Note: This short story appeared in the July 2004 Everquest newsletter.
Tiim watched the shoppers of the Freeport market as he always did on Saturday mornings. The exotic scents of a hundred different spices filled his nostrils. Dozens of the market's shoppers milled about the stalls, some from the soft and fat noble class, others rough and lean adventurers.
Tiim watched the purses of these shoppers carefully. A coin or two from time to time might fall through careless fingers and Tiim must grab them if he wished to eat. If he became desperate enough he would have to cut the purse strings himself. To be caught in such an act meant losing his hands. A boy like Tiim needed his hands if he didn't want to starve.
Tiim's eyes shifted to the pair of armored guards who scanned the people strolling by. Those near the guards kept their heads down and eyes forward. The tall guards, armored in steel breastplates, greaves, and bucket helms, kept their eyes out for people like Tiim.
Most people have an ability to sense when they are being watched. When they feel eyes on them, even from behind, a person will turn and look without even knowing what they are looking for. A boy in Tiim's line of work, the work of thievery, knew this sense well. Tiim never looked directly at the guards or any other person.
Tiim had further honed this sense. He didn't only know when he was being watched but when others were being watched as well. Someone else was watching the guards. Someone close. Tiim slowly turned and saw a figure studying the guards.
The man was tall. A gray cloak and hood covered his face. Tiim saw the man's scruffy chin in the light of the morning sun. Two pinpoints of light reflected off of the man's eyes from within the shadow of the man's hood. Tiim made out the dull gleam of a mail shirt under the stranger's cloak. The man wore tall soft leather brown boots heavily seamed and coated in the dust of the road.
The man turned his head towards Tiim and the young thief's heart jumped. He had been carefully taking note of the stranger from the corner of his eye but the stranger had felt his gaze anyway. Tiim yawned, his natural protective response in moments of high stress. He looked down and dragged the toe of his tattered cloth sandal in the dirt. The ruse of relaxation seemed to work. The hooded stranger looked away and back to the guards.
A scuffle at one of the merchant tents took the guards' attention and the cloaked man moved quickly. The stranger headed to an alley, attempting to escape from the marketplace. He might have made it if two other guards hadn't come out of the very alley the stranger hoped to escape to. It was pure bad luck.
One of the guards recognized the cloaked man and shouted. The other reached out to grab the stranger by the front of his cloak. There was a flash of movement and instantly the guard was on the ground holding his deformed broken wrist to his chest.
The other guard began to draw his sword but the stranger drew his own shining silver shortsword and cut out to the side with speed far beyond the clumsy guard. Tiim saw a ribbon of blood in the air and the second guard crumpled to the ground.
Tiim always trusted his instincts even if they made no logical sense. His instincts had kept him alive for thirteen years and today they would change his life forever. Tiim felt this instinct like a needle stuck into his spine and began to move.
The two other guards raced towards the stranger just as the second of the two guards from the alley fell. They shoved and punched their way through the crowd and hit the cloaked man hard. The stranger ducked into a ball and hit the first rushing soldier at the knee. Tiim heard the snap of the guard's dislocated knee and saw him somersault onto his back howling in pain. The second guard clipped the cloaked man in the jaw with an iron-gauntleted fist. That is when Tiim arrived.
Tiim's rusty dagger served him well over his years on the street. It was a part of him and it was no surprise that he found it in his hand even though he had no memory of drawing it. Without slowing down, Tiim's hand slashed out. A leather pouch fell from the cloaked man's belt and into Tiim's waiting hand. Tiim disappeared into the crowd. He had just a moment to see the stranger drop to both knees and hamstring the fourth guard with his gleaming shortsword.
Tiim ran for an hour using every secret passage and hidden alley he knew. He darted into sub-basements and alcoves. He ran under the docks past the unseeing gazes of Freeport's street dregs. Finally after running down his favorite darkened alley, Tiim stopped.
There the cloaked man waited for him.
The man had thrown back his hood and Tiim saw his red hair pulled back over his pointed ears. The stranger, a half elf if Tiim had to guess, had his hands comfortably on his hips. The shortsword, hilted in shining gold and jewels, sat on his left hip.
"I've never seen hands as fast as yours." The man's voice was even and smooth. A thousand lies came to Tiim's lips but Tiim saw in the half-elf's blazing green eyes that no lie would take. He knew of only one way to survive this confrontation. He held out the leather pouch.
"I never saw you coming and I see everything," said the half-elf plucking the pouch from Tiim's hand. "I have need of someone like you."
The man smiled so warmly that Tiim's guard immediately fell. In his whole life no one had ever smiled to Tiim with such kindness and warmth. If he had not been an orphan he might have recognized the smile as one given to a child from a pleased parent.
"How would you like to join the Antonican Bards?"