“Please, sir.” Toby pleaded with the berry vendor. “I am so hungry and my family is so very poor. Couldn’t you please spare a few berries for me?”
I snuck around back and found my way under the berry stand. I began scanning the bottom of the berry baskets above my head to see which one would be easiest to pry open.
“I’m sorry son,” the berry vendor said. “I understand what being poor is like, you can trust me on that. The berry business isn’t what it used to be. I just can’t afford to be giving away my product.”
I found the right basket. The weaving was coming a bit loose in one corner and it wouldn’t be too hard to coax some berries into my satchel. I positioned my bag under the basket and began working some of the straw loose.
“Please, mister,” Toby continued. “It’s just my sister and me. It feels like we’ve been on our own for so long and every day seems to get a little bit harder. Just a handful of berries is all I’m askin’ for. Then maybe my sister wouldn’t have to go to bed hungry tonight.”
I could hear tears begin to creep into Toby’s voice. Our mother was very much alive, but I suppose it is true that we are on our own more often than not. Toby is a really good liar. Just as I’d had that thought, I’d finished loosening the basket. Beautiful blueberries began filling my empty satchel. We’d only planned to steal a bushel, but the hole was a little too big and they just kept coming. I was beginning to worry that we’d steal too many and the vendor may notice what he was missing.
“O.K. son, you’ve won me over,” the vendor responded. “Let me get you two bundles of berries. You and your sister deserve to eat tonight.”
Oh no, Toby convinced him too well. With all the berries I’d stolen, he was sure to notice something was going on. I pulled up the skirt to the berry stall and caught my brother’s eyes. He gave me a look that told me he did not have a plan for what was about to happen next.
“Hang on. Didn’t I stock more blueberries this morning?” The berry vendor queried.
Sensing the jig was up, I threw the satchel around my shoulder and tumbled out of the berry stall, emerging between the vendor’s legs. I grabbed my brother’s hand and pulled him along.
“Sorry mister,” Toby yelled back, “You know what it’s like to be poor, right?”
“Guards!” The berry vendor yelled, “Guards, stop those little thieves!”
Toby laughed as I ducked us into the next alley.
“I can’t believe I convinced him!” Toby exclaimed. “Maybe next time you won’t have to steal anything.”
“I hope there doesn’t have to be a next time,” I said with a heavy breath. “We can’t keep doing this.
My eyes scanned the empty alleyway for something we could use. The road ahead opened into three separate entrances. Two of them led back into the marketplace and the other led towards the residential area, the Slums. This not being the first time we had run away from guards in the Anglachel marketplace, we knew our best bet was to run towards the Slums. We barreled down the cobblestone streets, the smell of freshly emptied chamber pots filled the air. I spotted a staircase to our left and I pulled my brother in that direction.
“Come on, sis,” Toby said. “You’ve got to admit this is fun. Sure, I wish we didn’t have to steal to put food on the table, but you can’t tell me you wouldn’t still want to do this for the thrill of it.”
“Pulling schemes with you is fun,” I admitted. As we reached the top of the stairs, my brother gave me a boost so I could leap onto the roof of the townhouse. I climbed up and offered my hand so he could join me. “But I wouldn’t want to keep stealing from people like that berry vendor. He was a genuinely good man, he was about to give you some berries.”
“C’mon Tess,” Toby smirked, accepting my hand and helping himself onto the rooftop. “It doesn’t take a saint to help two hungry kids. We don’t know anything about his life.”
“We know he doesn’t have it easy. You heard him say he’s not been doing so well lately,” I reminded him.
We raced along the rooftops, making our way back home. I risked a glance over the building back into the marketplace and I did spot a pair of guards that were frantically looking around with grimaces on their faces. They seemed to be looking low to the ground, not thinking to look up. I started to feel safe.
“O.K., O.K., maybe stealing from that guy wasn’t cool,” Toby grumbled. “But you know we need it more than he does.”
“I guess so,” I said questionly.
“You know so, Tess!” My brother said defiantly. “Mom has been working three jobs and she barely makes enough to pay our rent. The money she leaves us to buy groceries with is never enough. If it weren’t for us ‘borrowing’ food from the marketplace, we’d starve.”
“You’re right. I know you’re right,” I reluctantly agreed. “It just doesn’t seem fair.”
“Of course it’s not,” he said, jumping down off the edge of our roof and onto the steps leading to our family apartment. “Life isn’t fair for people like us.”
