Wil huddled on his cot, peering through a crack in the wall that admitted starlight and rooftops. The straw mattress couldn’t hide the hardwood underneath from his bruises. He tried to ignore the tearing sackcloth sounds his Father’s snores made. He tried not to think about the old drunk at all.
Curling tighter to keep out the cold only drew his mind to the aches. His hands clenched around a normal looking tooth strung onto a necklace. To him, the tooth seemed to shine through his fingers, but he knew that it didn’t.
The tooth was no bigger than one of Wil’s, and the same yellow hue. Nor was it sharp. Much less sharp than an alley mongrel’s fangs.
He smiled thinking about it. The man who’d given him this necklace had torn the tooth from a wild jalt’s mouth. No one in Oakbrook had anything like it.
Father snorted, and his steady snored disappears. He must be waking soon. Wil shouldn’t have stayed so late, long after Clem had let him off. He’d stayed, suds and grease on his arms, listening wide-eyed to Eisen the jalt-slayer’s stories. For the last fortnight, he’d risked staying twice a week. It had taken this long for his Father to notice.
Pot shards clanked, and Wil’s breath caught in his throat. The old man was up, shuffling around in the dark, and Wil tensed in case he had to run. The youth barely relaxed when his father found the window and relieved himself out of it into the alley. His tension didn’t dissipate even when once the old man fell heavily onto the ale-soaked rug.
How much longer would this go on, if he let it? Two years since his mother died, and it hadn’t stopped. Wil could see that fist too often in his future if he stayed. He had to go. Tomorrow. Before sunrise.
He cradled the jalt’s tooth until he found sleep.
When he woke, purple bruises were already growing on his bony frame. He hid the worst under his best tan tunic and pulled on a pair of brown breeches. The other pair, still dirty from yesterday’s work at the pots, lay discarded on the floor. No sense leaving them. As he balled the dirty clothes up, the ale pot nearest his father caught his eyes. That pot held the coppers Father stole from him each night. His tongue ran across his lips. That coin belonged to Wil!
He kept on his toes as he crossed the room, and crouched next to the jar. He used the spare clothes to quiet each coin that he took. A coin slipped, and his father jerked and snorted. Wil wanted to run, but he kept still, each muscle taut.
If the old man woke, Wil would miss Eisen at the fountain, and lose his chance to escape. He cursed himself for his insolent greed, even as his fingers clenched the lip of the jar. The pottery was thick and rough between his fingers, small, but heavy. One fluid motion, up, then down onto the sleeper’s temple would put this all right. He’d do it, if it meant getting away from here.
His father’s breathing calmed again, and Wil’s fingers relaxed. The three coins left in the jar went into the cloth ball, and he crept across the floor again, perhaps too quickly. In the hallway outside, he let his breath out. His fingerpads could still feel the rough pot, and his arm felt heavy, even though he hadn’t lifted it.
At the bottom of the stairs, their landlady pulled bread pans from the oven to cool. Morning patrons gossiped over her steaming rolls and sausages from the neighboring butcher. Wil smiled, remembering each face that he’d never see again.
As he struck out for the door, the landlady’s mitted hand caught his bruised shoulder.
“Where are you off so early?” Miss Tavi asked.
“Out,” Wil said, his voice nasal and reedy.
“Out? That can wait.” She slammed the oven shut. “You’re behind three months on rent. The only reason I haven’t called the Watch is for your departed mother’s sake. But this won’t go on forever…”
Wil’s hands curled into fists when she mentioned the Watch. She’d only brought it up now, in front of patrons, to cause word to spread. Soon word would be all over town, that Wil was good for nothing, like his father. His skin tingled under the stares.
He remembered the ale pot, and forced his hand to open. Any gossip died here if he paid her, and he could pinch this much back at the market, if he had time.
He didn’t have time. Eisen said to meet before noon. Suddenly, those coppers felt a lot more valuable. His hand stroked the balled clothes as he thought.
“What’s this?” she asked, reaching towards the bundle.
“N-Nothing.” Even if no one else smelled coins, he’d bet that Miss Tavi had.
