Korina stared around the sheep shed in confusion for a moment. She had been imagining her mother surrounded by fierce orcs, even lying dead at their feet, and preparing herself to face the monsters, but she was completely unprepared to face nothing at all. She shook herself out of her daze and called out for her mother, but there was no answer. She stamped out the remaining embers before they could do any harm and hurried out of the shed. She went all around the sheepfold and outbuildings, but there was no sign of her mother or of orcs. Finally she went into the house.
Elice was huddled by the fire and looked up at her wide-eyed when she came in.
“Kori!” Elice exclaimed. “Where did you go? What happened?”
“Orcs!” Korina hissed. “They’ve done something to Mama. We have to help her.”
“I heard her,” said Elice. “I heard her and it woke me up. There was something else, but I didn’t know if I dreamt it or not.”
“Stay here,” said Korina. “Pull the latchstring. I’m going to get help.”
“Don’t go!” Elice begged.
“Stay here!” Korina repeated and was out the door before Elice could say anything. As she headed back to the road she heard behind her the snap of the leather latchstring being pulled through to the inside so that the door could not be opened from without. It was a small comfort.
Gripping the axe near the head for better balance, she ran back down the road towards the village. Light and song were still pouring out of the Golden Goblet and it seemed the whole hamlet had gathered there for the evening. She headed straight for the door, barreled into the common room, and shouted: “Orcs!”
The whole room was suddenly silent and turned to look at her. Most were faces she knew from around the village and most shook their heads and relaxed after seeing who had interrupted their evening drinking. A party of Stormwind guardsmen that she didn’t recognize jumped up at once from their game of dice, grabbed their weapons from the racks by the door and hurried out onto the village green in good order. Brother Padwell was sitting at a table with another man and a couple of women whom she had seen come down the Northshire road. He sighed as he set down his mug and turned to her.
“Korina,” Padwell asked calmly, “what happened?”
“Orcs!” she repeated, not having breath for a moment to say anything more. As she recovered her breath, she went on: “At the farm! They took my mother! She was in the shed with a lambing ewe and they took her!”
Padwell’s companions shared a concerned look, but the priest made a dismissive gesture and leaned in close to Korina’s face.
“Like the time that ‘orcs’ stole your mother’s best linens from the clothesline to make a fort in the woods?” he murmured to her. Korina’s face flushed red and she swallowed the retort that clawed to come out of her throat. “Or the time ‘orcs’ kidnapped you on your way to lessons in the morning and only let you go in time for supper?”
“They were there!” Korina insisted, painfully aware of how much this sounded like the stupid excuses she always used to make for her mischief and growing even angrier for being reminded of the good reasons the whole village had for not listening to her now. “I saw them!”
“What color were their eyes?” asked the man at Padwell’s table. Korina didn’t know him, but he had the scars and the bearing of a soldier, even in the homespun brown tunic he was wearing. She met his gaze and flinched.
“It was dark,” she said.
Padwell turned to his companions with a sigh.
“She does this,” he said. “Don’t trouble yourselves.”
“I’m not lying!” Korina insisted.
“Then you had a nightmare,” said Padwell, “and who can wonder when you spend your days playing foolish games instead of giving your poor mother and sister the help they need.”
The man in brown and two women exchanged a look, then pushed themselves up from the table as one.
“We’ll see to this,” said one of the women, well-muscled and dressed in a faded old leather jerkin. “If there are orcs in Elwynn, we’ll sort them right.” The other woman nodded. She was wearing a brown and black robe that reminded Korina of Brother Padwell’s cassock.
The three of them strode outside with confident steps and Padwell fell in with them, still shaking his head. The scarred man barked some sharp orders at the guardsmen, who had begun to make a patrol of the village, and the whole lot started marching up the Stormwind road in formation. Korina fell in beside the scarred man, trying to study his face out of the corner of her eye. He grinned at her in the torchlight.
“What’s your name, girl?” he asked.
