Author Topic: Long Shadows--Prologue: In which a foolish street urchin is marked by Darkness.  (Read 47 times)

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Offline Barrow

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London.

The sun may never set on the British Empire, but it rarely shines on the East End. The fog lies thick around Whitechapel, and in the stillness of night, some say they can still hear the echoes of The Ripper's footfalls in the alleys near Wentworth Street. In the gloom, a perceptive soul may sense the nearness of yet darker things... shadowy menaces drawn here from the extremities of the earth, impurities pulled from the limbs to the heart by the natural gravity of power. There are whispers... whispers of dark things from furthest Asia, from darkest Africa, and even from the wilds of the Americas. Whispers that might drive a man mad, were he to dare to listen.

But the child is not yet a man, and not yet concerned with darkness or whispers. He is concerned only with the rumbling in his stomach, and surviving the mundane threats of the street for another day. Selfish shopkeepers, irritable bobbies, and the malevolence of other street urchins are the real-and-present evils of the child's life, as unending and unchanging as the fog.

So you squat in the alley, with your friend, the girl Clo. She tears the peel off some unidentifiable wrinkly fruit with her teeth, while you watch a baker's stand out on the street. The day-old bread and rolls are out, and from where the baker is standing at the moment, you don't think he can keep an eye on all of his carts.

The street is moderately busy. No bobbies in sight, and you know your way back through this alley well enough to disappear.

Clo nudges you. She's holding out half of the odd fruit, offering it to you. It is small, barely enough for a single bite. You know that she is even hungrier than you are, but she's offering to share her spoils all the same.


Offline Gymnosophist

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With half an eye on the surly baker and his wares, the slightly older boy gently nudges his friend's offering back towards her. Like many of London's destitute street children, Will Roper was uncertain of his exact age. He remembered well the harsh, unforgiving environs of the orphanage. He remembered striking up a friendship with Clo early on; and he remembered running away with her some two winters past. Since then they'd been as thick as thieves -- in every sense -- and he'd done his best to look out for her, often coming to blows with some of the older boys on the street as they struggled for scraps and handouts. At his best guess, he was around nine or so, but life in the East End was pitiless and hard, and one had to grow up fast, or else fall prey to the many dangers which bedevilled that wretched place.

"You 'ave it Clo. You need to keep yer strength up. 'Sides, I ent 'ungry," he lied, his clever, furtive eyes carefully sizing up the baker and weighing the odds of successfully making off with a loaf of bread.

"Look 'ere," he says after a moment's deliberation. "I'm goin' to get us some supper. Reckon you can 'elp me? You don't 'ave to nick nuffink this time. Just kick up a bit ov a stink or sumfink. I dunno, maybe stub yer toe an' start screamin' or bump into one ov dem costers or whateva. That way, everyone will be lookin' away when I lift a loaf ov that loverly crusty bread! Reckon you can do that for me, Clo? If it goes belly up like last time, I'll meet you be'ind the old church in Spital Fields, you know, that one wif that queer lookin' spire an all. Alright?"

The scrawny young boy waits for his friend to nod in understanding, her grimy face grave yet trusting. He screws his worn, threadbare cap down tightly on his head, tucking away his unruly blond fringe. Then, with a surety of purpose born from familiar acquaintance with hunger, and privation in all its forms, he steps quickly and lightly towards the cart furthest from the baker.

His little heart pounds loudly in his chest as he nears the cart and waits for Clo to provide the necessary distraction. Time grows elastic and his senses sharpen. Then, right on cue, barely even conscious of the ruckus starting up behind him, he snatches a loaf of bread, tucks it under his ragged coat and steps swiftly away, ready to bolt at a moment's notice if the need arises.
« Last Edit: February 14, 2020, 09:22:24 AM by Gymnosophist »

Offline Barrow

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Clo may be young, but she is already an old hand at deceit and thievery. She smiles as she nods. It's a charming smile, even with the few teeth she has left. "Alright Ropes," she says. "See you at the ol' spire." Then she's away.

Her diversion is noisy and effective, as she deliberately stumbles into a fruit cart a few yards away from the baker, at the neighboring store. The fruit vendor yells and swats at her, as a dozen or so apples spill onto the street, but she's up and away before he can reach her.

All eyes are drawn to the scene, for a brief moment anyway. But this is the East End, and these are East End Merchants, not the gullible fops of Soho or Newgate Street. So instinctively, they all know what's afoot... they just don't know who has been nicked.

And so, the baker turns quickly. He's not quick enough to see Will tuck the loaf away, but the boy is standing too close to his cart, and the baker wasn't born yesterday.

"You thar! Get away from me cart!"

He snatches an axe handle (with no blade) from somewhere and moves towards Will like a man who is used to beating urchins. He's slow, though, and still out of reach, so Will has a moment to consider his next move.
« Last Edit: February 14, 2020, 09:44:45 PM by Barrow »

Offline Gymnosophist

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From instinct, Will resists the urge to run and thus instantly confirm his guilt. Instead, he wills his grimy face into his best expression of wide eyed innocence, his posture the very picture of artless naivety. He even manages to shrink back a little in a convincing show of fright at the baker’s menacing advance.

“I ain’t touched nuffink Sir, I swear!” He cries, his little chin fairly quivering. Yet inside he is calm, and his sharp eyes have already assessed the chances of upsetting a cart to slow the baker’s approach and make a dash for the nearest alley if his improvised ruse should fail.
« Last Edit: February 15, 2020, 01:26:25 PM by Gymnosophist »

Offline Barrow

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The baker hesitates. He had been expecting the lad to flee.

"You 'eard me, get out of 'ere," he says, waving the axe handle at Will the same way he might shoo a miserable dog. But he remains out of reach, and doesn't advance further.

"Go on, you li'l rat," he prods again, but there isn't quite as much malice in his voice now.

Offline Gymnosophist

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Will backs away another pace or two, still putting on a show of guileless fright, then turns on his heels and hurries away, quietly breathing a sigh of relief. Once he’s rounded the corner he quickens his pace and begins whistling a spirited tune as he makes his way towards the rendezvous with his friend, the loaf of bread still tucked safely under his raggedy coat.

Offline Barrow

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Will turns another corner and almost runs into a larger boy. He is a foot taller than Will, and about two stone heavier. Even without turning Will is aware that two other large kids have filled in behind him. They're at a distance, but he knows they have probably cut off his retreat.

The East End is a small world. Will knows the boy in front of him. He has the unlikely name of Heathcliff, and is a lieutenant of sorts for the local gang of "organized" thieves.

"'Ello, Ropes," Heathcliff says. "'At were some fine theater, it were. But where ye off to in such a 'urry? Ye know the 'Obbler will 'ave 'is due."

Heathcliff extends his hand expectantly.

Will knows that "The Hobbler" is the miserable gimp-man who runs the East End urchins, and he knows that the expected tribute is one-third to one-half of any theft made in the Hobbler's territory.

 

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