Her fingers tore at the folded tunic and a coin flew from it. Wil’s hand snapped out and by some dumb luck caught it. “My potboy wages,” he said, trying to keep his voice even.
“My rent money,” she snarled. Even the heads that hadn’t turned yet were now on them.
His voice came out barely above a whisper, “No.”
“Come, boy. If you don’t, your poor father…”
His poor father. Those words put his back up. Grief was poor reason to bully and rob your son. The jalt’s tooth poked Wil’s hand before Wil knew he had clutched it.
“Kick him out if he won’t pay,” Wil said, the jalt’s tooth hot in his hand. “It’s not my problem anymore. You won’t see me around after today.”
His words echoed amongst the staring patrons. They would speak of this for days, but he didn’t care.
“Wil–,” she began, but he cut her off.
She tried to grab him, but he shrugged past her towards the door. She spat a final curse at him, but didn’t follow. The slamming door shut her out for good, and Wil smiled. The warm roll he’d snuck from her pan into his spare clothes made a good breakfast. His pinched stomach’s thanks, and her rude treatment had outweighed what little remaining qualms he’d had left about taking the food.
He ducked into the crumbling façade of the Wailing Wench and greeted Clem, its balding innkeeper. The portly man sat mug in hand, fresh ale stains on his apron and ale-sweat already at his pits. His voice was already slurred. “Why’re you in so early?”
“Good morning, Mister Clem, how’s the ale?” Wil smiled ruefully. He wouldn’t have to come back here again, after today.
“Tastes like a stable.” Clem spat onto the sawdust floor. “Gets you drunk though. What’s this I hear about you stiffing Taveera’s rent?”
Wil barely wondered how the news had outpaced him. “Well, ah, Father takes my coin, and—,”
Clem’s belch cut him short. “Father takes your coin? At your age? Take a club and break his hands when he sleeps, unless he keeps your balls for you too.”
Wil’s fists clenched again, and it took real effort to unclench them. “I’m sick of Miss Tavi,” he hissed. “I’m sick of Father, and I’m sick of you. I’m leaving.”
Clem guffawed. “What, with Eisen?”
Wil hadn’t realized Clem had overheard the adventurer’s promise the evening before. “Yes. I’m going to be an adventurer.”
Clem’s laughter splashed ale on his apron. “That’s rich. You’ll be back within the month. That life’s not for a rabbit like you.”
“Even if you could tell fortunes, I didn’t come for one. Your pots’ll have to get clean some other way now.” Wil’s face wore a scowl as he left the inn behind him.
Eisen was waiting in the town square, leaning against a dusky stallion. The tall blond saw him in the crowds and waved.
What did Clem know, anyway?
Crystal-blue eyes followed Wil above a thrice-broken nose. Wil had never feared the mercenary, though he thought he should.
Eisen’s drawl filled the square. “Nice bruises. Forget to pay a wench?”
“Yeah,” Wil mumbled, “something like that.”
Eisen’s brow furrowed and when he spoke again, his words were sharp. “That damned drunk beat you, didn’t he?”
“It’s not–,” Wil protested.
Eisen growled, “I’ll destroy him.” His hand already blanched on the thin-bladed two-hander he favored.
A woman’s tenor voice rang behind Wil. “Yeah. Hack apart a helpless drunk. Valiant. I can hear the bards now.”
Wil glanced over his shoulder at a brown-robed old man and a stocky woman in tunic and breeches. They and their horses had snuck up on him during Eisen’s speech. He chided himself.
“Good to see you too, Almitsel,” Eisen retorted, his words now crisp. He avoided looking at her, but his hand drifted from the hilt to hook into his belt. “Break your fast on curdled milk as usual?”
“Ay, and as delicious as your presence,” she replied. “Filled that morning quota of meat-headed threats yet?”
Eisen made as if consulting an imaginary scroll. “Hnn, nope. Seems I’ve got one left for you.”
The old man’s voice, even deeper than Eisen’s, cut between them, despite its deliberate pace. “Cease this fool’s babble. You’re making a scene here like we shouldn’t anywhere. Are you ready to leave, Sir Eisen?”
Sir Eisen? Eisen was a knight?
