Picking Pockets, Saving Souls: Part 1

By Lorcan MacBroin and Athen Slate

Lorcan walked down the forest road into town, whistling to himself as he admired the tall trees and foliage that closed him in on the sides.  He carried a large rucksack over his shoulder, and a pouch of coins at his belt, ready to buy groceries when he arrived in town. He ordinarily would have spared himself the trouble of walking clear out of the woods and into the village bordering the TerraSylvan forest, but it was Market Day in Woodland, and Lorcan didn’t feel like being shoved and squeezed and yelled at today.  Besides, it was a beautiful day, and he could use a little walk.

After about an hours’ uneventful stroll, Lorcan arrived in town, the smells of livestock meeting his nose immediately.  The town of Fae’s Hollow was a quiet community, mostly of farmers and carters, with a small, suspicious population. Not that they weren’t a friendly people, but they tended to be slow to trust people they didn’t recognize, and were superstitious as a rule.  Supposedly, the town had been founded by decades ago by a group of fae worshippers, who believed they were standing on hallowed Fae territory, and established a town where they could be close to the beings they worshipped and garner their favor, therefore gaining protection and blessings on their livestock and crops.  Little had they known, if they had traveled only a few more miles into the forest, they would have stumbled upon the very fae they had sought, Titania herself reigning.

However, with the entire town’s population being converted to Christianity a few years after the town’s establishment, the pagan faith had largely died out, with a strong sense of superstition and fear of the woods filling its place.  Thus, the townsfolk viewed any abnormal occurrences and/or visitors with distrust. Despite their now firmly established Christian faith, many of the farmers would carve warding symbols into their fence posts, door frames, or on simple wooden pendants they hung around their necks.

Lorcan strode up to the gate to town, waving to the watchman (Anno, he thought his name was) as he passed.  “Hello there!”

Anno stiffly raised his arm in salute, regarding Lorcan with suspicion.  “Ho there,” he said gruffly. As Lorcan passed, the sun-darkened man fingered a pendant around his neck, not taking his eyes off the priest until he was several yards away.

Lorcan sighed.  Anno wasn’t a rude man, nor were many of the townspeople, but their suspicion of him was a little tiring at times.  Most in Fae’s Hollow knew who he was, and his status as a priest earned him some respect, but the fact that nobody really knew where he came from or where he went when he left them made them talk about him in hushed voices.  But, they were never unkind, if a little blunt. In truth, Lorcan had a great deal of respect for these people. Despite their superstitious fear, they didn’t abandon their homes, and they were a welcoming bunch, once you understood them.

Lorcan walked down the main street of town, looking about in confusion at the empty shops and stalls to his sides.  Granted, this town was no metropolis, but surely there ought to be people going about their daily business? The usually bustling shops and storeowners were nowhere to be seen.  The only living things were the occasional stray chicken, and some lounging pigs in some fenced off areas on the sides of shops. 

Suddenly, a voice called out from a store on Lorcan’s left.  “Hello there Father!”

Lorcan turned to see a woman leaning out the window of her shop to look at him.  This was…Nora, right? The butcher’s wife? Lorcan smiled at her, and walked toward her shop.  “Hello there Nora,” he said. “Please, don’t call me ‘Father’, I’m just a simple priest. Call me Lorcan.”

The plump woman was leaning on the windowsill, getting some fresh air, the hanging meats over the counter behind her putting out a salty, somewhat musty smell.  Nora smiled at him. She was a devout woman, and was one of the few that welcomed Lorcan into town without suspicion. “Morning Father,” she said again, “what brings you into town?”

Lorcan smiled inwardly, brushing off the title.  He pulled the rucksack off his shoulder, holding it up for Nora to see.  “Nothing much,” he said, “just a little shopping today. I need some new boots, and I like the produce from this town.  Feels a little fresher. Plus,” he shrugged, “I could use the exercise.”

