Magic of thieves, p.10

Magic of Thieves, page 10

 

Magic of Thieves
 


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  I ducked beneath the oncoming blade and threw myself into our enemy’s ankles.

  CHAPTER TEN

  It wasn’t a brave tactic or well planned, but it worked. The priest rocked on his legs, I tightened my arms around his boots so he couldn’t steady himself, and he fell backward, slamming into the ground. Immediately, I heard the quick crunch of approaching footsteps signaling Brig and Kinsley moving in and I gripped my arms more firmly around our opponent’s legs.

  I heard his hand scrabbling in the dirt for his dropped blade as he grated at me, “Release me or I’ll be forced to kill you!”

  I ignored his words and held fast.

  “Wicked little wretch…” he muttered.

  I wasn’t in a position to see anything besides his dusty feet, but I heard the sound of his hand discovering his sword hilt. I braced myself for the blow I was certain would be forthcoming. It fell, ringing across my skull like hammer on anvil, and I saw bright lights. Stunned, I briefly lost awareness of my surroundings before consciousness came roaring back. I heard sounds of conflict around me and realized the priest had slipped out of my grasp.

  Crawling dizzily to my knees, head ringing so harshly I was powerless to do more once I got there than sit in the dirt, I observed the scene unfolding before me. The outlaws stood before the priest, obviously only going through the motions of a fight they didn’t believe they could win. Kinsley’s sleeve was soaked in red, his arm hanging limp. Brig stood weaponless, as if he would clash with the swordsman bare handed. His face spelled defeat and my throat constricted with fear as the priest drew back his blade.

  “Wait!” The unexpected shout came from Kinsley. “There’s no sense to this,” he said to the priest. “You kill us and our lad in the tree up there will still shoot you afterward. It’ll be a short-lived victory for you.”

  He indicated Kipp, crouched high in his tree.

  The priest said, “Your boy would have to shoot me before I reached him and as he has yet to do so, I suspect he lacks either the skill or the nerve. I’ll take my chances.”

  Only the way he panted between words gave away his weariness.

  Kinsley said, “Kill him, kill all of us, and you only seal your fate. The captain of our band is a vengeful man with a deadly reputation. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Rideon the Red Hand.”

  He paused expectantly, but if he thought to find our enemy impressed, he must have been disappointed, for the priest’s expression never altered. Kinsley frowned and continued with, “Rideon won’t let you walk free to boast of besting his men for long. You might go on for a year or two thinking yourself safe, but the Hand has a long memory and a far reach. Sooner or later, the morning will come when you wake to find your throat slit and your family drowning in their blood.”

  The priest appeared unconcerned. “I have no family to fear for and, as you’ve already discovered for yourselves, my throat is singularly hard to slit,” he said. “I think you attribute more power to this outlaw captain of yours than such a man could possibly possess. Still, you’ve captured my interest. Who is this ‘Red Hand’ people in these parts speak of with such dread?”

  “I offer you the chance to find out,” Kinsley said. “He’d like to meet a man with your skills.”

  “An interesting offer,” said the priest. “But despite a degree of morbid curiosity, I’ve no desire to sit down opposite some murderous scoundrel as if we were on peaceable terms. It is not my habit to keep company with thieves and criminals.”

  Kinsley wasn’t to be defeated. “A bargain, then? Allow us to keep our lives today and we’ll return the favor the next time you pass through our woods.”

  “Now that is the sort of agreement I can appreciate,” said the priest. “But let us go a step further, shall we? You allow these good traveling companions of mine to depart in peace and in full possession of all they bear with them and in exchange, I’ll give you your lives.”

  Kinsley looked at once relieved and uncertain. “The Hand will be angry if we return empty handed. It’s not only about the goods. We were told a certain nobleman travels in your caravan under the guise of a commoner. Rideon believes such a person would bring in a tidy ransom.”

  “I have been in the company of these folk since Black Cliffs. I can assure you none of them are any person of importance, traveling under pretense. Each is as humble as he appears. As an Honored One, you know my word is beyond question.”

