A Choice by Anthony Freeman
by Anthony Freeman
A thin silhouette of a young child crouched beneath an ancient wagon, her scraggly form wrapped in comforting shadows from prying eyes and the docks’ blazing midday sun. She remained still, barely breathing and terrified of discovery, but the rumbling of her belly painfully reminded her of its emptiness. From across the street drifted the tantalizing scents of one of the pier’s food vendors, a lovely little place that sold simple smoked fish wrapped in sea-weed and owned by a dopey lump of a man who loved cheating foreigners out of their hard earned coin.
Just as her legs were beginning to give out from strain, the opportunity she had desperately been waiting for arrived: one customer, a young merchant’s son paying exorbitant amounts for a simple meal, stumbled on uneven cobble stone and dropped his seaweed wrapped meal.
She sprinted from her hiding spot and closed in on her target while most were just began to react, the wind rushing through her red hair. Her eyes widened when she saw that the merchant had dropped both his meal and his coin-purse, revealing silver and even gold coins. With just one silver coin, she could eat for a week. With a gold coin, the possibilities were endless.
Fear quickened her blood as she saw people gathering and pointing at her rough, patchwork clothes, unkempt appearance, and put two and two together. She spared a glance down, and saw fury building up in the young merchant’s face. She made a split second decision before he could raise the alarm, grabbed her target and sprinted into the crowded pier, fading easily into the crowd.
She made a beeline for a nearby alley but let out a muffled scream as a set of hands grabbed her from behind, one covering her mouth while the grasped her ragged shirt and dragged her back into a street side shop. She squirmed and struggled desperately, and even bit down hard enough to draw blood, flooding her taste with the a coppery tang which prompted heard a pained wince from her captor. She would have happily continued biting until she ripped a chunk of flesh off of her captor’s hand if it meant escaping but her captor-a woman?- spoke up for the first time, momentarily surprising her at the soft, comforting tone.
“Shhhhh, little ember. I meant you no harm.” She frowned at her captor’s statement, but her eyes widened in shock as two guards came running out of the alley and cursed at not finding their expected quarry before splitting up to widen the search. Town guards were rarely nice to thieves or people they thought to be thieves, no matter the level of theft actually involved. To a girl… well, some didn’t care about age in the slightest if it meant slaking their lust.
Confused, thought and emotion racing-What’s going On?/What’s she planning?/Why help me?-, Elena barely noticed her captor’s grip lessening until she was spun around and graced with the prettiest woman she had ever seen (which, admittedly, did not amount to much considering the very limited pool for comparison she had). Her skin was tanned from long days on the road, and her body lithe. She wore a light, violet dress that ended just above her knees; clearly practical, but with just a touch of whimsical fancy of some of the higher classes. Her hair hung to her shoulders, a beautiful ebony, and her lips, a pure pink except for a single stripe of dark purple lipstick on her lower middle lip, were curved in the barest hint of a smirk.
“I know you must have some questions, but maybe if you could wait here a moment while I finish some business inside, we could chat?” Elena realized, after a moment of wonder and envy at the woman’s beauty-If I looked like that I wouldn’t get beaten for begging-with a start the woman wasn’t looking directly at her and that she was, in fact, blind, her eyes clouded over and milky gray.
Elena hesitantly nodded, and then awkwardly waited a moment before she realized the woman couldn’t see her. Embarrassed and blushing a light shade of pink, she summoned up the courage to speak.“Okay.”
The woman smiled brightly in response, her face blossoming with warmth. “Thank you. I’ll be back in a little while.” Smiling, she stepped back and went further into the store.
Elena didn’t waste any time: she bolted, running back onto the street and heading for a more familiar section of the city in the Temple District. She didn’t know who the woman was, what her goals were, or even her name. For all she knew, the woman was a slaver seeking new stock and taking advantage of the situation. Children were worth quite a bit of coin, if sold to the right investors after all.
Panting, Elena finally came to a stop in a nameless back street behind a seedy tavern whose owner occasionally took pity on her and let her work washing dishes for a night. Looking up and down the muddy paths and; seeing no activity, she raised the meal to her nose and deeply inhaled.
The scent hit her in a wave of ecstasy. Smoked fish, slow bathed in a sea-salt brine for hours before being smoked over hickory wood-it was better than she could have hoped. For the past six days, she had had nothing to eat except for a thin, watery soup offered at the local temple of Athame to beggars. And now, she had nearly a pound of smoked fish.