Eisen’s voice lightened to a drawl again. “I’m prepared, Ranpa, as always. This young man is Wil. He’s coming with us.”
Ranpa’s eyes widened. “Is that so?”
“Yes Sir,” Wil said.
“I’m no Sir, I… no, let’s spare titles.” He hobbled closer to Eisen and said in a loud whisper, “You’ve not invited anyone along before.”
Eisen grinned and continued on at his usual volume. “I must have good reason, then.”
Ranpa nodded and said, “I shall trust your judgment.”
“And I shall not.” Almitsel mimicked Ranpa’s speech perfectly. Her brown hair looked like long spines, sharp like the arrows in her quiver. “Have you both gone blind? What muscles he has are toned, but he’s beaten to a pulp, and rangy as a starving wolf.”
Ranpa eyed Wil up and down, and then took an arm in a cold grip, prodding here and there before saying at last, “He has good bones, and his sinews are sound. We want a hungry fox anyways, not an ox, or a wolf. We have those already.” He glanced sidelong at Almitsel. “Forgive me, you’re clearly more of a badger. Think, with you guarding young Wil’s back, what ill could happen?”
Almitsel rolled her eyes. “Few of our kind live as late as you. He’ll die young if he comes with us.”
Death. Wil’s daydreams had included danger, but never that. It was safe in Oakbrook. As safe as it could be… hadn’t Barrick gotten crushed under a wagon axle just three days ago? Now that he thought of it, there was the outbreak of plague before that, so bad that even the Riannites had closed their temple doors. And two years ago, Mother, without a mark on her.
“Well, boy,” Ranpa said, leaning forward. This close, his pointed ears, creased face, and crooked teeth loomed in grimy detail. “Have you the grit? Can you rest cold and damp, eating hardtack or not at all, with only the glory’s call feeding your heart and driving your feet?”
Wil bit his lip. Even an obscure death sounded better than grey old age in wretched Oakbrook, if he’d make it that far, staying at home. “Is it bad like scrubbing pots?” he asked.
The three laughed, and he let out a relieved sigh.
“Oh, that’s rich,” Almitsel said through her laughter. “He can come with, if he can crack a joke like that. His wit might make up for the lack in you two.” Laughing like that, the stocky woman looked like Wil’s mother.
“Glad that’s settled,” Eisen said, jumping into his saddle. “Let’s be off then.”
As Wil mounted the brown and white gelding, he felt awe that his grubby coins could buy even part of such an animal. When Eisen paid the remainder, Wil protested, but the knight laughed him off. “You’ll be cursing me for your crotchsore by the end of the day.”
“What will you name it?” Almitsel asked him, as she patted his horse’s flank from her perch on a gray mare.
Wil touched the tooth around his neck. “Jalt.”
He couldn’t be sure from those faint smiles whether his new friends were approving or amused.
From horseback, he felt somehow apart from the drab crowds. As the group left Oakbrook’s stacked wooden walls, with Ranpa and Eisen discussing things Wil hardly understood, and Almitsel in silence, Wil marked their progress in relative tranquility. Oakbrook was soon just a gray speck in golden fields. Farmers waved and shouted for news as they passed, and Eisen smiled as he drawled his replies.
The farmers’ wheat might someday be in Miss Tavi’s bakery or the Clem’s ale, Wil thought, even as he paid more mind to Ranpa’s exotic tales. As the old man’s rambling became more complex, Wil had to interrupt.
“You’re a sorcerer?” he asked, his eyes wide despite himself. “Do you drink virgin blood to stay young forever?”
Ranpa rolled his eyes and grimaced. “Gods be merciful, do I look youthful? This is why I prefer the term philosopher. My craft is no magic to those who understand.”
If Eisen was a knight and Ranpa a sorcerer, what was Almitsel, Wil wondered, and what would be his role?
That thought held his mind until they neared the softwood forest. Seeing those woods worried him. Oakbrook, despite its name, had no proper trees. Once they left the fields, his real adventures would begin.
He swallowed hard.
“Where do we stop tonight?” Almitsel asked at the forest’s edge.
Not any place that could be called home, Wil thought glumly.