“Korina,” she answered. She felt Brother Padwell’s reproving gaze fall on the back of her head and quickly made a bob as he had so many times tried to teach her and enunciated: “Korina Whitfeld, sir.”
“Whitfeld…” he repeated. “Wasn’t there a Whitfeld in the company?” he asked the others.
“Ardan,” said Padwell. “Her father.”
“I remember Ardan,” remarked woman in leather. “Such a nice singing voice.”
Korina forgot all the manners she had just tried to demonstrate and openly stared at the four of them. She remembered how her father loved to sing. It was what she remembered best about him.
“My father was a knight of Stormwind,” she said.
“One of many,” said the scarred man. “Many who didn’t come home.”
“Ardan fell in the fighting against the Blackrock orcs,” Padwell said heavily.
“What was that place called?” mused one of the women. “That awful place where we lost so many?”
“I called it a pile of shit,” snorted the other woman. “I don’t know why we were fighting for it.”
“We were fighting because it was our duty to fight,” said Padwell.
“Not yours any more,” noted the woman in leather.
“We all serve in our own ways,” the priest answered. Korina had the impression that it was a familiar theme among the four of them.
“You knew my father?” she ventured to ask.
“I remember him,” the scarred man answered. “I think we all remember him, but I couldn’t say that we knew him. There were a lot of us who followed the banner and I wouldn’t say we knew each other. The four of us, well, we have a history, but that’s mostly because we managed to survive. I’m Llane. That’s Ashley and Anetta,” he added, pointing first to the woman in the jerkin, then the one in the brown robes. “Padwell prefers the comfortable village life, but I suppose you know that already.”
Brother Padwell sighed and shook his head, but said nothing.
They were coming to the path that led off to the cottage. Korina hefted the axe in her hand and tried not to look scared as she pointed into the woods and recounted what she had heard and seen. Llane tasked the guards to stand watch on the road, took one of their torches, and started down the track. The other three fell in behind him and Korina followed. They made their way back to the sheep shed, startling the flock in their pen. By the light of the torch they looked into the shed and all around the sheepfold.
“Ashley,” said Llane, “any traces?”
“Sheep,” she said, peering at the muddy ground around the shed. “Sheep and more sheep. Here’s some booted feet coming and going, then more sheep. And over here, sheep.”
“Anything that looks like orcs?”
“Not that I can tell, but the sheep have been everywhere.”
Brother Padwell let out a deep sigh.
“I told you,” he said.
“We’ll have a look around the verge,” said Llane. He took the torch and beckoned Ashley to follow him. Together they examined the ground between the sheepfold and the surrounding woods. Korina righted the stool and slumped onto it.
“I heard her,” she whispered. “I saw them.”
“Did you?” Padwell asked, folding his arms. “Did you actually see orcs?”
She looked at him in silence.
The other two came back after a few minutes.
“We found a track towards the woods,” said Ashley. “Somebody went that way recently, but no sign that it was orcs.”
“That’s where Elice does the washing,” Korina said, her voice sounding very small.
“Maybe your mother had to go up to Stormwind,” Padwell suggested.
“She was helping a ewe to lamb,” Korina insisted. “She wouldn’t have left.”
“Maybe it was stillborn,” Ashley suggested. “There’s folks in the city will pay for a fresh stillborn lamb. You don’t want to know why.”
“She wouldn’t,” said Korina. “She doesn’t like the city and the people there. Not since Papa went away.”
The four adults exchanged glances, then Anetta knelt by Korina and spoke gently to her.
“Maybe she went anyway. Maybe she’ll be back in the morning. But it’s also possible that she won’t. Sometimes people just go and they don’t come back.”
“No!” Korina shrieked.
“We’ve all seen it happen, especially people who’ve lost the ones they loved,” the woman persisted. “It’s not your fault. Sometimes people just don’t know what else to do.”
“No, she wouldn’t do that! Not Mama!” Korina insisted. She looked at the faces around her. They were looking at her with kindness and pity, but they all seemed to agree that her mother had just walked away.