With trembling hands and a rumbling belly, she rapidly unwrapped the wax paper binding the fish, but was interrupted when a loud cough reverberated down the path. Quickly, she hid the fish a pocket of her tattered skirt. She looked up and saw two of the last people she ever wanted to see. Becky, a tall, pretty brunette and aspiring member of the city’s local crime family the Thenari, and, as far as Elena was concerned, a complete and utter bitch. Flanking her on her left was her tall, red headed, and utterly devoted boyfriend, Alex. A quick glance behind her for an escape route confirmed, to her despair, that the she had inadvertently backed herself into a corner and they had already blocked off the alley’s one exit. She would have tired running, but Alex had proven himself faster than her at every meeting, and, besides, it always ended worse for her when she resisted. Resigned, she took deep breaths, calmed herself, and faced the duo and tried to stand her ground even as her heartbeat raced faster and faster.
Licking her lips like a predator cornering prey, Becky closed in until she was less than five feet from Elena. “ Elsie! I heard you stole something back on the Docks. Is this true?” Elena simply glared, silently infuriated at hearing Becky’s nickname for her. Becky continued, not caring in the slightest. “Whatever it is you took, that merchant sure is throwing a fit about it. I wonder what it could’ve been?” By now, the trio had backed Elena into a wall,
“Why can’t you ever leave me alone?” Elena half growled, half pleaded.
Becky took a step a single forward. “Silver, perhaps?” a step forward. “Gold?” another step. “Jewelry?” she whispered as their faces practically met, her overpowering perfume made Elena want to gag. “Or maybe, just maybe, an enchanted item?” Elena did her best to remain stoically silent, although her eyes were desperately looking for an avenue of escape.
“You know how this works, right?” Becky smiled. “Just cough up whatever you stole, I leave, everyone’s happy.” Becky finished with a false, sickening warmth saturating her tone
This, Elena decided as her heart raced, was bad. If they thought she had something valuable, she knew from prior experience they wouldn’t stop no matter how much she screamed. In a desperate attempt to get Becky to back off, Elena centered herself, summoning all of her strength to calmly declare, “I didn’t steal anything like that.” All the while, she tensed and prepared to run
Becky laughed. “You dirty little liar.” Chuckling, she pointed to Elena. “Alex, hold her.”
Before Becky could react, Elena dived past Becky and to the possibility of escape. She feinted to Alex’s left, but he merely smirked. He followed along and prepared to grab her according to her false lead, but tripped her at the last second as she dashed by. Before Elena could recover, Alex grabbed both of her arms and held her in place with an iron grip. With a nod from Alex, Becky patted her down and found the package in seconds.
Becky, eyes gleaming, smiled and ripped open the package. Her expression changed from one of mindless greed, to puzzlement, to outright anger in a span of two seconds. Hands clenched, she glared at Elena. “Are you kidding me? I came all the way down here for a piece of lousy fish?” Looking closer, she carefully sniffed and her outrage was reborn. “This, this isn’t even that good!” Infuriated, she threw the fish into a dirty puddle, and proceeded to stomp it into the ground
Alex reached out to touch her shoulder with questioning look, but Becky slapped his hand away. “Come on! We’ve got better things to do than deal with this waste of space.” With that, she pushed past her boyfriend. Alex shrugged and gave Elena an almost apologetic look, before he unceremoniously dropped her into the same puddle as the fish but Elena didn’t really notice. Uncomprehending, she reached out for the stomped fish and picked up a few pieces, staring at the ruined meal. Something in her broke. Enraged, no longer caring about her own well-being, she picked up the nearest fist sized rock and hurled it with all her might at the back of Becky’s head.
The rock sailed through the air in a beautiful arc, arriving right on target and impacting the back of Becky’s head with a sharp thwack. Becky gave a sharp cry and fell to the ground. Elena stood, locked in place, staring at her outstretched arm, shocked at what she had done.
Becky staggered to her feet with the help of Alex. Slowly, she probed the wound. She brought her hand in-front of her eyes and stared, transfixed, at her own blood. Becky then looked at Elena, eyes dull before they suddenly contracted and she howled in rage
She charged forward and kneed Elena in the stomach. Elena doubled over in pain; the breath flushed from her lungs. Becky grabbed her and threw her into the wall. She then grabbed the back of Elena’s greasy hair and slammed her face into the brick wall, crushing her nose and loosening several teeth. Elena collapsed to the ground in a heaving mess and desperately tried to breathe. She tried to get up, but Becky kicked her, forcing her diaphragm to constrict even further. Rolling onto her back, Becky’s foot slammed into her ribs, causing a series of sickening cracks and white hot pain to erupt in her side as she screamed. Becky continued kicking and stomping her, and Elena went limp in a red hot haze of agony.