Nora nodded.  “Well, if it’s a cut of beef you’re after, I’d offer some of my husband’s wares.  I’ll warn you though, it’s terrible. Digory never feeds them cows right. The meat gets all stiff and tough, and he tries to sell it anyway.”  Nora rolled her eyes. “I shoulda picked me a different husband when I had the chance.” She looked at Lorcan seriously. “ I used to be the prettiest girl in town, mind you,” she said, her eyes getting a faraway look.  “Had all the boys in town chasing after me. Digory was a big strong man, already had his business, and I went after him, little did I know.” She looked back at Lorcan, shrugging exasperatedly.

Lorcan grinned.  Nora loved her husband, he knew that, but she loved complaining about the beefy (pun intended) butcher almost as much.  She took every opportunity to complain about how foolish she’d been in marrying Digory, raising four kids with him, running a butcher’s shop, on and on, to which Digory would just respond, “Well, you’re stuck with me now, woman, so you’d better get used to it.”

“Well,” Lorcan said, “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind, thank you.”  He looked around him again, pointing out the emptiness of the street. “Say, Nora, where has everyone gone?  Anno’s out front like usual, but I haven’t seen a soul since arriving.”

Nora’s face fell, becoming serious again.  “Aye. They’ve all gone to the hanging in town square.”

Lorcan raised an eyebrow.  “A hanging? Here?” He gave a small smile.  “They haven’t realized that Digory’s cheating them, have they?”

Nora didn’t smile back.  “They caught a man last week, sneaking around the chapel, and they’ve been talking of hanging him for days.  We wanted to wait until Father Maynet got back, so as to give him last rites and such, but they decided to go and just hang him anyway.  Father,” she said, her brow furrowing in worry, “they say that the man was using dark magics to move around unseen.”

Lorcan scrunched his face in confusion.  Dark magic? Here? That would explain why so many would be gone to see the hanging.  It would also make sense that the townspeople would wait for Father Maynet; as a religious figure, he made most of the important decisions around town.  He also had a tendency to wander off. Lorcan suspected that Maynet had a bit of a gambling habit, left over from his days as a youth before he became a priest.  He guessed that Father Maynet’s disappearances were due to him traveling to a nearby town to indulge in a little money-making now and then. Lorcan disapproved of the habit altogether, more so from a priest, but it was undeniable that despite his weaknesses, Father Maynet cared a great deal about the townsfolk, and did a great deal to help them and support them.

“You’d better get going Father,” said Nora.  They’ll likely be getting to the hanging any minute now.  Even if the stranger is using dark powers, it’d be wrong not to offer him his last rites.”

Lorcan hesitated, then nodded.  He set off down the road, looking back over his shoulder at the butcher’s wife.  “Thank you Nora, have a fine day!” He set off at a trot down the street, headed pointedly for town’s square.  It was unlikely that the poor fool about to be hanged was of more than a petty criminal, but it was something that Lorcan needed to see nonetheless.  Nora was right, it was wrong to deny any man his religious rights.

As Lorcan turned the corner on a street, he was met by a throng of people, all peering over one another’s shoulders to get a better look at what was happening in the town’s center.  A gallows had been set up, a man in a dark black and green cloak kneeling underneath a noose, wrists and legs bound with thick rope. Timothy, the town’s lawman, was standing next to the prisoner, calling out to be heard over the people.

“This man, who has refused to give his name,” called Timothy, “has been accused of the use of dark magics and powers, among other things.”  He glared down at the prisoner, as some of the audience members gasped. “Prisoner, you are charged with the crimes of the use of dark magic, thievery, trespassing, attacking a lawman (at this, Timothy winced, temporarily drawing attention to his left eye, which was bruised dark purple), public intoxication, public indecency, and the impersonation of a priest.”  At the mention of the crimes, several townspeople muttered angrily.

Lorcan smiled to himself.  That was quite the list. This sort of thing was not forgiven in a place like this.  He backed up a little bit, about to walk away. Perhaps it was better to leave this man to his fate.