Padwell rested a hand on her shoulder.
“You’ll have to be strong now, for Elice,” he said. “I’ll come by tomorrow and we’ll talk, but we’ve done all we can tonight.”
“It was orcs!” she shouted. “Orcs took her!”
“There’s only two ways orcs can get into Elwynn,” said Llane impatiently. “Around through Lakeshire east of the Redridge or down Northshire valley straight from Blackrock Mountain. If orcs had come through Lakeshire, we’d have been warned by messenger.”
“Then they came down Northshire!”
“Do you know what goes on in Northshire?” he asked, leaning closer.
“That’s where recruits go to train.”
“That’s right, and do you know why?”
Korina shook her head. He leaned in even closer and answered:
“Because that’s where veterans like us are. The four of us together have killed more orcs than you’ve got hairs on your head. We’re good at killing orcs. We fucking love killing orcs. And we’re just four. There’s dozens more like us keeping guard on the valley every hour of every day, so don’t tell me that a band of orcs snuck down the valley!”
The four gathered together and started back towards the road to return to their evening in the tavern. Korina watched them walk away, feeling lost and hopeless. How could she make them understand? She was not just some silly girl playing silly games. Orcs had come here and taken her mother. How could she make them see that she was serious?
A mad thought came to her. She ran to the cottage door and pounded on it for Elice to open up. Elice cracked the door timidly and Korina pushed her way inside.
“What’s happening?” Elice asked. “Where’s Mama?”
Korina didn’t answer her but snatched her father’s sword from where it rested over the door. She threw off the scabbard and clutched the handle in her two hands.
“Stay here,” she said to Elice, then pelted out the door.
The four had just come to the road and were speaking to the city guards. Korina raised the sword over her head and uttered a scream as she barreled towards them. The guards looked at her in shock. The other four fell into fighting formation. Llane was at the front, his body tensed for action. Padwell and Anetta were behind him, their fingers already beginning to glow with magic. Ashley made a jump to the side and crouched low, reaching for something on her belt.
Korina came for the scarred man. She made to swing the sword past the side of his face. She didn’t want to hurt him, just scare him, like she used to do to Elice. Then they would know that she was serious.
Her momentum came to a sudden stop as Llane thrust a fist into her gut. She staggered, gasping and gagging for breath. With a sweep of his leg he knocked her flat on the ground while a swift movement of his other hand took the sword from her shaken grip. She lay on the ground holding her stomach and glaring up at him, unable to say a word.
The rest of the group relaxed, but Llane’s face had taken on a dangerous look.
“Do you know what this is, girl?” he snarled, holding up the sword. She tried to reach for it to take it back from him, but her arms were shaking too hard. She tried to speak, to tell them that she knew exactly what it was, but nothing would come out of her mouth. “This is the sword of a knight of Stormwind,” he went on. “A fallen knight of Stormwind. This is a holy thing. This is no toy for you to play your games with.”
“Not playing,” she managed to gasp out. Padwell was looking at her with disappointment, but that was nothing new. It was the two women she noticed now. Their faces were full of pity, and that made her even angrier.
Llane sighed and his face eased from stern to somber.
“Your mother is gone. If you’re lucky, maybe she’ll come back, but take it from me, most of them don’t. It’s not fair, but if life was fair you wouldn’t have lost your father.” He knelt down and held out the sword to her. She took it, looking at him suspiciously. “In a year or two you’ll be old enough to take the king’s silver. Come find me in Northshire and I’ll teach you how to use this properly. For now, for your father’s sake, the first lesson: the winner of a fight is not the one who strikes first, or hardest or fastest, but the one who knows when to strike. Patience is not just a virtue but a skill. Learn it. Use it. Now, go home and look after your sister.”
The veterans and the guards together headed back down the road to Goldshire. Korina sat looking after them for a long time, holding her father’s sword close and trying to make her breaths come without pain. At last she dragged herself home.
Elice opened the door, looking just as frightened as before.