At first, she was only aware of a gentle, pulsing strangely reminiscent of what she knew to be her own heart, but it felt, different, deeper somehow, and it was slowly growing louder. The second thing she became aware of was pain. However, slowly, bit by bit, she finally recognized that she was no longer being beaten, but the pain made this a hollow victory at best-her entire body was a mass of bruises and cracked or broken bones. She slowly pushed herself up against a wall, and saw that Becky and Alex were staring down the alley. Standing at the mouth of the Alley, to Elena’s confusion, was the woman in a violet dress from earlier.
Becky, panting called out to the newcomer in a moderately respectful tone, clearly aware of the woman’s higher social status if the color of her dress was anything to go by, and possible repercussions for speaking back against a noble. “Sorry, my lady. Just taking care of some trash here. No need to dirty your pretty little hands.”
The woman smiled, but it clearly lacked any warmth, and her blank eyes narrowed, if ever so slightly. “Why, I do believe it is my business. After all, I just can’t stand to see children fight or get hurt. I really must help.”
“No, really, there’s no need.” Becky’s respectful tone faltered for a moment, but she quickly recovered. “We were just finishing up.” She finished with a meaningful look towards Alex.
The woman shook her head ruefully as she stepped forward. “My dear, I don’t believe I said I was giving you an option.”
Becky’s facade finally broke and growled out an order. “Alex, tie her down while I finish this little runt.” Alex nodded.
Alex rushed the noble, demonstrating superb speed as he closed in and withdrew a knife and a length of rope he kept just for such occasions. He faltered and was left gaping when the woman simply disappeared-no signs or after-images, no flashing lights, simply gone.
Elena gasped and nearly fell back into the puddle as the woman reappeared next to her, but managed to bite back any more noise, lest she attract the others’ attention. The woman quickly and delicately probed at her injuries. Elena struggled weakly, out of instinct more than anything else as most of her higher faculties weren’t exactly functioning, but stopped when the woman hit her with another caring, shockingly genuine smile that carried a hint of sorrow and raised a finger to her lips.
Of course, before too much longer, Becky and Alex noticed where she had gone and whirled to face her, alarm and horror present on each of their faces as their blood and limbs froze. Society as a general rule greatly valued magic and all of its wonders but most adults knew to fear the other-touched practitioners and the havoc they wrought, especially if they were without one of the age old handlers of the Iron Order.
The woman tsked as she finished her examination of Elena, and slowly stood back up to glare in the general direction of the trio, entirely unaware or uncaring of the mud and splotches of blood now dirtying her pretty dress. “Did you know that I hate hurting children, and utterly despise those that would?” She said, emphasizing every word. “If you three were anything but children yourselves, I would have felt the need teach you a lesson. As it is, I’ll let you off with a warning.” She finished, smiling like death.
‘Wait… What were you going to do?” Alex asked, responding before Becky as he processed the implications far faster than she could
She chuckled, but it was dry, lacking humor, and deadly serious. “Me?” She asked, sounding “innocent”. “My dear, it is not me you would have had to worry about.”
Becky looked blankly at her, trying to process what she had said, but, once again, Alex was the first to respond, a look of utter horror dawned on his face as he looked to Elena. He grabbed Becky’s hand and dragged her out of the alley before she could process what has just happened.
The woman sighed and turned back to Elena. Elena fought to keep her eyes open, uncertainty plaguing her mind, but the woman shook her head. “Sleep well, little ember. You deserve it.” Something in the woman’s words, the content, the warmth, the care, soothed Elena and, despite her earlier suspicions about the woman, she felt… safe. Soon, even her pain faded away, and she happily embraced the soothing darkness of sleep.
Heavenly scents tantalized Elena’s dreams, and images of fresh baked pastries, strawberry jams, fresh grilled salmon cooked flooded her mind and, eventually pulled from the blissful depths. Blearily, she rubbed the sleep out of her eyes blinked rapidly as the room came into view. She couldn’t help but gape when her surroundings came into focus. That’s it. I died went to the heavenly throne.
