlocked a side door and nudged Sparrow inside before slamming the door shut again behind him. He clearly was very frightfully allergic to beetles. There was a buzzing in the air that could only be coming from the giant insects, and Sparrow made his way toward the staircase leading to the source of the buzzing.
"Hey, kid," someone said. Sparrow turned to see Arfur leaning in through the same door he'd entered from. He narrowed his eyes and put his hand on his toy gun. Arfur smiled, unimpressed. "Balthazar owes some protection money to Nicky the Nickname. Leave the beetles band smash up the stock instead. I'll give you a gold on Mr. the Nickname's behalf."
Sparrow took a step onto the staircase. Arfur's smirk twitched, his eyes narrowed. Sparrow took another step up the staircase, cautious to turn his back on the criminal. Arfur's smirk turned to a sour frown.
"Come on, now," Arfur said. His tone was cold as the air. "I shan't be doing that if I was you."
Sparrow took the next several steps in twos until he was on the upper level of the warehouse. Arfur remained below, half inside, glaring at him murderously. Sparrow stared back at the man, drawing himself to his full height and setting his jaw. He wasn't going to let Arfur intimidate him. He wasn't going to run away like a scared hobbe when Rose needed him to do this so badly. Confident that Arfur wouldn't risk getting caught trespassing with the owner around the corner, Sparrow turned away from the railing.
A beatle, a large iradescent teal thing the size of Sparrow's fist, scuttled out from behind a crate. It clicked its jaws together and screeched, it's wings fluttering noisily. Sparrow had never seen a giant beetle up close before, at least not the agressive kind. It was ugly in a nasty insect way, and scary because of its size, but he knew it didn't pose much of a threat to him. That thought alone made him feel better, braver even, as he drew his toy gun and took aim at the oversized pest.
He squeezed the trigger. He saw the sand bag pellet exit the barrel and fly toward it's target, hitting it and effectively blowing the beatle to smithereenswith a pop. Gooey, stinking, slimy smithereens and a wet, crunchy, squishy pop. He fought the urge to gag as he retrieved the pellet, slick with the beatles glossy innards, and loaded it back into his gun. The other beatles went the way of the first, and Sparrow resigned himself to leave the pellet behind with the crushed bugs. He didn't want it anymore.
"Do you know what I had to go through to get those bloody beatles?" Arfur demanded as Sparrow descended the stairs. His already twisted face was monstrous in the half-light from outside. Sparrow wanted the pellet back. Arfur made a move to enter the warehouse, but a voice outside caught his attention. He growled furiously and disappeared, snarling, "I'll remember this, kid."
Sparrow was about to follow him when the warehouse's main door opened up, frozen sunshine spilling inside and blinding him. He squinted and sheilded his eyes as he made his way back to Rose and the puppy.
"I heard you shooting," Balthazar said. He wrung his hands. "Are, um, the beatles all gone?"
"Should be," sparrow said, rubbing his eyes and blinking in the light. "You have a mess to clean up, though. They didn't go cleanly."
Balthazar sighed heavily. "But they're all gone and my stock is intact. That's all that matters to me. Here, lad," he pulled a gold piece out of his smock and placed it in Sparrow's hand. "You earned this. Thank you."
"I didn't know you were so good at fighting," Rose commented as they walked away from the warehouse. "You didn't even break a sweat. Little Hero."
Sparrow smiled. He'd read a book about the Hero of Oakvale once, many years before he and Rose became paupers, and remembered little of the fable. He didn't believe that such a man had ever existed, because if Heroes had once been so common, where had they all gone? Surely some of them had escaped the burning of the Guild and had children, thus passed on their Heroic blood. In the back of his mind, he wanted to believe in Heroes having been real. He wanted to believe in fantastic eats of Will and indominable Skill and unmatched Strength. But, Heroes had all gone the way of the pony and died off five hundred years ago, and took their Will, Skill, and Strength with them to their mythical tomb in Bower Lake.
