To be honest, I hadn’t thought much of the old fellow when he’d walked in.
He just looked like another weary traveller looking for a place to rest and pass the time.
An easy target, maybe, but I wasn’t in the mood. Things got out of hand in the last town over – now things had finally gone quiet again, the last thing on my mind was kicking up a fuss again.
Nobody jumped out as an easy mark. The handful of other people in the room were in deep conversation or huddled in tight little groups. The only real option would be to try and work out if I could quietly hustle some coins out of the group of soldiers playing cards in the corner.
No, I thought. No soldiers. Not after what happened last time. Besides, Dad always taught me to never stand nearer a soldier than you absolutely had to. Suspicious lot, they were, and they didn’t need much of a reason to start poking their noses in and throwing their weight around.
It wasn’t long before my brother came in, doing his bard routine as usual. He always looked ridiculous in that hat, but I think he secretly liked it.
It was a simple enough scam; I’d have a look at a place for opportunities, he’d come in and do a song or two. When he came round for coins I’d let him know if he should take a closer look at anyone on his way round. If he sensed an opportunity to pick a pocket or two, great, if not, he picked out a weakness for me to exploit later. Usually violently.
Then we’d move on to the next town.
Unless, of course, the guards get wind of what’s going on like last time. But that was only once, and we were sloppy.
It won’t happen again. My brother had convinced me to try the scam again here. I’d reluctantly agreed. The problem was that the longer I sat there, the less confident I was we could find an easy mark right under those soldiers’ noses. We should just move on. Lie low a while longer.
By the time he was half-way through his song – some tired old bull about the mages getting wiped out – I still didn’t think anyone was worth bothering with.
Yes, the old guy was still there on his own, but he looked penniless. No, for this to work we’d need a gullible lord we could get blind drunk or something. Someone rich, lonely and stupid to easily get friendly with. Then exploit.
No such luck.
Then I saw it.
Mid-sulk, the old fellow rubbed his fingers together. Barely discernable from this distance, but obvious if you’d seen it before, the tiniest flicker of blue sparks danced across the tiny patch of skin where the fingers met.
He instantly became interesting. Officially, nobody had seen a mage or a wizard or whatever in years, yet rumours persisted of a long-lost treasure. A collection valuable artifacts and gems that were hidden on the night they were slaughtered. Or disappeared, if you believed the bards’ version. Dad always maintained the stories were true.
Dad always maintained the stories about the treasure were true. His main reasoning was that he was there as an apprentice the night they were killed. He hid it, despite only being a little boy.
I always thought it was just a story. I’d never seen a mage in my entire life. Dad was a con man too – sensitive to magic, yes – but still a con man. After all, if the treasure was there, why not go and get it?
“Evil still lurks there,” he’d say. I thought the way his look would become haunted was just acting. A detail to scare my brother and I when we were kids.
But my eyes hadn’t deceived me – I had seen those sparks on the old man’s fingers. My Dad used to pull the same trick. I always thought he’d done it with powder or something – he always maintained it was magic.
And like that, I found myself wondering if there was something to his story after all. We had a chance to find out for sure.
The song finished, my brother came over with a smile. I dropped a coin in his hat. “Old fellow. Far corner,” I murmured, barely making eye contact.
I stepped outside the moment I saw him start to exchange a few words with the old man.
* * *
A short while later, my brother emerged and came towards me. The street was quiet, but he still went through the rigmarole of asking if I minded sharing some tobacco with him. Just two strangers starting a casual conversation.
“Well?” I asked my brother in a hushed tone once we’d finished.
He looked me in the eye, the concern easy to see. “I got the read on him.”
My brother, unlike me, was sensitive to magic – something he’d inherited from our Dad. Back in the day, if you were sensitive like that you’d become an apprentice with the mages. It didn’t mean much now, but if he had a read on someone, they at least had magic in their lineage too.
“I saw sparks when he-” I rubbed my thumb and fingers together.
My brother nodded. “Yeah, yeah. He’s got the gift…” The way he trailed off told me he wasn’t liking where this conversation was going.
“What is it?”
“He looks frail, but if he’s what we seem to think he is… We’re better leaving him be. I mean, he looks old enough to actually be a mage.”
“No, no, you don’t see what I’m getting at. Magic makes them age slower than normal people. If he actually looks old, the man’s got to be ancient if he really is a mage. He wasn’t just around when Dad was meant to be at the school – he was probably teaching them.”
I smiled and wrapped my arm around him. “Come on – what’s he going to do? Talk us to death? Remember the stories? Remember the treasure?”
“They’re just stories…”
“We could stop running. Pay for a bit of land a long way away. Settle down. Start a farm. Marry the local twins.” I prodded him in the ribs to try and raise a smile. Bloody nearly worked, too. “Come on… Don’t you want to at least see if Dad was telling the truth all that time?”
He screwed up his face a little as he thought it through. He took a second to make sure he was looking me in the eye and had my undivided attention – and that I saw he was serious.
“Do you have a plan?”
I let me smile drop to a slight frown to show how serious I was. “Please. I always have a plan.”
He, like most people, never could tell when I was lying.