  Kinsley hesitated, but even he knew priests didn’t lie. “Very well, I’ll tell the Hand you’ve sworn it for truth,” the outlaw said. “You and your companions are free to go as you please.”

  There was no gripping of hands to seal the agreement. The priest simply turned his back on us and began helping the travelers reload their belongings. Many of them had already taken the opportunity to flee off down the road and those who remained gathered their scattered possessions with a haste that said they were just glad to be leaving with their lives. I believed they would have abandoned their belongings right there on the road if not for the priest’s organization. I half expected some of the outlaws to break the truce and attack the priest as soon as he was off his guard, but they didn’t. Kinsley, Brig, and a handful of others who conveniently found themselves able to stand again busied themselves with checking our injured.

  Brig came over to inspect my head injury and not until I felt his hands trembling as they fingered the lump where the priest’s sword hilt had struck me did I realize how anxious he’d been for me. Awkward at his concern, I assured him I was well enough, although my head continued to throb so that I wasn’t entirely sure of the truth to my words. Brig glared daggers at the priest’s back but made no irrational move toward him and I was thankful for that, as I didn’t feel up to defending him just now.

  He ordered me not to walk about until I regained my color, so I sat and concentrated on nothing but slowing the waves of dizziness pulsing over me. I was so distracted that I didn’t immediately notice when someone sank to the ground beside me.

  “Mind if I join you for a moment to catch my breath?” asked the priest, as casually as if we had not been trying to kill one another mere moments before.

  I eyed him warily. “Won’t your friends leave without you? They seem in a rush to be on their way.”

  “I can catch up,” he said carelessly.

  Out of the corner of one eye, I watched as he rested his sword across his knee and dragged a grey sleeve across his sweaty face. This was my first chance to study the man as more than a blur of motion and without the distraction of keeping out of his sword’s reach. He looked weary, covered in dust and spattered with the blood of my comrades. Beneath the grime was a strong, broad face with a long jaw and a nose as straight as it was wide. I was unsurprised no previous combatants had ever been able to get past his wide sweep to mar the clean proportions of his face.

  Unable to resist my curiosity, I probed at the man’s mind with a thin thread of magic. I didn’t know him well enough to form a good connection, but for just a moment I brushed against his consciousness. And then I lost the link as he started, whirling to seize me roughly by the jaw and glare piercingly into my eyes. Startled as much by the knowing in his expression as by the abrupt action, I jerked the tendril of magic into myself again. Or tried to. But suddenly, it was being wrested from my grip and flung back at me with shocking force. The jar to my senses was almost a physical one and I gasped as if a heavy weight had slammed into me.

  “Serves you right for prying where you don’t belong,” said the priest, putting a steadying hand on my shoulder, despite the harsh words. “Hold on a moment and take deep breaths until the weakness passes. Perhaps I was rougher than I intended to be.”

  “I don’t understand. What did you do to me?” I asked. “I’ve never felt anything like that.”

  “You intruded where you had no right. I scooped you up and threw you back into yourself,” he said. “Until you think you’re strong enough to out-magic me, keep your grubby little mind out of my head.


  “My mind isn’t grubby,” I said. “And I couldn’t be less interested in what goes on in yours.”

  “If you say so.”

  He turned his shoulder to me and appeared content to forget my presence. But his words were sinking in and, looking at him askance, I realized that for the first time in years I was in the presence of another magicker. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass. Not when I had so many questions. But did I trust this peculiar stranger enough to ask them?

  As I debated within myself, I saw the priest’s lips quirk upward in a faint smile.

  “You’re reading my thoughts,” I accused. “Surely what you said about intruding on other people’s minds goes both ways, my lord.”

  He looked startled. “Why do you call me that?”

