~ Chapter 1 ~
Night hid many things, most of them dangerous. This night was no different. The two bodies had been stripped of everything that had even the smallest value before the blood even cooled. Only one creature was interested in those bodies. A small black cat crept from the shadows. She kept a wary eye out for any hunters who wanted her for breakfast, four foot or two.
Her sensitive nose twitched at the smell of one of the puddles of nameless liquid and she skirted daintily around the edge. When she reached the bodies she paused to survey her surroundings again. The bodies smelled like farmers with the odour of hay dust and farm animals still clinging to them. The taller one had is throat slit and was obviously beyond all help. The short one however had a faint pulse.
The sound of footsteps made the cat cringe and hide in the shadows between the bodies. The footsteps were uneven and it sounded like the owner of the feet was drunk. The wind wafted the smell of cheap beer to her nose and she relaxed somewhat.
Beside her the boy started to stir. The cat placed a paw on his arm, hoping to still him. The boy stopped moving. The drunk staggered past the bodies and cat and vanished into the night. The cat stood again. This boy was to badly hurt too live much longer with out help. There was nothing she could do to help him.
She listened to the night again, this time to sounds farther away. A man was relieving himself against a wall. A mouse was bringing food back to her family. A man was waiting in an alley for prey.
There, beyond that, was the sound she was hoping for. Abandoning the boy she ran through the alleys and shadows until she reached her goal. A man dressed in white on a white horse was riding on the main road. The cat risked a yowling call and ran up to him. The man stopped and looked down. The cat sat beside the horse's silver hooves and yowled again.
"Are you hungry?" The man asked and fished a bit of sausage out of his belt pouch and tossed it down to her.
The cat ignored it and yowled again then padded a few steps away. The man urged his horse on. Sometimes humans could be so thick. The cat ran back to the man and yowled again.
"What's wrong with you?" The man asked, stopping again.
The cat leapt onto his lap and yowled again.
"Come on then, I'll see if I can convince cook to give you a bit of milk and find a place for you in the stables." The man scratched her ears.
The cat was ready to scratch this man. Instead she bit a bell off the reins and jumped down. The man seemed to hear something then turned his horse to follow her. The bell chimed brightly as she led him back to the bodies. The shadows vanished as they heard their approach and they reached to boy unmolested. The cat dropped the bell and meowed.
"So this is what you were trying to show me." The man dismounted and knelt next to the bodies.
The boy didn't stir as he was wrapped in the man's cloak and picked up.
"Smart little cat, aren't you." The man said as he swung into the saddle with his new burden. "Aren't you coming?"
The cat turned away and vanished into the shadows.
~ * ~
Julian carried his burden directly to the Healer's and handed him over to the first Healer that approached. The boy was very young and he had probably been leaving Haven with his father when they were attacked. He would have died if the cat hadn't summoned help.
That was other odd thing, the cat. Julian could understand a dog raising a fuss until someone came to help. But why would a farmer bring a cat into the city? He had never heard of a cat acting like that one did for that matter.
"Julian, I heard you were getting in." A friend hailed him. "It looks like you were in a bar fight."
Julian looked down at his bloodstained tunic. "I found an injured boy. Actually, a cat led me to him."
"A cat?" His friend looked dubious.
"I swear, a small black cat stopped me, stole a bell, and led me to him. It was several blocks so it had to be deliberate on his part."
"Incredible. If it was anyone else but you I would accuse you of telling tall tales."
"He was a handsome little thing. I was going to keep him but I couldn't catch him and carry the boy."
"Black cat and white uniforms don't mix. You should consider yourself lucky."
~ * ~
Liawynne woke surrounded by children. They slept like a litter of puppies with arms and legs everywhere. Carefully she extricated herself from the pile and padded across the floor to peer out the tiny window. It was a grey dawn and there was a drizzle that would keep everyone inside.
They were already in desperate straits.
"Wynne?" The smallest of the children sat up and blinked sleepily. She was only six. "Can I have some breakfast?"