I sat down on the edge of the roof and eased myself onto the platform below. I followed him into our family’s modest apartment. It was sparsely furnitured with a table, three chairs, a couch that our mother slept on and two large piles of quilts in the one bedroom for Toby and myself. Most apartments in this neighborhood smelled musty, but our mother cleaned everyday and made sure to place small bundles of fresh flowers in key locations. It may seem like a luxury, but one of her jobs was at a flower shop and the owners let her bring home anything they’d already cut but hadn’t sold.
“So how’d we do?” Toby asked, settling into one of the chairs.
“Better than we planned on,” I said, plopping my full satchel onto the table.
“Dang Tess, you didn’t have to clean him out!” Toby admired.
“I didn’t mean to,” I sheepishly said. “The basket came too loose and they just kept coming. There wasn’t really a good way to stop it.”
“No, it’s great,” Toby assured. “Berries stay good for a little while, we’ll be able to eat for at least a few days.”
I smiled at him before I walked over to our cabinet and pulled out three bowls. We filled one to the brim and half-filled the other two. We placed the full one in front of our mother’s spot at the table and began enjoying our spoils.
“These are great!” Toby exclaimed.
“Yeah, I don’t think we’ve done berries before. It was a great idea to hit him up,” I complemented.
“Honestly, he was just the only food vendor that we hadn’t stolen from already,” he admitted.
We sat quietly and ate berries, enjoying each other’s company. Eventually, Toby’s eyes lit up like he’d thought of something.
“What is it?” I inquired.
“Nothing, just thinking about the future,” Toby said.
“Yeah? What about?” I asked.
“I was just thinking about stealing stuff from the rich people in High Anglachel. You’re right, Tess. We don’t need to be stealing from people like us. We should be taking stuff from people at the top.” Toby explained.
“You know people that steal from the rich get in a lot of trouble if they get caught there,” I discouraged. “They do a lot more than call a couple of guards.”
“We’d never get caught,” Toby bragged.
“We get caught all the time!” I said. “We got caught today!”
“Yeah, but we always get away,” Toby said.
“For now,” I said. “I hope we don’t have to do this forever. I’d just like to get a good paying job so we don’t have to steal.”
“You know all those jobs want magic users,” Toby said.
“Maybe I could learn some,” I offered. “You never know.”
“Where would you learn magic? Arcana University? You know the tuition there costs more than a satchel full of berries,” Toby said.
“Maybe someone could teach us,” I suggested, “Maybe we could find a magic user in the Slums.”
“Please,” Toby started, “There’s no magic users here. That’s how they keep us down. They require basic magic skills for any decent paying job, but keep it just out of our reach.”
“You’re probably right,” I said. “But it is fun to think about. If you could learn any type of magic, what would it be?”
“Oh, I’ve thought about this,” Toby said. “I’d want to learn illusion magic. Could you imagine the schemes we could pull? I could disguise you, I could create magic diversions, I could make valuable things look like something else. It’d be great. What about you?”
“I’d probably want to learn healing magic,” I said. “Those jobs pay pretty well and I could help people for a living. That sounds good to me.”
“Booooring!” He teased. “But yeah, that actually does sound perfect for you. Don’t forget me when you’re big time.”
“Yeah, you too. Send me some of that High Anglachel money you steal,” I jested.
It was fun to fantasize about, but we knew there wasn’t any real chance either of us would ever get to learn magic. As I was starting to come back down to reality, I could tell Toby was thinking about something.
“What’s going on, Toby?” I asked. “You better not be coming up with a scheme.”
“Just one more, sis. Please,” he looked up at me with big pleading eyes.
“I’m not saying I’ll do it, but tell me,” I had to admit I was curious.
“So I heard this rumor that there is a magic user that lives in the Slums,” he began.
“Really? We could really learn magic?” I asked excitedly.
“No, probably not learn. But you and I know what has to happen if people aren’t willing to give you what you want,” he said with a devilish smirk.
“We can’t just steal magic,” I explained exasperatedly. “If we steal a spell book or something, we won’t even know how to read it.”
“No, nothing like a spellbook. This person is an alchemist. She makes magic potions. Magic potions are things that we can steal,” Toby outlined with wild eyes.
“O.K. Let’s pretend like this could work,” I said, letting myself consider his plan. “Who is this Alchemist? Why is she hanging out at the Slums?”