Unfortunately, just as he stepped away, Timothy spotted him-  a hazard for Lorcan, standing head and shoulders above most people.  “Father MacBroin!” cried Timothy, drawing some cries of surprise from the people, causing them all to turn to Lorcan.  Timothy smiled at Lorcan, looking relieved. “Father MacBroin, you’ve come at just the right time. Would you be willing to preside here?  We’re about to rid ourselves of this unholy creature.” Timothy looked hopeful, as if relieved he had found someone of authority.

Lorcan groaned softly.  He’d really rather not be here.  He had just wanted to buy potatoes and a pair of boots, not preside over an execution.  But, the relief in the faces of the townsfolk won him over. They had all looked tense and afraid at the sight of the condemned, but at the sight of a priest, they had all had a weight lifted from them.  Lorcan nodded, trying to keep his displeasure off his face.  

The people parted for Lorcan as he advanced to the gallows.  He walked up the small stairs to join Timothy on the platform.  Lorcan pulled the lawman close, and spoke to him in a low voice.  “Timothy, I understand that this man has done some bad things, but what makes you think he’s using dark magic?”  Lorcan nodded at the man kneeling beside him. “He looks harmless enough to me.

Timothy shuddered, and responded in almost a whisper.  “It’s the way he sneaks about Father. He’s dead quiet, he is, couldn’t hardly be seen wandering about.  It’s the evil one giving him a cloak of darkness, I know it sir.” He looked down at the man, who still knelt, unmoving, his dark cloak covering his features.  “And,” Timothy added, glaring down at the prisoner, “he tried to disguise himself as Father Maynet. Dressed in his clothes, he did, wearing a veil. Snuck into the church, trying to take all the valuables inside.  A terrible sacrilege sir, terrible sacrilege.” Timothy’s face suddenly became triumphant. “But, we caught him Father. Put up a right fight, he did, but he was drunk at the time, you see, and we-”

Lorcan put a hand on Timothy’s shoulder.  “You did a fine job Timothy. You’re an excellent lawman.”  Timothy smiled proudly at this, standing up a little straighter.  Lorcan nodded his head towards the kneeling man. “Might I speak to him a moment?”

Timothy looked unsure for a second, and opened his mouth to object.  However, he must have thought better of it, as closed his mouth, nodding.

Lorcan knelt down next to the man.  “Good morning,” he said. The man said nothing, hardly moving.  Lorcan slowly reached out his hand, and lifted the cowl of the cloak from the man’s head.  The prisoner twitched, as if instinctively resisting, but otherwise stayed still. The man was about Lorcan’s age, with unkempt black hair down to his shoulders.  He was unshaven, his face gaunt from a few days in a cell. He wore a hard, distrusting expression, and refused to look up at Lorcan as he knelt, observing him.

“What’s your name?” asked Lorcan.  No response. “I hear that you’re some kind of dark wizard using a cloak given to you by the devil, or some such thing.  Is that true?” Still nothing. Lorcan grimaced slightly. He didn’t want to do this.  He looked at the cloak, eyeing it closely. It was a rough material, but tough, and it would hide one excellently in the dark.  He reached out and touched a piece of it. This felt like a military cloth- specifically, that which is worn by scouts or rangers. Curious.  This was not the tool of a thief. A thief would wear short clothing, so as not to get grabbed from behind. This man was surely a thief, however, there was perhaps more to him.

Lorcan grabbed the cowl, pulling the man’s head up to look him   squarely in the face. The prisoner looked up at Lorcan, disdain and contempt in his face.  Lorcan recognized this type of person at least. “You know,” Lorcan said, “I haven’t known any priests to wear veils before, though I’m sure you looked ravishing in it.

This elicited a sharp bark of laughter from the man.  His expression didn’t change however. “What were you doing stealing from Father Maynet?” asked Lorcan.  “He’s a good man.”

The man snorted derisively.  “A good man,” he muttered. “A good man taking money from those too stupid to realize they’re being robbed.”

Lorcan frowned.  “Well, I’d hardly say they’re being robbed.  Father Maynet never asks for money. He tends crops like everyone else.”

