What If: The Long Retreat Wasn’t?

This is, obviously, some alternate history. See the commentary post for more.

The sounds of revelry blanketed the fields south of Syderskogholm, at times almost seeming to echo from the mountains to the south. The army had returned victorious over the marauding ontr, and the only fitting response was an impromptu feast. The city and the farmers both had opened their larders, and most of their contents were now roasting over a hundred open fires at a hundred different homesteads, ringed by crowds of soldiers and city-dwellers alike.

It was heaven for a girl like Sif, or any other street kid with a knack for lightening pockets: coin flowing freely, as the city folk paid for food and the homesteaders paid for beer. Enough of the latter was going around that she’d already nabbed four coin purses previously owned by some very inattentive people. She couldn’t remember ever going outside of the walls before today, and had never been all that interested in seeing what the countryside held. She wasn’t completely sold on the oppressive openness of it all, but she could ignore that on a day like this one.

She skipped down a road, keeping an eye on a few well-dressed men ahead of her. They had the look of merchants, the sort who had a lot of money and didn’t often notice when you took it from their belts. The men turned toward a tumult of conversation and laughter, along a small side road leading to a farmhouse.

It was just the sort of place she’d pictured: a solid-looking house, small, probably cozy, separated from a barn by a dirt yard, in the middle of which was a bonfire, tall as a grown man. Off to the side, a boy about her age slowly turned a pig on a spit over a more reasonably-sized fire.

Sif slowed to an amble, and made a show of wandering toward the bonfire, as though she had not a care in the world. She even stopped to smell a flower. She thought that was a nice touch, although the

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the men pass a few coins to the boy, who pulled a cleaver from the stump next to him and hacked off a few pieces of pork for them, before going back to the crank. Sif watched the men turn toward the fire. They’d have to pass through a crowd around the barrel of ale. They’d never notice someone brushing past them there. She headed that way, slipping past other people in the crowd, never going quite straight for her marks.

A hand caught her shoulder, turning her around to face a bland-looking man of middling height, with brown hair, a narrow nose in the middle of a narrow face, and a sharp chin. He wore simple dark green clothes. Worryingly, a sword hung at his side. Something about him made her teeth tingle. She thought about running, but he spoke before she’d quite decided to. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

“I wasn’t doing anything,” Sif tried.

The man raised an eyebrow and went on. “The man on the left has a dagger, and very limited patience for street thieves. I assume you prefer your blood inside?”

Sif blinked, and the man ushered her out of the crowd. They ended up at the fence surrounding the farmyard, next to a field, and five or ten yards from prying ears. As they got there, Sif finally managed, “Who are you?”

“My name is Falthejn Arnarsson.” The man leaned against a fence post.

Why am I still here? Sif thought to herself. He doesn’t look that fast.

“Run if you like,” Falthejn Arnarsson said. “I wasn’t planning to turn you in.” Before Sif could ask the question, he added, “Yes, yes, how did I do that? I’m a magiker. I see things before they happen.”

Sif thought for a moment, then looked the man in the eye and said, “How many fingers am I going to hold up?”

“Three, but now you’ve changed your mind to two.” Falthejn smiled. “You’re quick on the uptake. What’s your name?”

“Sif,” Sif replied. “Didn’t you already know that?”

Falthejn nodded. “It’s polite to ask. Unlike some of my peers, I find politeness important. For example, my saving your life.”

“Why did you do that?” Sif said. “You don’t know me.”

“I had the feeling this would be a fascinating conversation,” Falthejn replied. Sif gave him a close look, and he raised his hands. “Honestly. When you see the future, you learn to trust feelings like that. For another, well— let me ask you this.” He rummaged in his pocket, and tossed her a small wooden cylinder, covered in runic carvings.

She caught it. It made her ears buzz, and she didn’t recognize any of the runes. Something must have shown on her face. He held out his hand, and she returned the object.

“It bothered you?” Falthejn said.

Sif nodded. “Like there was someone shouting, but I couldn’t quite understand it. Or like there was a fly around my ear.”

Falthejn pocketed the cylinder. “Are you on your own?”

Sif bristled. “I have my friends.”

The magiker pressed his lips together. Sif was pretty good at reading people. She knew he’d heard what she hadn’t said. “What if I told you,” he said, “I could promise you a better life than picking pockets from winter to winter, only just pulling in enough to keep yourself from freezing to death?”

It was all Sif had ever known, but she’d seen what the alternatives looked like, and she did want something better. The days when she could disguise herself as a boy and survive on other people’s poor knot-tying skills weren’t going to last forever. “What are you saying?”

“If that little trinket got to you, you’ve got an inborn knack for magic. Travel north with me, to the Jewel. Any guild would have you.”

Sif the Magiker, Sif thought. There might be something to that.

Heart beating a little faster, she said, “Tell me more.”

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