Magic of thieves, p.3

Magic of Thieves, page 3


Magic of Thieves

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  After they were gone, I stirred enough to wrap my arms around myself as shivers wracked my body, not all of them from the cold. Even with my head averted, I couldn’t get the memory of Wim’s corpse out of my mind. I had seen many deaths lately.

  I became aware of the sound of something large crashing through the underbrush. The noise grew nearer and then the returning brigand broke out onto the road.

  Scooping me up in strong arms, the bald man said, “Come along then, little dog. I’ve been thinking on it and I cannot abandon you here.”

  At last I found my tongue. “I’m not a dog; I’m a girl. Dogs don’t talk.”

  “And girls don’t bite.”

  He lifted me up onto his broad shoulders and we moved off after the others, leaving the road, horse and wagon, and dead peddler behind.


  I must have fallen asleep while the man carried me, for I remember nothing of the trek to the outlaw camp. Awaking sometime later, I found myself lying amid an itchy pile of leaves heaped over a hard stone floor. The sound of voices had stirred me from my sleep. Looking into the surrounding darkness, I could see no one. I had no idea where I was but felt too weary to be afraid. For the first time in what seemed like a long time, I was warm and dry and that was enough to content me.

  Nearby, I could hear a continuous roaring sound like the rushing of water, but it was impossible to identify what direction it came from. The darkness was deep and the noise echoed loudly around me, bouncing off the surrounding walls. It was strangely lulling and I lay still, eyes closed once more, listening to that mighty roar and feeling the fogginess of sleep rising up to claim me again. I no longer remembered what had awakened me.

  Then a second noise filtered through my consciousness—a nagging buzz, a faint murmur at the edge of my hearing. Drowsily, I tried to ignore it, but the sound was persistent and grew louder, soon resolving itself into the low cadence of approaching voices. Men’s voices, frightening and unfamiliar. I squeezed my eyes shut tighter and burrowed down into the mold-scented leaves as they drew nearer. I began to distinguish snatches of their conversation.

  “Your little hound is snug enough in her leafy bed. Wish I could say the same for myself, but I’ll not sleep a wink, wondering what he’ll do when he hears about her. And he will hear. The Hand knows everything that happens in this forest.”

  A second, deeper voice answered. “We’ve a reprieve until morning. Surely by then we’ll figure the best way of explaining everything.”

  The gaps in the conversation grew fewer the nearer they came, until the voices were hovering directly over me. I kept as still as a mouse beneath the shadow of a hawk. I was very aware of the little bits of dry leaves that had worked their way into my clothing and were itching against my skin now, but I dared not twitch so much as a muscle to relieve my discomfort.

  “Easy for you to say, Brig,” the first voice argued. “You’re not the one he’ll blame. I had charge of you all, so it’s me that’ll be taken to account for what went wrong.”

  “I’ll take the responsibility on myself,” his companion rumbled. “Bringing the child here was my idea and I’ll own up to it.”

  “I wouldn’t want to be in your place when you do. And don’t forget there’s the dead man to account for as well. The Hand orders us to lie low for a bit and what do we do? We go and kill an old peddler and steal a child, either of which could call the Praetor’s attention down on us.”

  I dared open my eyes into narrow slits just wide enough to peer up at the two shadowy figures standing over me. I recognized the giant named Dradac and the bald, bearded outlaw he called Brig.

  Brig said, “I doubt there’ll be much fuss over an old man found dead in a forest lane. The Praetor has bigger things on his mind.”

  “I hope you’re right. But I reckon there’ll be time enough to deal with our problems in the morning, after we’ve had a bit of rest,” Dradac said.

  His footsteps rang hollowly as he moved away, calling out, “What about you? Aren’t you sleeping tonight? Kinsley says you’ve got the midnight watch.”

  “Right. Think I’ll stay here until then and keep an eye on the little one.”

  The retreating footsteps hesitated. “Brig, you know the child’s not yours to keep, right? You understand she can’t stay long in Dimmingwood? The Hand would never allow it. Your sons are gone and Netta with them. There’s no bringing your family back or replacing them with this girl.”