"Later." Liawynne assured her. "Everyone up!"
Slowly the children stirred.
"We have our work cut out for us today." She warned as she pulled on her clothes.
There were five children. They were the offspring of Liawynne's two older brothers, both of whom had been hung as thieves two years before. Liawynne still wasn't certain how she had ended up with them. Kane and Dain were the eldest, they were twin boys and at all of eleven considered themselves men, they were both slender as whippets but were otherwise unremarkable. Next was Ana, she was nine and looked barely seven, she had dark brown ringlets and massive blue eyes that welled up with tears at will. The second youngest was Kane and Dain's younger brother, Elwin, he was eight and looked much like his brothers. The youngest was Tana, Ana's younger sibling, she was very simpleminded with a crop of pale blonde hair and massive blue eyes.
Liawynne, or Wynne as the children called her, had soot black hair and dusk skin, she was of middling height, as slender as the boys, but it was more from a lack of food. No one would point her out in a crowd.
The twins built a tiny fire on the hearth as Ana mixed what little they had to make porridge in their much-mended kettle. Wynne put a spoon in Tana's hands to keep her occupied until their meal was ready.
"What's the plans for today?" Kane asked.
"We need to get something today. We don't have enough for rent next week." Wynne said honestly.
Dain nodded, "We can do one house." He suggested.
Wynne hesitated. "I would rather we didn't have to."
Ana dished up their meal and they sat in a semicircle around the hearth.
"I want you two to do your normal rounds. Ana and Elwin, I want you to take the food market after classes."
"What about me?" Tana asked.
"You will help at the temple again." Wynne had made a bargain with the temple that taught the children, she mended and they let Tana stay after class.
The children nodded. As soon as the meal was gone the children left.
Wynne padded downstairs and out the back door with her battered panpipes in her belt pouch and a batter lute on her back. She wasn't very good and had no formal training but she sometimes managed to get a place in a tavern.
She knew that if they didn't get enough today they would have to take a chance and break into one of the great houses tonight. That was how her brothers were caught and she knew the Watch suspected she had been involved.
Of course she had but not the way they thought.
~ * ~
Wynne despaired at their slim pickings. They had no choice but to return to the cracking lay.
She pulled the twins and Ana off to the side. "I assume you already had a house selected."
Kane nodded. "They are out of town because she is pregnant and their servants are slacking."
"It will do."
"When do we go?"
"After dark. There is no moon tonight."
When they left the house where they rented a room they each went in separate directions. They wouldn't see each other until they reached their target.
Wynne walked openly down the street. She was well known in the area as a bit of an herb witch. The people around here wouldn't turn her in because then they would have no one to patch them up from their own midnight excursions.
Her family had always been whispered about. Her parents had appeared twenty-five years ago with strange accents and mysterious pasts. Unfortunately their accents had betrayed them. Both had been hung when Wynne was eight. Wynne had been raised by her elder brothers, and continued on the family tradition of thievery. Now her brothers had been caught leaving her alone and responsible for five children. How long until she was caught? What would happen to the children? Her family had always been very self reliant, but they would be in serious trouble if there were left on their own.
Tana trusted everyone and would do anything for a candy, how long until one of the perverts lured her off to a child brothel? The twins were cocky as their father and likely to be caught eventually. Elwin was more bookish than the others and would drop his guard at the wrong time. Ana was the most likely to survive without her. Ana had nimble fingers and had inherited the family flexibility so she could make her way, she also didn't take foolish risks.
When Wynne reached their target she found the children waiting in the shadows.
"You know the routine." She whispered.
No alarm was sounded as they slipped in and plundered the house of small, generic trinkets.
It was still dark when they slipped inside their room again. Wynne appraised their haul by the light of a candle and sent the twins out to sell them to pawnbrokers.
Ana curled up on their straw mattress next to Tana and asked, "Are you going out again?"
"Yes. I am going to make certain there is no one on our trails." Wynne removed her blouse and skirt.
Suddenly a small black cat stood where Wynne had been.