“I don’t know. I never claimed to be an expert on her personal life. But she is the owner of that secret tavern. The Blushing Flail,” Toby said.
“That place in the warehouse district where all those creepy men go into? That lady is a magic user?” I asked skeptically.
“Think about it, Tess. It makes sense. All those creepy men might be adventurers. They might be buying potions to help them on their travels,” Toby confidently explained.
I still wasn’t sure, but Toby seemed certain enough for the both of us.
“Fine, let’s try it. We’re kids, right? She probably wouldn’t do anything too bad if she catches us,” I concluded.
“That’s the spirit!” Toby said, reading far more excitement from me than I was putting out. “We’re gonna get some magic! Then we’ll be able to figure a way out of the Slums!”
We spent the rest of the daylight hours putting together our plan. Once the sun set we were going to head over to the warehouse district near the docks. Mom would just be heading into her third job by then, so we had plenty of time to finish our plan without her knowing we were out after dark. Basically everyone that lived in the Slums knew that the entrance to the Blushing Flail is an unassuming door positioned between two warehouses. They knew there was some sort of trick to get in, but there was no point trying to figure it out. There’s no way that whoever was working the door would let two random kids inside. They’d have to find some other way. Their best guess was that if they snuck into one of the adjacent warehouses, they might be able to find some way inside the tavern.
About one hour after sunset, we found a hiding spot among a series of barrels placed along the edge of the dock, immediately across from the warehouse we needed to get into. We took turns watching the door until there was a change we could take advantage of. The smell of salt coated the air as the dusk light gave way to night. I laid down on the wooden planks that composed the dock during Toby’s watch and began staring at the stars and picking out any constellations I could remember. Our grandma used to tell us about the different gods and where we could find them in the sky. Once I’d located the circle of stars that makes the magnifying glass of Jane the Goddess Of Science, I felt Toby’s foot nudge me.
I sat up and started watching the entrance with him. A small figure, maybe a halfling or a gnome, was standing at the door, appearing to lock it before they left. Toby turned towards me and I met his eyes. He pointed in the direction of the figure and nodded at me. I knew exactly what play he was thinking about. I nodded agreement and started stepping around the barrels. As the figure began walking away from the warehouse, I started running in their direction.
“You can’t catch me brother! You’ve always ran slower than me!” I yelled in Toby’s direction, laughing like we had been playing for hours. I barreled past the figure and kept running further down the dock. I couldn’t stop because it would mess up the play. Once I’d made it out of sight, which didn’t take too long in the dark of night, I hid beside the doorway of the warehouse so I could watch Toby work.
Toby slammed into the figure, both of them falling flat on their backs. The figure’s cloak tumbled off, revealing a pretty halfling woman that admittedly looked a little hardier than usual from a lifetime of working on the docks. Toby was the first to his feet and picked up the woman’s cloak for her.
“I’m sorry lady. My sister gets so excited, she forgets to watch out for people. I didn’t mean to run into you,” Toby apologized. One hand slid into his pocket, while the other reached her cloak back to her. “I think this is yours.”
“Little boy, what are you and your sister doing in this part of town so late. This is a dangerous place for two children,” she said, accepting her cloak from Toby and tying it a bit more securely than she had previously.
“We live here lady,” Toby replied. “The docks are like our playground.”
“You poor thing,” she started. “Do the two of you need anything. I’m sure I have a copper piece to spare if you need it.”
“No, we’re fine. Thanks lady!” Toby said, running away from her. The halfling woman shrugged her shoulders and continued walking down the dock, back towards the Slums.
I ran to meet Toby as he approached the warehouse.
“Did you get it?” I asked. He held up a small silver key, a broad smile spread across his face.
“In her front cloak pocket. That was almost too easy,” he boasted.
“I’ll take it,” I said. “That may be the only easy part of this.”
We walked up to the door and Toby inserted the key and the door swung open. We saw a large warehouse with crates stacked in almost every inch of the wooden complex. We quickly scurried inside and shut the door behind us.
“So we know the Blushing Flail is on that side of the building,” Toby said, pointing, “so how do you think we should start.”
“We’ve just got to start looking for weak points in the wall. They’re probably connected since the buildings are so close together.