  “You’re not the only one who knows things,” I said smugly. “You told Kinsley that none of your companions was a nobleman traveling in disguise, but you said nothing of yourself. You see, I’m accustomed to the cunning ways dishonest priests can twist their words. There are a thousand ways to lie without uttering an untruth. But then, I suppose you aren’t a real Honored anyway, are you? Everyone knows priests of the Light take a vow against violence. Who ever heard of one carrying a blade and not hesitating to use it?”

  He smiled. “I assure you, my young friend, the priest in me is every bit as real as the warrior, and the nobleman’s blood is just another piece of the whole. I gave up my title and inheritance long ago to become one of the Blades of Justice. It’s the only priestly order permitting violence—but always for a righteous cause. I’ve now retired from that life as well and these days I travel through the land on nothing more urgent than my whims.”

  He glanced around and lowered his voice. “I hope I can trust you to keep the secret of my identity to yourself. I don’t think either of us wants to stir up more trouble with your comrades.”

  I had questions, not the least of which was why he would give up a comfortable inheritance to join an order of warrior priests.

  But he evaded further questions by saying, “As for your other accusation, I was not prying into your thoughts. You were throwing them at me. You must train yourself to keep your feelings guarded in the presence of those with the talent for sensing them. It’s not good, walking around, crying out your thoughts and emotions to everyone within hearing distance.”

  I shrugged. “I can’t prevent myself thinking. The mind runs free as it pleases, whether given permission or not.”

  He said, “There’s a discipline I could teach you, if you like. Someone should. I cannot imagine how your parents neglected such basic instruction.”

  “My parents are dead,” I said stiffly. “Killed in the Praetor’s cleansings.”

  “I’m sorry to hear it,” he said. “The province lost many magickers during those years, but the worst of those times are over now. And the thinning of our numbers only makes it all the more imperative those of us remaining teach our younglings what they need to know to survive with their abilities.”

  “My magic and I have gotten along just fine up to now,” I said. “Anyway, assuming I needed help, you’re scarcely the tutor I would choose for myself.”

  “We can’t always be particular about what we learn or where. You may never receive such an offer again and I know that would disappoint you. I can feel the thirst for knowledge burning within you. You’re just waiting to be talked into it.”

  “You’re reading my mind again,” I said, drawing back.

  “Your thoughts are not words to be read off a page,” he corrected. “Following emotions is a subtle thing, like catching a whisper or a scent carried on the breeze. You don’t need to see the source to be aware of the resulting effect. Anyway, think on my offer. There is much I could teach you, given a few months, if you chose to come with me.”

  “That’s impossible. My entire life is in Dimmingwood. I could no more leave my friends or the forest than I could abandon a part of myself. It’s not that I don’t want to…”

  “I know. But what you want more is to be him,” he said.

  “Him? Him who?”

  “This Red Hand everybody speaks of.”

  I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, but he gave me no opportunity to do so.

  “Never mind,” he said. “If you should reconsider, you can find me at the Temple of Light in Selbius on the first day of Middlefest. If you miss me there, inquire among the river people for Hadrian. I am known to them.”

  He left me with much to think over. Our bedraggled band returned to Red Rock, empty-handed but for the dead and injured we carried with us. At first, Rideon and the rest of the band were disinclined to believe we had suffered such damage at the hands of a lone swordsman dressed in priest’s robes. But no one could deny the proof of the corpses we buried that day. Another wounded man died before the day was out.

  These losses only furthered my confusion. I didn’t know what to make of Hadrian’s offer. The knowledge he promised filled me with a frightening excitement, even as I wondered if it would be traitorous to seek out the company of a man who had slaughtered my fellows. I trailed Javen the rest of the day, helping him care for the wounded, but my mind was scarcely on the task.

  As I worked, I heard a lot of talk about the gray-clad priest, some of it angry, some reluctantly admiring. All the while I bathed bloody cuts and held slashed sections of skin together for Javen to stitch up, I kept thinking of new questions to ask Hadrian if we met again.