“The townsfolk mentioned an inn near a crossroads,” Eisen said. “Sound better than a bush?”
“I like bushes,” Almitsel replied. “Better question, should I scout ahead just in case?”
“What could range this close in without farmer’s hearing?” Eisen said to Almitsel’s back.
Wil wondered about his own role was while his fingers caressed the jalt’s tooth. He could almost feel the talisman feeding him resolve.
As the trees fully engulfed them, Wil’s fears had rekindled. Almitsel’s absence worried him too, but the forest’s chirps, buzzes, and howls were worse. Strange scents tickled his nostrils, and the darkening grayness held no hint of the sun.
Back home, he would be hearing the Wailing Wench’s clamor, even with his head buried in a pot. The kitchen’s warmth and firelight would have surely beaten those distant howls. Hadn’t Ranpa said they slept outside most nights, without walls to protect them? Maybe…
No, he would not go back. This was the life he had chosen.
Almitsel returned, her horse’s sides heaving, but her face calm.
“Any trouble?” Eisen asked.
“Only the usual.”
The usual? What was usual in the forest? Wil struggled to phrase that question in a brave way.
“How far out are those wolves?” he asked.
She snorted. “Far enough. Normal wolves avoid men. Are you okay? Your face seems even paler than usual.”
He tried not to think about unusual wolves, or how she could see color when he could hardly see her face. He dodged her question with one of his own. “Why’d you bring me along?”
She glanced at Eisen.
The half-grinning knight asked, “You sure you want to know?”
Eisen rubbed his chin in mock consideration. “You’re quick,” he drawled, flashing a mercurial grin.
That was it? Wil had hoped for something grander, that he was the last heir to a throne, or a great hero reborn.
Eisen’s next words fully dispelled Wil’s fantasies. “I’ll show you the little I know of lock picking, and I’ve no doubt you’ll quick surpass me.”
Wil bit his lip to bleeding. They wanted him to pick locks, like a burglar? Putting his idealism aside, the idea wasn’t wholly repulsive. They wouldn’t ask him to rob people who didn’t deserve it. His natural gifts made him a worthy addition to their group. That should cheer him.
Dusk had fled long before they reached the crossroads. Since Eisen’s words, the silence had grown overbearing. Initially, Wil had struggled with his new role, but now he felt strangely comfortable in its mantle. Even so, something still made his hand twitch fearfully. Besides the calls echoing amongst the trees. He felt like a scared rabbit.
The inn emerged from around a turn in the road, a squatting beast with square yellow eyes. Wil’s stomach seized, but he felt Eisen’s hand on his bruised shoulder, and he felt sure of himself again.
At the stables, Eisen said, “I’ll take the horses in,” as they dismounted, and took each bridle in hand.
“Very well,” Ranpa said. “I’ll engage the innkeeper for a night’s food and board.”
“An ale’d go down nicely,” Almitsel grumbled.
They all left, and Wil didn’t know who to follow. He stood at the crossroads with the necklace’s thread digging into his neck.
The whole world lay ahead him, and Oakbrook behind.
His fingers ran across the tooth and a nail caught in a crack he’d never felt before. He removed the necklace and held it before him. It felt heavier than it should.
He breathed ragged, misty puffs and wondered distantly when it had grown cold. His eyes went to the warm inn, then the necklace, and then the Oakbrook road. He stumbled one step towards the inn.
He took another jarring step, this time towards Oakbrook.
Better to die.
He forced himself back towards the inn, but he didn’t want to go there either. A sob caught in his throat and he clenched the tooth so hard it bloodied his palm. He wanted this. He wanted adventure.
He lurched again, towards Oakbrook, and forced himself to stop. The jalt’s tooth burned as his mind wrestled numbly with a choice that would define his life forever.
He didn’t know why he fought so hard, when he knew what he wanted. The inn’s door stood ajar, pouring out golden light, but he didn’t belong there. He knew where he belonged, like it or not. The jalt’s tooth snapped in his fist, and he fled towards home.
The broken tooth lay abandoned in the crossroads dust. When Wil heard Eisen calling out for him, he did not answer.