“What is it?” Elice asked. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Korina admitted. She shook her head.
“Mama can’t be gone. We have to look for her!”
“Tomorrow. We can’t do anything tonight.”
“But–” Elice started to protest.
“No,” Korina interrupted her. “There’s nothing we can do tonight. In the morning, then we’ll go and look for her. Tonight we need sleep.”
Elice looked at her. Korina had never seen her sister look so disheveled. She was so tired that she almost laughed. For years, she had always been the one who wanted to run off and do things and Elice had been the one reminding her to slow down, think sensibly, be rational.
“It’s okay,” she said, trying to sound calm. “Mama is strong. Whatever’s happened, she can wait until tomorrow for us to find her.”
“I’m scared,” said Elice. “I don’t want to sleep. What if it comes back?”
Korina pushed a chair up against the door and settled down in it, their father’s sword on her knees.
“I’ll stay awake,” she promised. “All night. Nothing’s going to get in.”
Elice did not look much comforted, but she dragged a handful of blankets down and curled up on the floor next to Korina’s chair.
Korina watched the embers in the fireplace slowly wink out as the night wore on. Elice picked her head up and listened every time there was a noise outside, but finally her body relaxed and Korina heard her sink into sleep. She did her best to keep her promise to Elice and keep her eyes open, but at last the world around her faded and she slept.
Korina became dimly aware of gray light and the smell of fresh porridge. She made to roll over and press her face into her pillow for a few more minutes of darkness as she always did, but everything felt wrong. As she shifted, a weight slipped off her knees and clattered onto the floor. The noise pierced her half-sleep and she started, sliding right off the chair and onto the floor, though happily not onto the fallen sword.
“Good morning,” said Elice from the hearth. She had changed into her house dress and was stirring a pot on the fire. She looked tired and pinched with worry, but the shrinking terror of the night had gone.
Korina dragged herself up from the floor feeling cramped and sore all over. With the light of day, she also felt more like herself and her first urge was to burst out of the house and go looking for any sign of their mother, forgetting whatever sensible plans she had half made as she sat awake the previous night. Instead she stumbled to the table and sat down. Elice placed a bowl of porridge in front of her.
“Are you okay?” Korina asked. Elice nodded tightly. They both knew that “okay” meant something very different this morning than it had the day before. “Anything happen?” Elice shook her head.
Korina spooned porridge into her mouth and tried to get her head to think. In the dawn’s light, she was beginning to doubt what she had seen and heard the night before. Maybe she had just imagined the shapes before the flame and the scream in the night. Maybe the veterans were right. Maybe her mother had had to go up to Stormwind for something suddenly, in the dark of the night. Maybe the troubles of the day had finally broken through her patience and made her decide… She wouldn’t let herself think any further that way.
“We should go to Stormwind,” she said between mouthfuls. Elice served herself and sat down next to her. Their mother’s chair on the other side of the table was painfully empty. “She might have had to go there for something. Something with the lamb, maybe.”
“We should ask Master Tiras,” Elice agreed. “And talk to people in the market. People will know her. Someone might have seen her.”
Korina nodded. They emptied their bowls and Elice refilled them. “It could be a long day,” she said.
“I have to go put the sheep out to pasture,” said Korina, once she had eaten her second bowl. “They can manage in the south meadow for today.”
She went out to the sheepfold to herd the flock out into the meadow. The sheep seemed skittish, but she reminded herself that they were sheep– they always seemed skittish. The flock looked small to her and she tried to make a count of them as they loped ahead of her, but she lost track. Having led them out and shut the gate, she headed back to the cottage. She didn’t like leaving the sheep untended all day, but they would manage. As she came around the corner of the cottage she heard something from the direction of the road. It sounded like drums. She hastened inside.
Elice had washed the breakfast dishes and banked the fire and was just tying up a sack. She had changed into her acolyte’s robe and added a belt with her little work knife in a leather sheath.
