The Song of the Highlands
Author's Note: Like a handful of other stories on here, this one stars a character quite special to me. Unlike the other multi-chapter stories I've posted, this one I'm gonna post an update every week, cuz I need to buy myself sometime for writing new stories to post XD Enjoy!
The merchants of Kokou's Low Town were bustling one early morning, selling what wares they had in their inventories. Some of them carried clothing, some carried weapons or jewelry and trinkets, but most of them sold food. The latter was a somewhat difficult to obtain commodity in the western lands of Lotan the Dragon Empire.
The land was dying and dried out, barely able to sustain even the most stubborn of trees and plants, let alone any crops and constant raids from both monsters and bandits made it even more difficult. The people of Low Town were poor as well, so it was truly a miracle if anyone managed to get any food to last them a week, or even a day. A great deal of the townspeople were angered that while they suffered, the Shiratora Clan, the Noble Family of the West, grew fat and slept comfortably in the High Town. Anger, hate, and sadness filled the entire atmosphere of the Low Town. Even the children who roamed the streets, playing crude and simple games to occupy their time, were often blanketed with the negative emotions of their elders.
The merchants were busy enough dealing with rowdy soldiers, obnoxious traders and pitiful customers that they didn't see that someone was taking advantage of their inventory under their very noses. Like a shadow, the thief darted from booth to booth, snatching fruit, bread loaves, clothing, anything that it could get it's hands on to throw into the burlap sack it carried. The ragged cloak it wore around its shoulders should have raised some eyebrows to anyone who, even for a brief moment, laid eyes on it, but many people in the Low Town wore tattered clothing.
Bag full, the thief moved across the street and into the slums of the city. All the common folk in the city lived in Low Town, but the poorest of all lived in them. Here, the destitute, the sickly and many of the criminals lived there. The thief felt right at home here, hiding away from prying eyes.
His home was a small structure, some of which were already broken in places of the wall and ceiling. It didn't even have a real door, just a long, thin fabric that barely kept out anything and anyone. With a quick look around, he entered the ruins of a once proud house and placed the bag on a rickety table.
A thin woman in humble clothing turned away from the stove and her mouth fell open at the sight of him. "Zangan Wyrmsong!"
"I'm back, Mother." The thief reached up and pulled the hood of his cloak away revealing thick, grimy hair and steely eyes. He was a scrawny ten year old boy wearing the most simple clothing of an oversized shirt and an old belt. The hem of the shirt went down to his knees and the belt was tied around his waist, giving the illusion that he had some sort of bottom clothing. His body was grubby, scratched, bruised and his feet especially were covered with layer upon layer of dried mud and old bloodstains. He nodded to the bag and said, "I've been to the marketplace. We should be able to last for a couple weeks now, Mother!"
His mother gave him a look and sighed sadly, but she approached the table and emptied out the contents of the bag. The amount of food that rolled out would seem like a small meal to many others, but to their family, it would be a feast for them all. The clothes inside would replace the long used and filthy ones that they were wearing now. She sat down in her place at the table, where she usually spent meals with her husband and son.
Zangan thought she would praise him, tell him that he was a good boy for getting such needed things, but instead, she cried. She raised her hands to her face and wept. She tried to keep her cries as quietly as possible, but they leaked out despite her efforts.
"Mother?" Zangan moved to her, worried. "Mother, are you okay?"
She nodded, still weeping.
"Why are you crying? Are you mad at me?"
"No!" she choked out, looking up from her hands to her boy, forcing a smile. "I'm just...so happy that you brought so many good things to the house! You're a very good son, Zan, you really are." She reached out and pulled him into a tight hug. "Your father and I are just so proud of you!"
Face buried in her torso, Zangan reached around his mother, sharing the hug. She could smile, she could tell him he was a good boy, she could even tell him that they lived every day in bliss without a single worry over their heads. But Zangan knew better that to believe her words.
She was sad.
She was always sad.
With a loud sniff, his mother ended the embrace and wiped her tears away. "I'll get started on dinner and I'll look through the clothes to see what we can use. Did you see any you liked in particular, dear?"
He shook his head. "I just grabbed what I could."
"Of course, dear, of course. You go on and play with your friends now while I do this. Mind me now!"
Later that night...
"He risks so much for us."
"That he does, that he does."
"We have to tell him to stop."
"We've done that and it's failed us. You know how our son is, he's stubborn as a dragon!"
"And clever like a fox. Still, this isn't right for him! He's putting his childhood at great risk, stealing from merchants just to keep us-"
"Shh!" There was a pause. "You might wake him!"
The small house was only made of one room and that served as a den, a kitchen and a bedroom for the small family. After their rarely filling dinner, Zangan had went to his place on the floor on the opposite side of the room and laid down for the night. His parents, thinking he had gone to sleep hours before, were at the table.
His father, once the provider of the family, had been injured some years before when one of the monsters from the northern part of the Hayabusa Highlands, where Kokou lay in the dying west, had attacked him while he was on a journey. The monster had just about crippled him; with a bad limp and barely able to lift anything more than a couple of pounds, he had lost his job and the family quickly fell into the deepest of poverty.
Since then, and since his father forbade his wife to take up work outside of the home herself, the responsibility of caring for the family fell upon Zangan's shoulders. At first, Zangan believed that he could get an apprentice position in one of the merchant businesses. The armory could always make use of polisher and handler for the wares, the stables were always filthy with horse dung and old straw, even the military based in the city could use an errand boy. Zangan even contemplated about finding work in one of the seven mansions of the Shiratora clan.
"NO!" his father roared when he told them that possibility. "My son will not break his back working for those people! I don't care if they are the rulers of this town and this region, they consider themselves higher and more valuable than the rest of us and they let us suffer in misery for it! We will find another way, but you will not work for the nobles!"
No one was interested in hiring such a young child, even for menial tasks and with the dangers outside of the town, helping to farm was out of the question, there was little option left for the boy. He had begun to steal, but he never stole out of greed. He stole food, clothing, the occasional medicine and, rarely enough, coin and valuable merchandise so that they could actually pay for something once in awhile. He was not like the common thief, he believed. He was a thief, yes, but a noble thief.
"This is my fault," his father sighed quietly. "With my handicap, I've become the burden of the family instead of the provider."
"It is not your fault!" his mother hissed. "You were only doing your job. It's the fault of those...things out there! Not only that, but we've been made to struggle since. I still think I should-"
There was a bang on the table. "No! I know the kind of people this town harbors. You're a pretty woman, which is exactly what some of that filth out there are wanting! Whether it's someone to grope or assault, or even abduct and sell into slavery for coin. I will not have my wife risk herself for us."
"But you are perfectly happy our son risking his boyhood and his life for us, going around stealing?"
"I am not and you know that!"
They went on arguing into the night. Zangan feigned sleep the whole time, even rolling on his side, turning his back to them. He tried to be strong and not show that he had been listening to them, that he wasn't feeling an urge to cry, but it was impossible. When pain enters one's heart, it would come out eventually no matter one's strength.
His parents turned in and as soon as he could hear them snoring peacefully, he slipped the small knife he kept under his pillow into his clothes and left the house. The people of the slums were used to seeing children cry, so no one would care if they saw him and he didn't care if they did see him.
He just didn't want his parents to see him cry.