  “What do you know of my family?” Brig asked sharply. “What have you heard? Do the others joke about my story around the campfire?”

  Dradac sounded placating. “Of course not. I don’t think most people even remember what happened. You know there’s no place in the band for any man’s past or future. The here and now keeps us busy enough.”

  Satisfied I was in no immediate danger, my eyelids were growing heavy. The men’s voices droned on, but I ceased to listen to the words. Drowsiness stole over me again and I dismissed the strange men and the itchy leaves against my skin. My bed was warm and soft and I slipped easily into a deep slumber.

  It seemed like only a short time before I was awakened by a rough shaking.

  “Wake up, little dog. You want to sleep the morning away?” a voice asked.

  Strong hands took me beneath the arms, lifting me to my feet. Bleary eyed and confused, I tried in vain to find something familiar in my surroundings. I stood in a nook at the back of an immense cave, a thick pile of leaves heaped at my feet.

  The muscular, bearded man with the shaved head loomed over me again, and I remembered his name. Brig. Rather than feeling frightened, I was strangely comforted by his presence. I was being looked after. There was nothing to fear.

  He took my small hand in his large, callused one and wordlessly led me through a maze of dark warrens, a network of tunnels formed in stone. Dimly glowing lanterns hung at irregular intervals along the walls, providing a faint flickering light that illumined our steps. I was glad of the firm hand gripping mine, because alone I would have felt lost and frightened in this place. But with the big man beside me, it was an adventure.

  One of the areas we passed was filled with crates and wooden barrels. Canvas sacks lined the walls and out of the open mouths of these peeked potatoes and dried beans. Cooking pots and overturned copper tubs were stored here also, and a stack of split kindling was piled in one corner. From the walls hung an assortment of various tools I didn’t recognize. A polished silver tray and bowl set, incongruous in these surroundings, rested atop one barrel. Bundles of colorful silk were leaned carelessly against a wall, and from a wide-mouthed sack shoved forgotten into a corner a collection of glittering jewelry spilled onto the floor. I had no opportunity to stare, for Brig quickly led me past this alcove and into a larger low-ceilinged cavern.

  Here I glimpsed tattered blankets and bed stuffs heaped around the floor and a scattering of personal belongings set atop wooden boxes or hung from the walls. Images and symbols had been painstakingly etched into the stone of ceiling and walls. There was a snarling bear’s head, a leaping deer, and various other woodland creatures. In the center of the wall, one particular carving stood out, taking precedence over the others, a large impression of a man’s hand, colored in red. I would have looked at that longer, but Brig never slowed, tugging me along at his side, and we left this area behind us.

  The rushing, roaring sound I had been vaguely aware of since waking became louder now. We passed a small opening, through which a faint glow of daylight penetrated, and I had a brief glimpse of a foaming waterfall sheeting down over this window to the outside. Brig allowed me no opportunity to gape and the waterfall slipped out of my sight as quickly as it had appeared, its roar fading as we distanced ourselves from it.

  Ahead, I caught sight of another small pinpoint of daylight. This grew larger as we approached, until it proved to be a man-sized hole, through which I could see trees and greenery. Brig pushed me out this exit ahead of him, and I stepped into the soft glow
of early morning.

  I stood in a large clearing, ringed on two sides by pines and giant elder trees and backed by the great formation of red rock behind me. A deep, clear stream ran along one side of the clearing, fed by the waterfall tumbling from the rocks over the cave. A fire pit marked the center of the camp, and a number of men sat around the flames, resting on overturned logs or on bare earth. There were about a dozen outlaws in the camp, some of them eating or busying themselves with chores, others sitting back at their ease. One carried an armload of fresh kindling. A pair of others tended the campfire and the kettle bubbling over it.

  The scent emanating from that stewpot made my stomach rumble, but my companion dragged me past it. I was led straight across the clearing and into the shadow of the trees. Here a man wearing nothing but his breeches sat on an overturned keg. His back was toward us and he leaned forward to study his reflection on the surface of a polished copper plate that had been nailed onto the tree before him. At our approach, he didn’t pause from the task of scraping stubble from his chin with a sharpened blade.