“There’s something on the road,” said Korina. “Let’s hurry up and see what’s happening.” She pushed aside the washing tub and lifted the leather-wrapped board to pour the handful of coins from their box into a pouch which she hung on a string around her neck inside her tunic. She was trying to slip their father’s sword in its scabbard through a belt loop when Elice stopped her.
“Leave that,” said Elice. “Take your knife. The guards won’t like a couple of girls walking around with a knight’s sword.”
Korina started to protest, but then thought of the night before and how little good her father’s sword had done her. She hid the sword in the straw of her mattress and instead fetched a small hatchet from the tool shed to hook onto her belt. Together they hurried down the path towards the commotion on the road.
A company of Stormwind soldiers was marching from the city with a band of Elwynn militia hurrying after them. They could see a second company falling in behind them and another already down the road almost to Goldshire. Officers on horseback were riding alongside the troops and among them Korina recognized Llane from Northshire.
As they stood staring at the spectacle, Brother Padwell came puffing up the road.
“Children,” he called out, “I’m glad you’re here. I was going to come see you today, but I’ve been called off to join the healers in the field.”
“What’s happening?” Korina asked him.
“A relay rider came in from Eastvale before dawn,” he said, frowning. “A warband of orcs attacked Lakeshire in the night, burned the outlying farms, and took captives into the hills.”
“Orcs,” Korina repeated, glaring at him.
“In Lakeshire, child!” he exclaimed. “That’s a day’s march and more from here!”
“Maybe it’s a diversion.”
“I haven’t time for your fancies,” Padwell insisted. “I don’t know how long I’ll be away. Stay close to home. If things should go badly for us, make sure you get into the city. You’ll be safe there. When this is all over, I’ll come and find you. Light keep you!”
With that he was away into the mass of marching men. The two girls stood for a while watching the soldiers and militia pass. Elice clutched Korina’s hand.
“We’re still going up to Stormwind, right?” she asked. Korina nodded. Staying at the edge of the road and out of the way of the marching companies they made their way up to the gates.
There was a bustle around the main gate of the city as the last of the marching militia, with a trail of camp followers and curious street children behind them, was buffeted by the press of the crowd waiting to get into the city. There were the usual pedlars and travelers and village folk going into the city for their business, but their ranks were swollen by anxious families from Eastvale who had come looking for shelter from the threat of orc raiding. Korina and Elice were pushed and jostled around, but Elice kept tight hold on the back of Korina’s jerkin and Korina shoved her way through the throng with elbows and shoulders until they finally made it through the outer gate, over the bridge, and past the inner gate into the trade district of the city. They stepped aside into the mouth of an alley between two shops to catch their breath.
Elice looked down at her robes with disgust. The fine white linen had been smudged with mud and dirt and horse dung up to her knees and the sleeves had gotten several rips in them from rough scrapes between carts and stone walls.
“Look at this,” she sighed. “I should have worn my old dress. I thought people would show more respect to an acolyte.”
“People are scared,” Korina answered. “The whole world isn’t as perfect as you, Miss–” she bit off the end of her retort under Elice’s glare. She looked down at her own clothes, already torn and filthy when she had put them on this morning, and softened her tone. “I suppose being with me ruins the effect. If you’d come alone I bet they would have made way for you.”
“I don’t want to be here alone,” Elice replied.
Korina peered back out into the street. The press was lessening as the main crowd moved out into the great market for the day’s business.
“Master Tiras’ shop is near here,” she said. “If he can’t tell us anything, we’ll head into the market.”
Master Tiras was very kind. He recognized them at once and knew that something was amiss. Before they could tell him what had happened he took them into a private room in the back of the shop, insisted on giving them barley tea and some little cakes, and called in a plump old woman who made a fuss over Elice’s dress and helped clean the worst of the dirt off them both. He listened to the story they told him and answered their questions as well as he could. Yes, Mistress Whitfeld had come in yesterday, as expected, with her delivery of sheep cheese. She had stopped for a while to talk. She was worried about her daughters, wished she could do more for them, so hard to see them grow up without a father– but there was nothing new in any of that. Then she had left for home. No one in the shop had seen her again since. There was nothing he could remember about her bearing or talk that was at all amiss. He had no idea why she might have gone away or where she might have gone to. It was indeed curious that she should disappear the same night that orcs attacked Lakeshire, but it was hard to see how the two could be connected.
