By Stephen Schamber
Being followed wasn't new to Emmie, so at first it made her only mildly nervous. It had happened every few weeks since her parents died and she'd started living on the street. Usually it was other street urchins who wanted to find out where she hid her things. To keep that from happening, she'd decided to make two hideouts. One was in town, in a secret basement under an old warehouse that nobody used anymore. Most of her things were stashed there. It was a good spot, since the trapdoor to the basement was difficult to find.
The second was where she was headed now, an abandoned badger hole that she'd widened until she could slip inside it. She didn't store as many of her things here, but if something was too valuable to risk having stolen and she didn't want to carry it all the time, she buried it in the back of the hole. The few things she'd recovered from the wreckage of her family's house and her small amount of money, for example, were hidden here.
The hole was hidden in the small clump of twisty trees outside of town, to which most of the street urchins never ventured. She'd come out here with her mother to play in the past, and later by herself. She knew the little grove and the murky pond at its center well. The badger hole was between the pond and town, and if you stood in front of the hole you could see the city wall through the trees.
Her strategy for dealing with a tail was simple. She waited until there was barely enough light left to see, then went out of town. Most of the street urchins didn't know the countryside at all, certainly not as well as she did. This little stand of trees was also thought to be haunted by most of the children, and they stayed away from it. If they had been able to follow her that far, which none ever had, the combination of darkness, undergrowth and potential ghosts would make them turn back.
When Emmie passed through the gate, she always looked back at the lit area to find out who was following her. Interactions among street urchins were based heavily on trust and loyalty, and alternately on suspicion. If you wanted to survive, you had to be careful with whom you chose to associate and how far you trusted them. Street urchins had no ability to own property, and therefore no legally protected place to store their possessions. Anything you didn't carry on your person could be freely taken from where you left it by anybody. It was one of the first and most painful lessons Emmie had learned about living on the street.
However, no one could take your things if they couldn’t find them. Secrecy was the only way they had to protect their possessions, so street urchins spent a lot of time finding or making cleverly concealed storage spaces. Hidden rooms, abandoned buildings and old tunnels were thoroughly explored and used as hiding places. These places usually doubled as their sleeping quarters, since they were sheltered and bedding was difficult to carry around.
In fact, blankets were probably a street kid's single most important possession. During winter they could be the difference between life and death. Thus, the place a street urchin hid their blankets was generally their most closely-guarded secret, entrusted to only the most loyal of friends. It was important to know who you could trust, which was why Emmie had developed the trick with the gate. Anybody who was trailing you to your hiding place was definitely untrustworthy.
Today two adult men were following her instead of the one child she'd expected. That had been a shock. Under ordinary circumstances, she'd be mystified as to why two grown men would be following her. A street urchin had little that an adult would consider worth stealing. The town guard might arrest you if you were in trouble or if the mayor had decided to crack down on beggars and riffraff again, but didn't often follow you.
Other things had happened to street urchins recently however, which came to mind quickly. In the last four weeks, three street urchins had disappeared. A child new to living on the streets vanishing wasn't necessarily unusual; it was a hard life, and most came to it in traumatic circumstances. However, Cyril, Eric and Louis had all survived for years. Emmie hadn't really wanted to believe that they'd been kidnapped, though she'd never liked any of them. It was frightening to think that someone was kidnapping the street urchins. Not only was it clearly true, but it looked like she was going to be next. Her imagination was now working three times harder than normal inventing horrors that might be in store for her if she was snatched.
She slipped through the woods, which now seemed far too thin to her, and squirmed backward into the badger hole. She didn't think they'd seen where she'd gone, but she'd been relying on losing them long before she reached the woods, let alone the hole. None of the street urchins could track her through the undergrowth long enough to reach the woods. Maybe the men wouldn't be able to find her. If they did, hopefully she'd be able to get loose long enough to run away.
Her father's knife was one of few things she considered valuable enough to carry at all times. She'd slid it out of its sheath, and now held it clenched in her right hand. As weapons went it was relatively insignificant, certainly not something guards would be concerned by. Ownership of most other weapons was restricted in town, but many people had knives. Hers was more tool than weapon, but it was large enough to serve as one. She doubted she could do any significant damage with it, but it might give her the opportunity she needed to get away if they found her.
She wriggled in the hole, trying to get comfortable and calm down. She tried to control her breathing, so that it wouldn't give her away if they got closer. It was going to be a scary night at best. Alone and quiet in her hole, she waited.