  I studied the back of his head with less interest than I would have felt for a taste of whatever had been cooking in that stewpot. His black hair was cropped so close you could see the shape of his skull. His arms and back were well muscled, but I thought, if standing, he would probably be the shortest man present. I found him less impressive than the red-haired giant, Dradac, or even Brig at my side.

  “So. This is the source of all the trouble, is it?” the stranger asked, finally turning to look me over.

  I was startled by the intensity of his deeply set jewel-green eyes, which stood out starkly against tanned skin. Such bright eyes were rare in magickless people. His face was long and narrow, his cheekbones prominent above a sharply crooked nose that looked as if it had been broken many times. Several small scars decorated his face and a number of larger ones were visible across his chest.

  Even newly awakened to my magic as I was, I sensed there was something dangerous about this man, that he had the power to make people think and do as he chose. Under his penetrating gaze, I forsook my attempt to stare him down and ducked behind Brig’s leg to hide. It was a reaction so natural in the face of this stranger and his cold eyes that I was scarcely even aware of doing it.

  The motion did not escape notice. The jewel-eyed man laughed—a harsh barking sound that held no warmth. “You see that, men?” He raised his voice to the nearest outlaws. “The runt is frightened of me. Am I such a terrible sight, then? Brig, a fine pet you’ve taken in. I’ve seen dead fish with more backbone.” Then, “Look me in the eye, child!” he demanded sternly of me. “Do you know who I am?”

  I stared at him, silent.

  He seemed not to mind. If anything, I thought he enjoyed my nervousness as he said, “I am the outlaw leader they call Rideon the Red Hand. Or simply the Hand to my more intimate friends and enemies. And how did I come by that name, you must be asking yourself?”

  He leaned in close, as if about to impart a secret, and answered his own question. “I’ll tell you how. I earned it by hard deeds and rebellion against the Praetor’s laws. Look here at these hands, child.”

  I stared at the hands he extended palms upward and saw nothing remarkable. They were dirty, work-roughened hands with short, uneven nails.

  “There’s blood on them!” he barked suddenly so that I flinched.

  I didn’t see any blood but thought it might make him angry if I said so. He leaned back and regarded me as if disappointed by my lack of reaction. I had no notion what he expected of me and we simply stared at one another until he seemed to tire of it, asking abruptly, “What name does your family call you by, girl?”

  I was too uneasy to speak, but an observer behind us put in with a laugh, “Brig calls her Little Dog.”

  We had become the center of attention in the camp and the other outlaws stopped their tasks to observe our encounter. The outlaw named Rideon appeared to enjoy having an audience.

  “Dog, eh? I think I would call her a little rabbit. She has all the pluck of one.”

  A round of amused laughter followed this statement and when it died, Rideon addressed Brig. “And what exactly do you plan on doing with this child? I’m given to understand it was your notion to bring her here.”

  There was no mistaking the displeasure in his voice.

  Brig was prepared for the question. “She can’t stay among us; I understand that well enough. I figure I’ll search around for any family to claim her. If I can’t find any living, I’ll leave her in one of the woods villages, where folk will surely see that she’s not allowed to starve.”

  Rideon said flatly, “I’ve a more practical solution. Drown her.”

  Brig didn’t seem to know what to make of that. “You’re jesting,” he said, but he sounded uncertain.

  “Not at all. It’d be simple enough. We’ve a convenient stream on hand. No, wait… We wouldn’t want to foul the drinking water, would we? Better yet, break her neck and bury her someplace away from camp.”

  Brig sounded dismayed. “I could never do that. Not to a little one.”

  A threatening note crept into Rideon’s voice. “Are you refusing to obey your captain’s orders?”

  The surrounding outlaws moved back a little, bloodthirsty anticipation in their eyes.

  Brig appeared to choose his words carefully. “No,” he responded at length. “Not refusing, just asking for a reason. Why should she die? What harm is she to anyone?”