He opened his mouth to say something, when the breeze picked up and something smacked him upside the head. His hand flew to his head, thinking another bird had defecated on him, and he felt parchment. Rose reached around him and took it, smiling.
"You are a Hero, Sparrow," she said. She showed him the warrant that had aquainted itself with his skull. "You're lucky like one. That's three now."
"Or four," he replied, watching the puppy wrestle with another warrant that had flattened itself against its back. He leaned down and took it from the dog, which began licking feverishly at its haunches. "Wonder where the last one is?"
"I don't know. But we need to find it to get that gold from the guard. Come on," she said, getting off her crate. "Let's head back to him and see if we missed it before."
They made their way back to the residential streets of Old Town, passing the children that had witnessed Rex's cruelty and cowardice as they turned into the alley toward the town square. Arfur was leaning against the wall, smoking a foul smelling cigar. He saw Rose and Sparrow approaching, his lip curling into a snarl as he spat the butt into the snow and ground it under his boot.
"Stop right there, ya little brats," he snapped.
"Listen, creep, we told you 'no' this morning," Rose reminded him. Sparrow once again found himself wishing for the pellet for his pop gun, and curled his fists. The puppy growled, its hackles on end.
"This isn't about that," Arfur said. He held up a warrent with his own face on it. "These arrest warrants. You have the rest of 'em, and I want 'em."
"So does our friend the guard," Rose replied curtly.
Arfur grunted. "What's he paying you? A gold piece? Gimme the warrants and I'll give you a gold right here, save ye the walk back."
Sparrow and Rose looked at each other. They dropped their voices to whispers to deliberate.
"We could give them to him," Rose said. "He's a letch, but we need to get the gold together to buy your music box fast."
Sparrow shook his head impercievibly. "No. I'm not throwing in our lot with him. What say we make like we're gonna give him the warrants, snatch the last one out of his hand, and run like hell to the guard?"
Rose's lips twitched into a tiny smirk. "You keep talking like that and I'm going to think you're a real Hero. Let's do it."
They turned back to Arfur, who was drumming his fingers impatiently on his arm and tapping his foot on the slushy ground.
"You win, Arfur," Rose said quietly. She leaned down and took the other four warrents out of her boot. She handed them to Sparrow and hung her head, using her hair like a shield to hide her smiling face. Sparrow made a show of shuffling toward the lowlife with his shoulders slumped and his head bowed. Rose followed him, and the pup followed her looking annoyed by their apparent surrender.
"There's a good lad," Arfur said, smiling triumphantly. He held his hand out for the warrants, waiting for Sparrow to place the other four on top of the one in his hand. Sparrow neared him, holding out the warrants. He let himself trip over his own feet and stumbled forward, reaching out toward Arfur's hand to steady himself. Sparrow folded his fingers around the parchment and pulled it free of Arfur's grasp, using his own weight and momentum to throw the man off balance. Arfur staggered back, shocked that he'd fallen for the rouse of the two beggar children, and furious for it. Sparrow, Rose, and the puppy ran into the town square and daylight, well within the guard's eye and earshot and out of harm's way.
Sparrow grinned widely, and Rose laughed when they heard Arfur's temper getting the better of him in the alley.
"That was brilliant," Sparrow said. "I didn't think it would work."
Rose doubled over, her hands on her knees, laughing breathlessly. "It was worth the risk to see that look on his mug." She straightened up and imitated Arfur's shocked expression before falling into another fit of giggles. "Even if the box isn't magic, it'll be worth keeping just to remind us of that. Let's go back to the guard."
The guard was on the other side of the square at his post, bouncing excitedly on his heels when he saw them approaching. "Did you get them all?"
"Yeah," Sparrow said, handing the stack of warrants to him. "Wasn't too hard."
The guard beamed. "I didn't think you'd find them all. Figured they'd be halfway to Rookridge by now." He produced a gold coin from his pocket and placed it in Sparrow's palm. "You've saved my job, kids. Thank you."