We both climbed on top of different crates pushed up against the wall and started looking for anything useful: a rotten board, a loose nail, maybe a corner that some termites had taken up residence. It was dark in this warehouse, the only light was from the moon shining through the windows. The only sounds we could hear were our own footsteps along the crates. It was still too early for the tavern to be busy enough to hear anything through the walls. Finally, I’d found something.
“Toby, come over here,” I whisper yelled.
“A door? Way up here in the middle of the wall? That definitely seems strange. It’s got to go to the tavern right?” He said, verbalizing every thought I’d just had.
“You think it’s locked? Or trapped?” I questioned.
“Maybe? But maybe not. It’s not exactly obvious. You only found it because you were looking all along the wall. The typical warehouse worker wouldn’t even notice this,” Toby concluded.
I nodded and walked up to the door. I placed my hand on the doorknob and turned, cringing a bit, just in case there was a trap about to explode in my face. To my pleasant surprise, the door pulled open without a loud bang. I crouched down and crept into the hallway ahead. I scanned the hallway to get my bearings. The hallway seemed to lead into another, longer, hallway. There were two doors on the right side and one door on the left. Toby and I each took a door on the right side of the hallway and pressed our ears against the doors. We both looked nodded to each other, signifying we didn’t hear anything on the other side. With a new level of assurance, we slowly opened the doors. Not only were both of the rooms free of anybody that could complicate our heist, there was. almost nothing at all in them.
To say the rooms were nondescript would be an understatement. Each appeared to be bedrooms, but that is only because the only piece of furniture in each room was a bed. The beds were very plain, with the simplest of metal headboards. I had to wonder why bother with a bed frame. If the rooms are going to be this empty, why not just put the mattress on the floor.
We decided to go through the door Toby had opened and the emptiness of the room only continued. There were no dressers, no bedside tables and no chairs. We thought our apartment was sparse, but it couldn’t compare to this. I crossed to the closet and pulled the clean, grey curtain back. We were surprised by the lack of color in the room, but we were bombarded with the glittering kaleidoscope emanating from the closet. There were shiny dresses in pinks, oranges, whites and basically any other color I could think of. It was like all the liveliness of the Spring Festival were crammed into this small closet. We poked around the closet a little bit, just to make sure there weren’t any potions tucked away. We came out of it with more glitter on our skin than we’d ever seen before in our lives, but nothing magical.
We pulled the curtain closed, walked out of the room and quietly closed the door behind us. We checked the closet in the bedroom I had opened and found the same curious collection of clothing. We left that room behind and checked the door across the hall. Again, a plain bedroom with a closet full of colorful clothes. Toby and I always thought the Blushing Flail was a tavern, but maybe there was something more to it. We couldn’t figure out what kind of place this must be, but we continued down the hallway, convinced we couldn’t be too far from the magical potions.
We saw a stairway leading upstairs and it made sense to us that the owner would stay in the highest room. We climbed the stairs and opened the door at the top. We walked into what could only be described as part bedroom and part laboratory. It was a fully furnished bedroom, a welcome change, and on every surface was some sort of lab equipment. There was a variety of smells filling the air, not entirely unpleasant, but the sheer variety of fragrances assaulted the nose. There were glass containers and tubes running across the room filled with different liquids. Some liquids were brightly colored, some were bubbling and all of them were things that Toby and I had never seen before. We had found the potions.
Toby closed the door behind us and turned to me with an ecstatic smile on his face.
“Tess! We found them! We’re going to have real magic!” Toby exclaimed.
“Where do you think she keeps her finished potions?” I asked.
“Maybe in a dresser drawer? Or there could be a back room. I’ll check out the drawers, you look around for a back room,” Toby said.
“Right,” I agreed. I began walking along the way, looking for an entrance. I didn’t have to look hard, there was a doorway next to the dresser. I pulled back the curtain and was greeted with a wall full of potions. I couldn’t believe we’d found it. I wasted no time and grabbed three of the easiest bottles to stash away. I put one in my front pants pocket and I shoved two in my inner jacket pockets. As I went back into the room to tell Toby what I’d found and I knew we’d been caught.
We were no longer alone in the room. There was a halfling woman with long red hair standing in the doorway. She was dressed rather plainly, but for such a small woman, she carried an air of authority. There was also a goblin standing behind Toby, who was digging through chest drawers, unaware we’d been made. The halfling woman caught my eyes and held up one hand, commanding me to stay where I was. I obeyed. Something in her eyes told me not to cross her. The goblin reached his hands around Toby’s thin waist and jerked him around to face the woman.