  At his mild response, the tension in the air subsided and Rideon leaned back to study the bald man thoughtfully. “Very well,” he said. “I’m a reasonable man and I’ve no objection to answering an honest question. The truth is, you’ve only yourself to thank for the girl’s fate. She must die because she’s seen too much—things we can’t afford to have become common knowledge. I shouldn’t have to explain the obvious to you. Just imagine, wouldn’t the Fists love to know where we’re hiding?”

  “But she’s so small,” Brig argued. “She slept in my arms most of the journey and could never find her way here again, let alone lead others. Who would listen to such a child anyway?”

  Rideon considered me. There was no dislike in his eyes. To either like or dislike me wasn’t worth his effort, any more than he would have troubled himself to bear ill will toward an ant. “You’re certain she couldn’t return, leading our enemies along behind her?” he asked. “Certain enough to risk all our lives on it?”

  “I’m sure of it,” Brig said.

  I stood by quietly, listening to this exchange but not feeling terribly afraid for my life. I instinctively trusted Brig to protect me. It hardly occurred to me to wonder if or why he would.

  Brig continued. “It’s not a far walk to Coldstream, and if I travel all night after dropping her there, I can be back at camp by morning.”

  “And leave others to do your duties and take over your watch for you, I suppose?”

  Brig had no answer planned for that, but one of his comrades saved him by speaking up. “I’ll stand in for him,” the outlaw said. “It’s only for a day anyway. We done rescued the runt from starving on the road. It’s only fitting we see her through to safety.”

  There arose a noise of general agreement at these words.

  Rideon looked around him and must have seen the novelty of a generous deed appealed to his followers. The dangerous spark fled from his eyes and he appeared reconciled to the idea.

  “Of course it is fitting. We will do right by the child,” he said, as though the plan had been his own, and he told Brig to make preparations for our journey straight away.

  Now that my fate was decided, I lost interest in the big peoples’ conversation. The other spectators also appeared to grow bored as they realized there would be no physical confrontation between Brig and their captain, and they drifted away.

  My belly loudly proclaimed its emptiness and, propelled by my hunger, I wandered from Brig’s side and over to the campfire. The redheaded giant, Dr
adac, and some others were seated on stumps before the flames. Dradac was occupied with fletching a stack of shaved wooden shafts at his feet. He whistled a cheerful tune as he worked and, observing my longing looks toward the stewpot, soon took pity on me.

  “Hungry, little dog?” he asked.

  When I nodded eagerly, he spooned up a portion of warm venison stew into a carved wooden bowl.

  “Don’t feed the hound, Dradac. It’ll think it can hang around the table,” another outlaw joked as I fell to.

  But the giant only laughed and refilled my bowl each time it came up empty, until I could hold no more. I was just setting my bowl aside when Brig appeared out of nowhere to collect me, and we left the camp, setting off on a long trek through the forest.

  Here my clearest memories of that time come to an end. I recall nothing of the journey to the woods village of Coldstream, nor of Brig setting me down near its sheltering walls and shooing me in the proper direction. All I know is the tale I grew up hearing from the outlaws of how Brig made the return journey alone that night and of how, within two days time, I showed up at their camp again. Everyone said I must have put my nose to the ground like a true hound and traced Brig’s tracks.

  Further attempts were made to pry me from my chosen home. But I clung to the leg of Brig, whom I had claimed as mine, and resisted relocation so loudly and vehemently the brigands were moved by my determination—or perhaps merely exhausted by it. “It’s a ferocious little hound you’ve got there, Brig,” one outlaw remarked admiringly.

  Eventually, Rideon was called in to make his wishes known. I remember huddling against Brig, shivering and half-frozen after my return trek from the woods village. I stared up at the outlaw leader and Rideon the Red Hand gazed down on me coldly.

  He spared us a long suspense, declaring emotionlessly, “The hound may stay. From this day on, she will live and work among us and be treated as one of ours. And, as she cannot remain a hound forever, today I also give her a name. Ilan, after a faithful tracker I once had. That stenched dog could trail a mole through a snowstorm.”

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