They smiled and bowed, anxious to find the next source of their gold. As they crossed the square, a pudgy young man was standing on the street, reciting poetry to a pretty young woman on a balcony above. Rose snorted at his recitations. Sparrow didn't fully understand what "endless loving embraces" and "warm caresses" meant, but they sounded ridiculously impractical.
"Oh, Monty," the girl on the balcony cooed. Something else caught her attention, and she leaned over the railing, whispering loudly. "Shh! I think Mother heard us."
A severe looking old woman appeared behind the girl, her pinched face scowling. "You again! I don't want you sniffing around my daughter!"
"But, ma'am, I-"
"Push off before I call the guards, you animal!" The woman screeched. She turned her daughter away from the square. "Get in the house, Belinda, and scrub those floors. They're as filthy as that no-good delinquent Monty."
"What an awful witch," Rose muttered. Something seemed to click in her mind, and she smiled. "Let's go talk to that man."
"Why?" Sparrow asked. He looked only slightly better off than themselves, and probably had no gold to spare. Rose hummed and skipped across the street to the man's side.
"Aw, what's the matter with you?" she asked.
The man shook his head sadly. "Oh, little one, my situation is unbearable. Words can't even begin to describe it."
"Mm," Rose said. "Looks to me like you fancy the girl that lives there, but her mum thinks you're rubbish, so she's locked her away." Even from across the street, Sparrow could hear the smile in Rose's voice.
"Um, we'll that's the gist of it, then," the man said. "Why'd you ask me, then?"
"Maybe we could help you?" She nodded over her shoulder to Sparrow. The man's face lit up.
"Yes!" he cried. "You could take my proposal letter to the fair maiden. There is hope! Oh, my heart soars in my chest like..." he seemed to struggle for more pretty words. Rose must've rolled her eyes.
"We'll do it for a gold piece," she said.
'"Oh, uh, um." He stuggled some more for words. "I'm, uh, bit strapped at the moment. But, Belinda's good for it. I'm sure she'll pay you when she recieves my letter." He scrambled to pull the parchment out of his coat pocket in his excitement, and handed it to Rose. "Get that letter straight to Belinda, and don't let her mum get it."
She dipped into a shallow curtsey and trotted back across the street to Sparrow, smiling. She held up the letter. "This is our last gold piece."
He took it from her and read it aloud. "'Darling, run away with me. Like two doves, we shall rise on love's gentle breeze to soar above the world in our bliss, forever embracing in the clouds.'"
"Ugh!" Rose said.
"What?" the man called from across the street. He looked miffed that she didn't appreciate his poetry.
"I said 'aw,'" she told him. He smiled. She turned back to Sparrow and rolled her eyes. "What a load of it. That's awful. I almost feel bad for Belinda."
"Why?" Sparrow asked as they walked to her house. "What's all that mean?"
She patted him on the head, then subtly wiped her hand on her skirt. "You'll understand when you get a bit older. Go knock on the door and see who answers."
Sparrow frowned and rapped his knuckles on the door. It opened, and there stood Belinda's mother with her hands on her hips and her face still sour.
"What do you want?" she demanded. She looked down her hooked nose at them, as if offended by their very presence.
"We have a letter," Rose said. The woman's haughty demeanor relaxed, if only slightly. "We need one gold for the postage."
"Well, why didn't you just say so?" she demanded again. She stepped aside. "Come on in." Rose nudged Sparrow into the warm sitting room, leaving the puppy sitting on the thresh hold. Belinda's mother shut the door and made her way to a cupboard near the fireplace, making no show of being a hospitable host. "Wait there while I get the money. And don't you touch anything!"
"Monty told us not to give the letter to the mother," Rose whispered. "But if we just stay here, she'll pay us."
"But if we give the letter to Belinda upstairs," Sparrow whispered back, "Maybe they can run away together."
Rose licked her chapped lips, glancing from Belinda's shrew of a mother and the stairs. "I'll stay here."