The man glared at Lorcan.  “And if they don’t ‘donate’?  What then? I suppose they aren’t forgiven of their sins, right?”  He smiled mockingly. “Because if that’s the case, I have a few coins here I could pay you to forgive me and get me off these gallows, eh?  What do you say, Father?” He spat the last word out.

Lorcan’s frown deepened.  He wanted to try something.  “You were a ranger, weren’t you?”

The man started, looking at Lorcan incredulously.  “What? How did you-” he hesitated, ever so slightly, then barked laughter again.  “No. I’m a thief, pure and simple.”

Lorcan raised an eyebrow.  “Yes. A thief. A thief that knows how to speak like a decently educated man, wears military garb, and talks with a man at his execution, rather than just curse or cry or bribe someone.”

The man grunted, looking away.  “Not as stupid as you look.”

Lorcan smiled.  “No. I’m not.”

Lorcan’s reason told him to just leave this man be.  He was coarse, he’d committed a number of crimes here, and likely plenty more before now.  Criminals either stayed imprisoned, or they died. That’s just simply how it had to be sometimes.  And yet…despite the man’s roughness, there was something about him that caught Lorcan’s attention.  What could lead a man from a military career to a common criminal life? On top of that, why would he continue to wear the clothing of a life of order, when he was a criminal?  And, hidden away in that man’s eyes, Lorcan saw something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. There was something here, more than this thief let on. Lorcan decided, he was going to do something very, very stupid.

Lorcan stood, and looked to Timothy.  “This man will not be hanged today.”

The crowd gasped, and Timothy jumped back.  “But, but Father!” he protested. “He’s in league with the evil one!  The Bible says-”

Lorcan raised his hand.  “I know what the Bible says about devil worshippers and sorcerers Timothy, and I commend you for following it.  However,” he gestured toward the man kneeling next to him, “this man is no caster, or anything similar.” He spoke quickly again as the crowd began to protest.  “He has clearly dabbled in dark things, and he is a criminal,” Lorcan called. “He needs to be punished for his deeds, but I will say that this man has not been lost to the evil one, and may yet be redeemed!”  This drew even more gasps and mutters from the crowd. They didn’t dare speak against a priest, but they weren’t happy about this either. “This is why I have decided,” shouted Lorcan, “I will take this man under my custody, and endeavor to save his soul, while it may yet be saved!”

Timothy stepped back in shock.  “But, but Father! This, this…” he spluttered, at a complete loss for words.

Lorcan stepped close to Timothy, who seemed too surprised to speak.  “I know this looks like a bad idea,” he said. “But, does the shepherd shy away from a sick animal?”  Timothy slowly shook his head, expression still confused. “This man is not innocent, but I believe I can put him to work, and some good may yet come of this.  Give him to me. No one needs to die, and this man will still face the consequences of his actions.

Timothy stood there, his expression shifting as he tried to reason through Lorcan’s words.  Finally, he nodded. He turned to the crowd. “Father MacBroin will be taking the devi- I mean, the thief into his custody, where he will undergo penance for his crimes.”

The crowd didn’t like that at all.  But, not wanting to make a scene, resigned themselves to grumbling, and spitting at the thief as they walked away.  Timothy turned to Lorcan. “I hope you know what you’re doing Father.” With that, he turned away.

So do I, thought Lorcan.  He nodded at Timothy, then looked down at the thief.  He was looking up at Lorcan, dumbstruck, his mouth hanging open slightly.  Lorcan knelt down, untying the man’s feet, though leaving his hands bound. He grabbed the man by the elbow, dragging him to his feet.  “Come on,“ said Lorcan. “You’re coming with me.”

The man mouthed to himself for a moment, still as surprised as Timothy.  “W-where?”

“Back home, with me,” Lorcan said.  “Before that though, I need to buy groceries, and I think I’ll put you to use and have you carry them.”  Lorcan began walking off the gallows, the thief following awkwardly. Lorcan looked over his shoulder at the man, trying to appear unconcerned as he kept his back to the thief.  “Let’s try this again. Do you have a name?”

The man’s expression returned to its same, guarded look.  However, he answered gruffly, “Slate, Athen Slate.”