“There’s room in the undercroft if you want to stay here until this trouble in Lakeshire is dealt with,” he offered.
“We have to keep looking for our mother,” Korina insisted. “We’re off to ask around the market.”
“Thank you,” Elice put in. “I know our mother would be grateful for your kindness.”
The old cheese seller saw them out with a sad look, having wrapped a few more of the cakes for them to take along in their sack. As they headed down the cobbled street towards the market he stood on the steps of his shop watching them go.
The great market of Stormwind was as busy as ever, despite the orc threat and the departure of so many soldiers and militia. People still needed grain and vegetables and eggs and fish and all the other necessities of life. The people of Stormwind had lived under siege before and though they were far from panic there was a strained note to the usual haggling over prices.
Korina and Elice had both visited the market, helping their mother when she had large loads to sell, but it was still a strange place to them. Esma did not like to take her daughters into the city with her. To Korina, the market looked larger and busier now than it ever had before.
They started in the corner where their mother always set up, next to the other country folk with their simple wares. People here knew Esma Whitfeld well enough, but no one had seen her since the previous afternoon. They worked their way out into the center of the market, towards the fancier stalls of the city merchants and traveling traders. Here they sometimes got polite but unhelpful answers, sometimes were ignored, and sometimes got a glare and a rough wave to the north towards the cathedral and the orphanage. They discovered that here an acolyte’s robe, even a mud-spattered one, did get a little respect, and Kornia learned to hang back and keep her mouth shut while Elice curtseyed, asked questions, and invoked the Light’s blessings on even the brusquest pedlars. They worked their way right across the market square, ending up in the coin-changers’ and goldsmiths’ corner where they got few replies, mostly curt and dismissive, and felt the glare of the city watch on them. They moved away to a shady edge of the market where empty crates and casks were stacked up and there sat down to rest their feet.
“Heyo!” called a voice. They looked up and saw a boy sauntering towards them. His clothes were ragged and dirty, but he walked with as much swagger as if he were best friends with the prince. They had seen plenty of street boys like him around the market, some begging, some carrying packages for a few coppers, some filching whatever they could get from an unguarded stall or loose purse. Korina stood up and folded her arms across her chest, feeling the coin pouch secure under her tunic.
“What do you want?” she asked him.
“You’re the ones lookin’ for that woman, ay?”
Korina nodded. Elice stood up and took a step towards him.
“Have you seen her?” Elice asked.
“Sure have, ain’t I?” he answered. “Seen her last night, nigh on midnight.”
“Where?” Elice demanded. She took another step towards the boy, but Korina grabbed her arm and dragged her back.
“That’s the thing, ain’t it?” said the boy. He kicked a pebble up from the ground and caught it in his hand. “Tell ya for a silver.”
Elice exclaimed in shock, but Korina stepped in front of her and narrowed her eyes at the boy.
“You don’t know a thing,” she said. “Go cheat someone else.”
“Now, don’t let’s be rude,” the boy replied, grinning. He tossed the stone lightly back and forth between his hands. “It’s the cat as sells sheep cheese you’re after, ay? Short cat, brown hair going by gray, sells most of her stuff to old bear Tiras but comes to the market twice a week. That’s her, ain’t it?”
“Yes,” said Korina, guardedly.
“See? A silver and I tell ya where she was last night.”
“You don’t get a silver,” said Korina. “I’ll give you a copper.”
“Copper!” he exclaimed, hurling the pebble down on the ground again. “Who’s the cheat now, ay? I guess ya don’t want to know, then, ’cause there’s no one else as can tell ya and I ain’t tellin’ for a copper!” He started walking away with the same strut.