Sparrow made for the staircase as quickly and quietly as possible, like he had done in Magpie's alley. He took the steps two at a time on tiptoe, spared Rose a thumbs-up on the landing, and ascended the upper rise. The room was open and cluttered with tables overflowing with flowers and pots. A sack of soil sat in an old washtub near another fireplace. He didn't see anyone, and didn't much feel like going through the other rooms to find this Belinda woman. He didn't have to resort to such sneaking, as he saw her on her hands and knees in the corner, scrubbing solemnly at the floor.
His stomach flip-flopped. Her dark brown plait hung over her shoulder, swaying as she scrubbed. The deep, albeit faded, purple dress looked lovely on her, the low neckline gapping between her amble breasts. Was that her bodice he saw? He couldn't be sure. He'd never seen one before, thought they only existed in some far-off make-believe world inhabited by adults. Apparently, they did exist, and did their job quite nicely. He swallowed hard and walked to her.
"Um, Belinda?" he asked. His voice sounded funny.
"Yes?" she said, looking up and sitting back on her ankles. Her dark eyes flitted over his face questioningly. "Can I help you?"
He swallowed hard again. "I-I have a letter. For you. From Monty. He wants me to give it to you. The letter, Monty does. Give it to you... Yeah."
He handed her the parchment, and forced himself to look at the floor and nowhere near her person. She read it quietly.
"Oh!" she breathed. "This is wonderful! Thank you." She hugged him, and he did all he could to not focus on how warm and how very soft she was. She released him and scrambled to her feet, reaching into a drawer. She barely looked at him as she put the gold piece in his hand, already making her way to an adjacent room. "Oh, Monty, my little dove."
Sparrow lingered for only a moment before he went back down the stairs in the same manner in which he'd ascended them. Belinda's mother had vanished in search of a spare gold coin. Rose was inching closer to the door already, her hand reachng out for the knob as she saw Sparrow's boots on the stairs. He got to the foot of the stairs and quickened his pace.
"She's up there packing," he said. "Let's go."
Rose nodded and opened the door, running out ahead of him. He shut it behind himself with a snap, and they ran across the square to the trader's caravan, slowing only once they couldn't hear Belinda's mother screeching anymore.
"Finally," Rose wheezed. "I held my breath the whole time you were up there. What took you so long?"
"I couldn't find her," Sparrow lied. For some reason, he felt it wrong to tell his sister he'd been ogling the recipient of the letter.
Rose shook her head and straightened up, signing heavily. "C'mon, let's go buy your bloody music box."
"Wait, where's the dog?" Sparrow asked. He hadn't realized it was gone in their rapid departure from the house. He looked back across the square in the direction of Belinda's house, and whistled. Nothing. He clapped his hands, calling for the pup to come, and nothing happened. The square was quiet. "I hope he's all right."
"It probably found someone else to bother," Rose said. "Let's go before someone else buys the thing."
Sparrow's shoulders slumped a bit as he trudged after Rose to the trader's caravan. The smell of inscense and perfume was thick in the air around it, the gramophone piping away it's carnival-like tune, the orange, purple, red, gold, and otherwise tawdry colors of the thing assaulting their eyes. The trader's funny purple top hat and mousache appeared from behind a curtain, beaming.
"Hello, children!" he boomed. "What can mystical Murgo do for you this fine day?"
"We'd like to buy the music box," Rose said, pointing at the item in question. The trader's eyes gleamed.
"Very wise, my dear." He took it down from its shelf and wrapped it in cheap brown cloth. "Five gold and it's yours." Sparrow handed him the now warm coins, feeling strange without their weight on his hip. The trader handed Rose the packaged box. "Mind you go somewhere quiet-like to use it, though. Enjoy it, children!"
Rose cradled it like a baby as she bowed her head to the funny little man and scurried off down the alley to their shelter. She set it with reverence on an overturned crate and unwrapped it. It sat in the sunlight, it's tarnished silver filigree shining under the afternoon sun. They stared at it for several moments before Rose took it in her hands.
"It's heavy," she said. "All those gears in it, I suppose."
"Turn the handle," Sparrow said. "Make a wish and see what happens."
Rose nodded and rested her fingers on the handle, holding it gingerly like it would break. She closed her eyes and whispered, "I wish... I wish..."
