Early morning rain had given way to a heavy blue sky. Merchants filled every stall lining the square and hawked their goods from oversized wooden carts. The townspeople moved through the muddy ground in good cheer. Tomorrow was the spring festival and most merchants offered cut flowers and pastel fabrics in additional to their normal wares.
A tall yellow pole in the middle of the square was decorated with wet colorful fabrics twisting down its length. Small groups of young girls stood around the pole whispering. The braver ones would tentatively approach the pole and pull at the bottom of a fabric before running back giggling to their group. On top of the pole was a small golden statue of a woman with her hands clasped behind her back. Her head was three times as large as her body and she appeared to scowl down at the girls.
Nobody in the square was looking at the statue except Tomas. He stood at the corner of the square and leaned against the wall with his own hands clasped behind his back. Tomas was tall with unkempt brown hair and eyes. He wore plain clothing except for a small silver knife on his belt. The statue glowing in the sunlight almost blinded Tomas but he could not look away. He could feel the power of the statue from even this distance. Tomas had arrived in town only three days ago and if everything went according to plan he would be gone by the next morning.
He felt Scatter rub against his leg and absently reached down to scratch her chin.
“Don’t worry, Scatter. We’ll get moving soon enough.”
Scatter was a large white mutt with a black patch covering most of her head. She wore a leather strap across her chest holding a sack with Tomas’s meager supplies. Mud covered Scatter’s legs giving her the appearance of wearing woolen socks.
“There you are,” a girl said to Tomas. He turned and saw a short freckled girl with a large mound of red hair tied up on top of her head looking expectantly at him. She was barefoot and held a canvas bag with flowers sticking out from the top.
“I was looking for you, and here you are.” She moved until she was next to Tomas. She studied him for a moment and then leaned against the wall and copied his pose. Her eyes went to the pole in the middle of the square, and her head tilted upward slowly until she was looking at the golden statue.
“Do I know you?” Tomas asked. He had exchanged his city clothing with a farmer a few days outside of town. He had not wanted to stand out too much when he arrived. He slept at an inn he had found on the outskirts of town, and except for a brief discussion with the innkeeper, he had not spoken to anyone since arriving. Tomas was sure that he had never seen this girl before.
The girl ignored him and continued to stare at the statue. Scatter whined and she knelt down with her bare knees in the mud grabbing Scatter’s head between her hands. “Hello, Scatter. You’re the friendly dog, aren’t you? Yes you are!” She rubbed Scatter’s head until Scatter lifted her paw. The girl took the hint and scratched under Scatter’s belly.
“How do you know my dog’s name?”
“You do ask a lot of questions.”
“When a strange girl I’ve never seen before comes up to me in town and starts talking as if I know her, of course I ask a lot of questions!”
“Strange, huh?” The girl stood up and wiped her knees, only managing to spread the mud down to her ankles. “I’m Rachel.” She stuck her right arm straight out with her thumb perpendicular to her fingers.
Tomas looked at her hand. It was tiny like the rest of the girl. She looked no older than thirteen, a good three years younger than Tomas. She wore a short white dress with a dark green sash across her waist. An ornate short rapier with a rounded hilt was belted to her sash. Tomas did not understand how he had missed seeing the sword earlier. He took a step away from Rachel.
“It’s customary in these parts to shake hands when offered.”
“Who are you?” Tomas asked. Except for two army regulars who passed through town the day before yesterday, Tomas had not seen any weapons since he had arrived in town.
“We’ve gone through this already. I’m Rachel. This is Rachel’s hand. And the next step is for you to take Rachel’s hand and shake it. Then we can both go back to admiring the statue.”
“I was not admiring the statue.”
Rachel’s eyebrow lifted in disagreement but she kept her arm out and pointing toward Tomas.
Tomas took a breath and shook Rachel’s hand. “I’m Tomas.”
Rachel’s grip was strong and she pumped his arm twice forcefully. Tomas could feel rough calluses on her palm and at the base of her thumb.
“See, that wasn’t too bad, was it?” Rachel said as she let go of his hand.
She leaned against the wall and returned her gaze the statue. “You’re going to steal it, aren’t you?” she asked.
Scatter barked again.
Tomas grabbed the hilt of his dagger and prepared himself. He studied the people around the square expecting to find town guards preparing to swarm in. He saw only merchants calling out their goods, and crowds of townspeople holding canvas bags filled with foodstuff, flowers, and fabrics. He stepped away from Rachel.
“Well that settles it then,” Rachel said with a smile. “Don’t worry, Tomas. I’m not going to tell anyone.”
“What are you talking about?” Tomas asked trying to catch his breath. How had the girl known? “Why would I want that silly statue? That’s crazy. I should be going. I don’t take it kindly when people accuse me of criminal behavior.”
“Don’t be silly,” Rachel said. “As I’ve been looking for you for quite a while, it wouldn’t make sense for you to leave just when I found you.”