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  During the following weeks, travelers and traders flocked to Selbius from the surrounding countryside, intent on arriving early before the Middlefest celebrations. Those who passed through Dimming left the shadowed wood significantly poorer than they had entered it.

  There was a constant flow of comings and goings about both our camps during that time. To my disappointment, I was largely left out of the activity. Brig’s fears, seemingly confirmed by my mishap with the priest, had again become a deterrent. I was also kept busy with the menial tasks around camp the others no longer had time for. That I couldn’t blame on Brig, although I was certain if there was a way he could have increased my workload to keep me at Red Rock more, he would have.

  These were my thoughts one afternoon in mid-spring, as I stalked through the cool forest shadows with Terrac. I led us here in hopes of hunting down one of the sly hedge rabbits that loved to nibble among the thickets of hopeberries. Our band had feasted on thin potato porridge for three consecutive days, and I meant to have meat for supper tonight of it took me all day to hunt it down.

  Terrac, unfortunately, didn’t share my determination. He crashed carelessly through the bushes, heedless of the noise he made, as he collected bright berries to be later mashed into inks for his scribbling. Whatever game was in the area was probably fleeing his noise even now, but I stifled my rising irritation. No point in taking my frustrations out on him.

  “I don’t think there’s any game here, Terrac,” I said. “I’m going to try over near Dancing Creek, all right? Maybe you should wait for me here. Just keep on with what you’re doing.”

  In place of response, Terrac gave a startled cry. He had moved on ahead of me and a high wall of brambles concealed him from my view.

  “Terrac? What is it?” I asked.

  No answer.

  I moved after him, concerned he might have stepped on a venomous snake or happened upon an angry bear. Dragging my hunting knife free of my belt in case I was called on to defend us, I charged into the bramble bush, ignoring the sharp thorns snagging at my skin and clothes, as I wrestled my way through to Terrac.

  He was on his knees bent over the form of an unconscious man, lying in a shallow pool of blood. The stranger lay with his belly to the earth, the toes of his boots pushed into the dirt, his hands formed into claws, gripping tightly at a clump of weeds as though he had tried to drag himself further, before surrendering to his weakness. I dropped to one knee at his side and together Terrac and I turned him over.

/>   His face was so battered and covered in blood that it took me a moment to note the distinctive scar lining his brow to the hairline and a narrow shock of white hair growing in that spot. It was this which helped me identify him as Garad from Molehill, one of our men. I didn’t know him well, for he hadn’t been up to Red Rock much, but I vaguely remembered him as a quiet man who used to chat with Brig.

  “He lives,” Terrac told me, quietly.

  Pressing my ear over the man’s heart, I listened to the faint uneven rhythm. As we watched, his eyelids suddenly flew open and he glared around him wildly.

  “Garad, it’s all right.” I hastened to soothe him. “We’re no enemies. You know us.”

  He fastened his gaze on me and I thought there was confused recognition in his eyes before a convulsion of pain distorted his features.

  Unthinkingly, I summoned my magic and directed it toward the suffering man, attempting to convey a sense of calm or comfort to his mind. Friends were here. There was no fear, no pain. I knew it was hopeless the moment I touched him. I could feel his life flickering like a guttering candle between existence and oblivion, and I didn’t think my calming suggestions were reaching him. He was too deeply steeped in his suffering. Still, I felt his reason fighting determinedly to the forefront.

  He drew a ragged breath and I expected him to scream out his pain, but he didn’t. Somehow he held the torment back enough to grate out his message. “Fists… t-tell the Hand it was Resid and the Fists. T-tried to fight back, but they knew we were coming. Warn… the others…”

  I left Terrac to memorize the message because I could listen with only half my mind. Most of my attention focused on the inward struggle to find and unravel the threads of Garad’s pain and it wasn’t working. His emotions were tangled and confused, and I couldn’t insinuate my thoughts into them. I tried another tactic, tracing the pain to its source and wrapping my mind around it. I couldn’t smother the force, but I could hold the worst of it back from his consciousness.

 
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