“Well, well, well. Looks like we have two guests. Little young to be in a place like this, aren’t you?” the halfling woman chided.
“Please ma’am,” Toby began. The woman held up her hand again, cutting him off.
“I believe I was talking,” she said. “This is my private residence. No one is permitted here. Not my girls, not my customers, not even most of my friends. What makes you think the two of you can just stroll in here and help yourselves to my things?”
“We’re so sorry, we didn’t mean . . . “ Toby started, but the woman interrupted again.
“That was rhetorical, child. I know you’re here to steal from me. My only question is why. What do you know about me?” The woman asked.
Toby and I locked eyes, but neither of us knew if we were supposed to say anything.
“What’s wrong? Can’t talk now?” The woman snapped at Toby.
“Right, right. I’m so sorry, I just wanted to make sure I was respecting my elders,” Toby said. The woman guffawed.
“We’ve lived in the Slums for as long as we can remember,” I said. “We were playing in the warehouse next door and we stumbled onto the door on top of that crate. We didn’t even know there was anything here, honest. We were just exploring.”
Toby looked at me with wide eyes. He was clearly impressed with the lie that I’d come up with on the spot.
“I happen to know that the warehouse next door is always under guard or locked. How could the two of you have stumbled into there?” the woman asked.
“The key was left in the door. I have it here, if you want it,” Toby said.
“Aiden, check his pockets,” the woman said.
The goblin, Aiden, kept on hand on Toby at all times, but used his free hand to check his pockets. We were lucky that Toby was always our talker. He never carried any of our tools. Aiden held up the stolen key we’d used to get into the warehouse.
“Damn it all, Min,” the halfling woman said, “I keep telling that girl to make a list to make sure she doesn’t forget things.”
I felt the tension in my shoulders begin to ease. She was starting to believe our story.
“Fine, just give me back anything you took. Aiden will escort you out the front,” the woman said.
I walked towards the woman and handed her the potion I’d put in my front pocket. It was a sickly green color with the occasional bubble popping up.
“Oh goodness,” the woman said, startled. She ran up and snatched the potion from my hand. “Girl, thank the gods you handed that over. The slightest jostle could have made it blow!”
Her tone told me she was telling the truth, but something about her face told me she was trying to bluff me. She wanted to scare me into handing over anything I may have stashed away. I had to trust my instincts if we wanted to get out of here with anything.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I’m so grateful you saved our lives. May I ask the name of my savior?” I asked. I was a little worried I was laying it on too thick.
“Tone it down a little girl, we’re fine. But sure, why not. My name is Lisel Fawn, the proud proprietor of the Blushing Flail. Perhaps I could get the names of my visitors?” She asked.
“My name is Tess,” I said.
“I’m Toby. We’re twins,” Toby said.
“Always happy to meet a pair of capable twins. Aiden, lead them out,” she commanded.
“Pleasure to meet you, Ms. Fawn,” I waved goodbye.
“Be careful with those potions,” Lisel yelled as we were leaving. “The blue one makes you fast, the yellow one makes you stronger, but they’re balanced for adults. Could kill either of you. You might be able to sell them, or they’ll last until you grow up. Maybe save them for a rainy day.”
I turned back and saw her smiling back at us. I couldn’t believe I didn’t get them past her.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Fawn,” I started.
“Don’t worry about it. I was young once and I had a friend that has stolen more than her fair share of things in pursuit of a better life. I’m not going to judge you,” Lisel said. “I just hope to see the two of you again. Not too soon though. Maybe when you’re older.”
“Yes Ma’am,” Toby responded. “You can count on it.”
“Take your time, child. Be a kid for a little while longer,” she said.
“We’ll try,” I said.
“That’s all I’m asking for,” Lisel said.
Aiden walked us through a busted up tavern and led us through the broken table to the front door.
“Be good,” Aiden said.
“No promises,” Toby responded.
“I wouldn’t have believed you anyway,” Aiden said.
We walked away and we each took a potion. I took the yellow one and Toby took the red one. We promised we’d only use them if we absolutely needed to. I hoped we would never need to, but I knew that living lives like ours, it was inevitable.
These stories serve as inspiration for the upcoming short story collection, Tyranny of the Fey. The collection will be released in Fall 2023. You can get a $1 preview now!