To start off with, the bed, pillow, and blankets and even the gown that she currently wore enveloped in were absolutely the softest things she had ever had the pleasure of feeling; far better than coarse moth eaten blanket and wooden bunk behind an inn if she was lucky. The room itself was lavishly furnished like what she thought only the richest nobles could afford. Finally, and what truly mattered to her most, was the assorted tray of delectable pastries, berry tarts, toast, strawberry jam, porridge, chicken soup, and even sides of egg topped with a large jug of orange juice and sizzling sausage sitting on a table on the far side of the room, right in front of a set of double windows.
Mouthwatering, she tried to push the white fur covers off and get to the breakfast but paused as she noticed two things: her right arm was stiff, immobile, and bound in a cast, and, secondly, that something was wrong with her left eye. She instinctively tried to raise her right hand, but winced before switching with her left hand and touched the left side of her face, alarm growing as she discovered bandages around her eye. With all of her startling realizations, she, of course, could only come to one conclusion.
I don’t think this is heaven…It’s good enough for me.
With this final thought, she disregarded her own state. She struggled to her feet and carefully made her way towards the breakfast tray. She held her caste, and winced as her bruises and injuries flared up, but the possibility of the best breakfast of her damn life was too tantalizing to pass up. The first pastry, despite the exquisite strawberry cream filling that a baker spent hours of the early morning working on, vanished, devoured in seconds. She started grabbing things left and right, careless of the possible mess and completely ignoring the finely decorated plates and silverware in favor of the much faster and messier use of her own hand. Before long, her appetite started to die down, but there were casualties: her gown was ruined and face filthy, but she didn’t care. Her belly was full for the first time in as long as she could remember, and now she was feeling very sleepy. She turned around with thoughts of bed and nearly jumped out of her own skin when she saw that the woman from earlier.
“Satisfied?” She asked with a broad smile. At this, Elena could only nod, moderately embarrassed to both be caught completely unawares and be extraordinarily messy, keenly aware of the difference in their states. “Please, take a seat. I believe introductions are in order, yes?” She gestured towards a nearby chair by the table with the destroyed food tray and Elena hesitated a moment before sinking into it, letting out a sigh of contentment despite herself as the woman took a seat on the bed.
“This is far overdo, but my name is Isabelle of the Silver Wind. No last name, I’m afraid just a title. How about yours?”
Elena took a deep breath and sighed before she decided she had absolutely no reason not to trust this woman at this point. “My name’s Elena. I don’t know my last name.” The woman nodded, apparently understanding and, in all honesty, it wasn’t too hard to figure out that Elena was an orphan- few children her age were quite so destitute or poor, even in the worst regions. Before the woman could respond, Elena continued on. “Was… Was that really magic earlier? I can’t remember and my mind’s all fuzzy.”
Isabelle laughed, but nodded. “If you can call it that, although I suppose it technically counts.”
Elena nodded weakly, unsure how to process the free admission, but, already, another question was stirring in her heart and mind. “Ms. Isabelle… thank you for saving me, but, why?” Elena couldn’t help it as tears started beading in her eyes. Few people had ever bothered to try and help her, and most wanted something out of it. So far, Isabelle had taken nothing from her-in fact, given the lavish accommodations and carefully attended bandages, she must have given more than Elena could ever hope to repay.
Isabelle shook her head. “It saddens me that you have to ask. Shouldn’t everyone help a child in need?” Elena didn’t know how to react. The view point was just so alien that it bordered on incomprehensible. In the end, she could only sit and stare, uncomprehending
Elena was shocked when Isabelle stood up and envelop her in a wonderfully warm hug. “But, I want you to know, I’m here now, and I want to help.” Isabelle said, the warmth of her embrace and message undeniable. Elena couldn’t help it: she broke down into full on sobbing as Isabelle hugged her and gently caressed her crimson hair. Sometime later, her sobs, faded to mere sniffles, and she was shocked to notice that much of the early morning light had already faded, replaced by the midday sun. She looked up at Isabelle, and was surprised to see the contented smile, looking as if she could happily continue this for hours.
“I… I think I’m okay now, Ms. Isabelle.”