“Five coppers!” Elice blurted. He immediately turned around again.
“Ten coppers” he came back.
“Five,” Korina said measuredly, “and a fresh cake from Master Tiras’ house.”
She held out the treat and his eyes focused on it longingly.
“Well,” he said, “I am a world of hungry. All right then, let’s have it, and I’ll tell ya.”
Korina reached into her tunic for her pouch. The boy’s eyes lit up and he craned up on tiptoes, peering at where her hand was going. She glared at him, turned away, and quickly pulled out five small copper coins.
“There,” she said, tossing the coins at him. He caught them all with a wave of his hand. Elice handed him a cake as well. The boy stuffed the coins somewhere down in his breeches and held the cake in his mouth as he jumped up onto a pile of empty casks.
“I’ll tell ya where she was,” he crowed, taking cake out of his mouth for a moment. “She was on my mattress! Oh! Oh! Oh!” He mimed some lewd gestures to go with his high-pitched cries of mock excitement, then he shoved the cake in his mouth and jumped down from the pile, kicking it over onto Korina and Elice as he went, and scampered down a narrow alley.
Korina growled as she got her feet back under her. She snatched the hatchet from her belt and pulled back to hurl it at the boy’s bobbing head, but Elice staggered up and grabbed her wrist to stop her.
“Don’t,” Elice, hissed. “The guards are coming this way. You don’t want to kill him.”
“That’s the punishment for theft,” Korina shouted at her.
“And also for murder,” Elice said coldly. “For five coppers and a cake, he’s not worth it.”
Korina let out a snarl and went running down the alley after the boy. Elice took another look back at the market, where the city guards were struggling through the crowds towards the commotion, and hurried after her sister.
The alley twisted around between the shops and houses of the Stormwind burghers and came out onto a wide street of stone storefronts and colored glass windows. A few people on their way back from the market with loaded baskets looked on disapprovingly as one dirty, ragged child went chasing after another.
The boy snatched an apple from one gray-headed woman’s basket and chucked it behind him. Korina ducked the apple, but lost her balance and went skidding over the cobblestones for a short way on the knees of her trousers before jumping up again and continuing the chase. Elice scooped up the bruised apple from the ground and tucked it back into the woman’s basket, gasping: “So sorry!” on her way by.
The boy ducked down another alleyway, shouting out something to a couple of equally filthy boys who were playing at knucklebones behind an old crate. They jumped up and put up their paws for a fight. The boy from the market hopped up and down behind them with a mocking whoop as Korina and Elice came around the corner of the alley.
Korina didn’t even slow down but thrust out both her arms, each fist connecting with one boy’s face and knocking them both to the ground. The thief’s mouth fell open, but he lost no time in taking to his heels again straight down the alleyway to the edge of the canal below. He leapt the lip of the canal and landed in a small boat, his momentum sending the little craft skimming across the water towards the other side. He leaned out and paddled with his hands to cover the last few yards.
Korina came to a stop at the edge of the canal and glared after the boy with teeth gritted and blood pulsing in her ears. There were no boats that she could reach and the nearest way across the canal was a stone bridge some ways down. He was heading towards the Old Town, a warren of narrow streets and crooked alleyways that had an evil name even outside the city walls. Elice caught up to her, panting.
“Kori,” she gasped, “let him go. It’s only five coppers.”
“Five coppers is a sack of beans,” Korina retorted. “We can’t lose money like that.”
The boy looked up from paddling his borrowed boat to see the two girls standing at the canal’s edge looking after him. He waggled his behind at them with a whoop of triumph.
Korina shouted wordlessly after him and started to run for the bridge.
“Don’t go in there!” Elice called out.
“Don’t follow me!” Korina shouted back. She jumped over the endpost of the bridge and pelted across.
The boy scrambled up from the boat on the far side of the canal and disappeared down a narrow crack between decaying stone buildings. Korina raced up to the crack and squeezed herself through it into a dim, misshapen alley.
Continued in Chapter 3: Fire and shadows