The city basks in the glow of sunset. Merchants lock up and retreat to their wagons for dinner. Mothers herd children indoors. The tent roofs of fruit stalls and trinket shops radiate a brilliant, fiery orange.
“The castle looks dark tonight,” says Kren. He protects his eyes from the sun with one hand and peers up at a castle turret. It is a great white pillar of light. “I’d best be off.”
Calean’s eyes widen, as if he can’t tell whether to be blessed by his good fortune, or cursed by the loss of a companion.
“You were right about that horse,” Calean says to the old man. He is rewarded with a wide smile but has no inkling of it. “She’ll get me as far as I need to go.”
“And where is that, dare I ask?”
“The end of the world.”
Kren watches the boy’s expression for some hint as to his meaning. Calean’s face offers nothing.
“And all you’re taking is two sausages?”
Slowly, Calean turns his head so their eyes meet. The boy’s stare is long, empty, and hollow. Then a very small smile flits to his lips.
“Two sausages and an apple,” he says. Instinctively Kren returns the smile.
“Can I ask why you are riding to the end of the world? That’s a place for dreamers and mad men.”
Though the boy’s blind eyes do not peer out at the world the way seeing eyes do, Kren sees a shadow flicker behind them.
“I’ve searched everywhere else.”
He sure asks a lot of questions for a simple old peddler.
When that familiar voice speaks, Calean turns to stone. Kren frowns and studies the face of the young boy.
Don’t you think?
“Are you all right?” asks the old man.
“I’m fine,” the boy replies, voice hoarse. “I have to go.” Without another word, Calean turns towards the sun and runs.
“Boy!” shouts the old man. “You never told me your name!”
By the time his feet bring him to a stop, Calean’s breath comes thick and ragged. The voice inside him has quieted, but he still feels a shadow tearing at his heels.
It is dark and Calean’s stomach clenches. Afraid of what his hands might do, he keeps off the main thoroughfare and winds his way through alleys and courtyards. The smell of the city changes here, from the sweaty horses and spices of the marketplace to musty brick and chamber pots emptied out of windows.
High-pitched voices rise from the ground. They sound like tiny children playing in a schoolyard, but the source is a cranny in the brick. Calean stops walking and listens.
“Gimme some of your bread!”
“Hey, hey, that’s mine!”
There is scuffling and squeaking. A rat emerges from the cranny, a chunk of bread wedged in his mouth. He is about to sprint across the alley when he spies Calean staring at him.
“Simon, don’t come out here,” whispers the rat over his shoulder. “There’s a people out here.”
“A people?” The other rat hisses to himself. “Them people’s got cats and stuff.”
“This one don’t have a cat, but it was watching me.”
Calean tip-toes towards the hole in the brick where the two rats seem to have forgotten about the stolen bread.
The boy clears his throat and looks inside. The rats freeze.
“Where did you get the bread?” Calean asks them.
A moment passes before the rodents realize the boy has spoken to them in their own tongue.
“Simon?” says the rat with the hunk of bread in his claw. “Did that people just talk to us?”
“We must be dreaming,” says the other rat, feverishly wiggling his scraggly whiskers. “What a crazy dream.”
“Simon, I’m scared.”
Calean can’t help but chuckle. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he says.
“That’s what they all say!” cries the first rat.
The other rat kicks him. “A people has never said anything to us before, idiot.”
The rat called Simon peers out of the cranny. Calean steps back to give him some space. His whiskers twitch as he inhales the boy’s scent.
“You’re not from around here.” His rubs his nose with one front foot. “Not to mention the peoples around here don’t usually talk to rats.”
“You and I aren’t that different,” says Calean. “I’m just looking for some bread and a place to sleep.”
The other rat edges his way into the alley and sniffs at Calean’s feet. His fur is dark gray but clean. He brushes off some dirt with a pink toe.
“Don’t go to Ned’s.” The rat indicates to a wooden door across the street. “The ale’s weak and the chicken’s rotten.”
“Even we don’t eat rotten chicken,” adds Simon. “If you want a fine establishment, the laundrywoman’s husband runs an inn closer to the marketplace. We have an agreement with her.”
“An agreement?” Calean asks.
“She leaves out the food, and we don’t go into her husband’s kitchen,” says the rat.
Thinking a woman who reaches agreements with rats can’t be all that bad, Calean straightens his back and points back down the alleyway. “Is it that way?” he asks.
Simon waves a paw at him in a way that is distinctly human. “No, no,” says the rat. “We’ll take you there.”
The two rats scurry into the alley and keep along the brick wall. Night drips down the sky toward the setting sun, but darkness means nothing to a blind boy. He follows the sound of tiny claws on cobblestone.
Calean has never taken the time to talk with a rat before, but Simon seems pleased to make conversation. He keeps close to the boy’s feet while the other rat leads the way.
“What brings you to the big city?” asks Simon, weaving around a mule’s feet as they cross the thoroughfare. “You converse with vermin, you can’t see with your face, and your feet smell like the other side of the world.”
Calean bites back a smile.
“Likewise. I didn’t know alley rats knew poetry.”
“I was a pet once.” The rat leading the way halts near a hole in the wall. Something creaks overhead. A wooden sign dangles from a rusty signpole, swinging back and forth despite the stillness of the air. “My master was robbed and killed and left in a gutter. I used to deliver messages for him.” The rat looks up. “Here we are,” he says.
Warmth leaks out the windows. Though he can’t see it, Calean can feel the fire simmering on the hearth just inside.
“Thank you, Simon,” says the boy. “Can I return the favor?”
“No,” says the rat. “It was nice to have someone to talk to, even if you are a people.” He stands up on two legs and sniffs the air. “But be careful here. We have seen things under the city that frighten even us. For a people who can hear two rats arguing over bread, you may hear the sounds of worse things living here.”
With that the two rats scurry away, tails licking up in a curly-cue as they disappear into a hole in the cobblestone.
Calean puzzles over Simon’s words just long enough for the smell of mashed potatoes and chicken pot pies to seep under the door of the inn, and the boy makes his way inside.
Feedback is welcome and encouraged.
Read Part V.