Isabelle seemed surprised for a moment and even flustered, but gently smiled before detangling herself. She paused to stretch, relieving stressed muscles.. “I hope that helped, but, sadly, I think we need to talk about something.” Elena slowly nodded. She didn’t know what Isabelle could possibly want with her, but Isabelle didn’t seem like someone who would just abandon her back on the streets,
Isabelle paused to collect herself, and carefully chose her next few words. “Elena, do you know what magic is?” Elena nodded; everyone knew-it was stuff not normally possible. Isabella nodded. “A few days ago, I sensed an emergent spark-the beginning of a new weilder- in the docks. Do you know who it was?” Elena stared, baffled. “It was you.”
Elena was understandably slow to respond. “I… I could do magic? Like the heroes in old stories?” This… this was too much. This just didn’t happen to people like her.
Isabelle smiled indulgently. “Yes, like the heroes in stories. You’re… spark, it’s waking up. With it comes… powers, far more than you could ever imagine. With proper guidance, it’s an amazing, beautiful thing, but…” Isabelle trailed off, contemplating her choice of words. “But, it’s… dangerous on its own. I could help you, but, now listen, there’d be no turning back.
Elena was enraptured at first, but latched onto the “dangerous” part. “How dangerous?”
Isabelle’s lips curved upward, ever so slightly. “Perceptive one, aren’t you?” Her smirk faded rapidly, turning serious in an instant. “I’ll tell you the truth-it could kill you. That’s why I’m giving you a choice. I can take you as an apprentice.” She paused and grimaced, as if tasting something unpleasant. “I… may know of a way to smother that little ember inside you and stop any danger,” she said with a mild tremble, hands unconsciously clenching. “You could live a normal life, but it would be permanent.”
A veritable swarm of questions tried to escape her, but she chose the most relevant. She looked to Isabelle and softly asked question, surprising Isabelle. “Is it worth it?”
Isabelle stopped, taken aback at the question before she smirked. She closed her eyes in concentration for a long moment before gently opening them, her milky gray eyes gazing fixed on Elena’s own. “Yes.” She said softly. “I think it is-the things I’ve experienced, the beauty I’ve felt, the good I’ve done- I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Elena nodded before Isabelle continued. ‘Smothering the ember would save you from any danger regarding magic. I think I could help you, even then, if you’re interested.” Elena nodded absently, a little shocked at the influx of information, but froze as Isabelle continued.“ I know of a lovely little family out in the country on a nice farm who would love to have a rambunctious girl like you around. I know them-they’d welcome you like a long lost daughter. They’ve got several children of their own who’d love another playmate- three daughters and two sons, if I remember right. They’d give you a warm bed, three meals a day, and all the love you could handle. You might even get a pony.”
Isabelle sighed before looking at an overwhelmed Elena sadly. “I know this is a lot to take in, but I need you to make a decision.”
Elena’s cradled her head in her good hand. Her mind felt like it was going to shatter. This was too much. One minute, she had barely been getting by on the streets with no way out of her miserable life, and now this her savior was offering her two choices which could take her away from her torment. She’d dreamed of something like this happening, but never expected it to. After all, that only happened in the fantasy stories she heard bards sing at nights sometimes.
The chance of living a normal life with a loving family tugged at her heart. The thought of a mother to sing her to sleep, to comb her hair and comfort her; a father to protect her; a big brother to tease and make fun of, and a sister to share rumors with and talk with not so much tugged as ripped her heart. But, the other life Isabelle offered promised endless potential- things she’d never even hoped or dreamed to see, endless beauty, the possibility of living like a hero of old, and the tantalizing temptation of getting something utterly unique. Furthermore, Isabelle was the first person she had ever met who actively sought to help others, who treated her like a real, living, breathing human being rather than another street rat better forgotten. Elena did not know much, but Isabelle seemed like one of few people who actively seemed to be trying to make the world a better place.
The two offers warred in her heart savagely, and the thoughts of a family were slowly tipping the scale, but then she remembered the beauty and mystery Isabelle had showed her, her compassion and warmth, and foremost above it all, how she had defended her even when no one else would have bothered. The balance in her mind, which had been tipped towards the happy thoughts of a family, was suddenly equaled with the prospect of the endless possibilities of the life Isabelle offered.
Isabelle waited patiently for an answer as Elena endlessly warred with herself, emotions, thoughts, possibilities, and scenarios in conflict with themselves, one another, and everything else before, suddenly, the answer was clear. Isabelle perked up when she noticed Elena’s epiphany, and leaned forward eagerly as Elena, tearing up, chose the course of her life and destiny.
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Anthony Freeman 2015