The music box shivered in her hands, the tiny flaps of it's lid creaking open as it's outter panelling began to turn. A light as brilliant as sun on fresh snow blossomed out of the box as it began to play it's tune. They stared at it, watching it's gears turn inside and the box spin, almost hypnotically. The music grew louder, the shaking became stronger, the light became blinding, and then stopped. Rose opened her eyes, and the box was gone.
"What?" she asked. She looked around and saw Sparrow beside her, still dressed in his rags on a deserted Old Town street. "Why are we still here?"
She sounded helpless, confused, heartbroken. She'd believed in the box more than she'd let on. She looked like she was about to cry. Sparrow went to put his hand on her shoulder, but she jerked away and stormed off to their hut.
"I was so sure this was it, like we wouldn't be stuck in Old Town anymore. Why didn't the box take us with it? Five gold pieces." she sniffed furiously. "Let's just go to bed."
They rounded the corner to their shelter, and found it occupied. The puppy was curled up on Sparrow's bedroll, it's head up and ears pricked as they neared.
"What are you doing here?" Sparrow asked it. It got to its feet and wriggled under his hands for a pet.
Rose scratched its head. "I didn't wish for you. But, welcome to out little paradise, doggie."
Sparrow played with the dog while Rose scribbled furiously in her diary until she'd calmed down. The sky had darkened considerably by then, and both Sparrow and the dog were lying on his mat.
"Sparrow?" Rose said. she shifted onto her side and looked at him. "I love you."
"I love you, too, Rosie," he replied. He put his hand out toward her and sqeezed her own. "I'm sorry I made us by the box. I'm sorry it was a waste and didn't work."
"It's okay. I wanted it to, but I knew it wouldn't. I just hoped-I wanted to believe something good could happen to us."
"I know. So did I. Good night, Rosie."
"Good night, little Sparrow."
He wasn't sure if it was minutes ot hours later, but the dog started barking. Belinda's face dissolved as Sparrow awoke.
"Quiet, you!" Rose snapped. He heard her get up and inhale sharply. "What do you want?"
He opened his eyes and expected to see Arfur, but the set of four of well-dressed royal guards and their captain, who spoke. "Lord Lucien would very much like to see you and your brother in his castle, miss. He requests your presence post-haste."
"Give us a moment," Rose said. Sparrow heard the guards depart in perfectly syncronized steps. Rose scurried to his side, again shushing the dog. "Sparrow, get up! Our wish came true!"
He sat up and stretched, his joints creaking from stiffness. The lingering warmth he felt in his dream lingered for a moment, then faded. The dog whined as he shifted to his feet, its ears back against its head. Rose gave it a quick squeeze before she ran off to find the guards, but Sparrow took his time to say a proper goodbye to it, hugging it and scratching it's ears.
"Don't worry, doggie," he said. "We'll come back for you, I promise."
It sat whimpering slightly as he followed after Rose. For some reason, he didn't feel excited; he felt like something was wrong, like the puppy was right to be anxious. Rose and the guards were just ahead, waiting for him.
"C'mon, little Sparrow!" Rose cried. "Let's go to the castle!"
He didn't want to anymore. The looming ediface filled him with a sense of dread.
Hello, all! I'm back, and with a new project to boot. I've been wanting to do this one for a while, so it's nice to finally have the inspiration to do it. Mainly, Fable III is the reason behind this, but the urge to write a classic coming-of-age style fantasy adventure is another major factor. The chapters for this one are planned on being longer than the ones in Constellations (my Mass Effect fanfic, which is on a temporary hiatus) because I'm planning on each quest being it's own chapter. It's new territory for me stylistically, and I'm really excited to be trying something so new. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I enjoy writing it.
I realize I ended this chapter in a strange place, and I assure you it was intentional. For any purists out there, I did take some major liberties with the dialogue and pacing from the game to make this more realistic and reasonably less videogame-like. If you have any major complaints or questions, feel free to PM me and I'll explain myself to you.