Chapter Eight: The Tasks, Part I

As I followed Callen's lead and dismounted from my horse I heard a bell tolling loudly in the distance from the direction of the palace. It was Midday.

"Are you ready to begin?" Callen was patting his horse while collecting the reins and refused to look me in the eye.

"No," I snorted tossing my own reins to him knowing that as trusty as my mare was, she wasn't going to be of any use to me in the city. "But let's get started anyway."

I managed to get a smile out of him, albeit a very weak one. "I suppose the time has come then to prove yourself."

I returned the watery smile with one of my own. "But who am I proving myself to?"

"I hope you figure that out before the coming morning."

"If I survive…"

Callen gave me a moment to wallow in my own self-pity before he beckoned me away from the horses.

"The Tasks that you are going to be performing are completed in three phases that will end tomorrow morning when the sun rises. You will be informed of each Task after you complete the one before it. Each Task also has a time limit. The first Task is going to be a test of your stealth. You must make your way to the West Gate to a tavern called the Tera's River by sundown, without being seen by anyone that will recognize you as taking the test."

"That's it?" Sneaking around a city couldn't be that hard.

"If you are seen, then my people have orders to kill you before you can reach Tera's River. You are allowed to defend yourself as well, but be forewarned that if you don't kill those that recognize you they will alert the rest of us to your presence."

I nodded with understanding, and I felt sweat already beginning to trickle down the back of my neck. Right now, I wasn't sure if I had it in me to kill another human, but hopefully I would be able to avoid any blood shed for at least this portion of the Tasks.

"The last requirement of this task is that you have until the evening bell rings to get to the tavern. You may begin now."

I stood as still as a rock for a moment trying to determine if Callen was being serious before I abruptly turned and began to jog back down the way that we had come. I thought I briefly heard him mutter words of good luck before anything else that I might have heard was drowned out by the sounds of city. Looking back just before I rounded the corner of the alleyway, I saw him leaning heavily against his stallion's flank almost as if he had suddenly grown very tired of the world around him.

It wasn't long before I once again came upon the enormity that was the East Gate. I briefly hung back around the corner watching people as they entered Grafel, scanning the crowd for anyone that I might be able to recognize. I was almost amazed at the different varieties of people that I saw mingling together. There were tall, lithe warriors with long wooden staffs hung across their backs with pale hair and skin that lived at the edges of the forests. Dark haired miners with tired eyes and hunched backs slowly shuffled their feet towards their destination, as orphaned children ran underfoot sneaking hands into the purses of those that weren't wary. I even thought that for moment I caught a glimpse of tiny elf, no taller than my knee, darting through the crowd to what I assumed would have been his stall in the Laes Market, and I momentarily mourned the loss of my cordase gown.

Cautiously, I took my first steps out into the open, trailing a hand along the filth that lingered on the wooden side of someone's home. Glancing up at the sky, I determined that the main street Callen and I had taken into Grafel would indeed lead me west and farther into the city. The only problem was that this same street would take me closer to Puprue District and the palace; two places which I wanted to avoid as much as possible. While I doubt anyone in those areas would have recognized me except the king or the crown prince, I did not want to tempt the sisters of fate, Falla and Yezul. They were known to be fickle goddesses that had, what some thought to be, an unusual sense of humor.

Wiping my hands on my pant legs, I took a deep breath before I stepped into the masses. Trying to be as polite as I could, I shoved and elbowed my way through the crowd until I found a stream of people that were headed towards the West Gate. Sticking close, I let the rush draw me in and, for a moment, I felt safe lost in a sea of colors, smells, and sounds. Suddenly, I was thankful for the bandana that was covering my hair because it offered me dual protection from those that would wish to take me back to the palace and those that would be trying to find me because of the Tasks.

I allowed myself to be swept farther and farther into the city. It wasn't long before I finally came upon the infamous Laes Market. It was situated in the exact middle of the city to allow all classes of people easy access in and out through four main entrances that were surrounded by wall. The road from the East Gate split in two and continued around the outside of the Market, so that those with business wouldn't have to fight the crowds within to get where they needed to go. The houses were no longer small shacks and lean-tos that only provided basic shelter, but instead were replaced with two story wooden homes that had curtains flapping in the breeze. Doorsteps were swept, and most had small gardens in the back with neat little rows of plants that looked well cared for.

The crowd that I was following began to split with the road, and I extracted myself momentarily and leaned against the side of the wall trying to determine my next move. No matter which way I took I would still be heading towards the West Gate, but the question was, which would offer me the most protection. I smacked the back of my head lightly against the wall wishing that my tutors had taught me more of the city that I was to be living in, rather than just focusing on the parts that they assumed I would stick to.

Oh, well. It's not as if they knew that I was going to get captured by a pack of thieves. I sighed. Not that would have changed their lessons even if they knew.

I stood there for a few more moments swirling the dust at my feet idly with a boot while I scanned the crowd. So far, I hadn't seen anyone that I recognized, which was starting to make me nervous. Those who were testing me had left an hour before I had, giving them plenty of time to set up my demise. Maybe they were waiting closer to the inn to at least give me chance, and I nearly laughed out loud at the thought. There was no reason to cut me any slack because, if anything, I was going to be more of a nuisance as the Princess of Thieves than I was now.

Sighing once more at my depressing train of thought, I started to head towards the Market, finally deciding that it was probably easier to slip unseen through a crowd than by being obvious by sneaking from building to building along the main road. I passed the Market guards with ease once more, and, though I knew that the kingdom wouldn't be missing me for another couple of days, I couldn't quell the butterflies in my stomach at the thought of someone recognizing me.

Inside the market, I was once again amazed at the activity of Grafel. Make shift walls that had been put up so that owners could keep their wares behind the counter without having to worry about someone stealing them. The walls also ended up creating small streets that were heavy with the Midday traffic. Those merchants that generated larger profits had actually built one and two story buildings with crudely cut stone and were clustered near the middle of the Market. Workers carrying loads on their backs shuffled slowly through the crowd while stall owners called out their wares in loud and boisterous voices. Whores with brightly painted faces and bells tied around their ankles eyed men from street corners. Upper class buyers sniffed the air with disdain as they walked from stall to stall with their servants weighed down by packages that had already been purchased, and more Market guards wandered keeping an eye on those they deemed less than worthy to be in the area.

Slowly, I meandered through dusty street after dusty street pausing every once in awhile to look at the items being sold at a shop. Most of the items were common enough to be bought at several stalls and were made far more poorly than the wealth that I was used to, but there were some stalls that sold exotic spices and ingredients that I had never encountered before. Once stall specialized in what looked like bugs on sticks, while another sold nothing but viscous plants that would try and close on a human finger if you got too close. The smell of baking bread and meat pies drifted to my nose, and even though I had had breakfast, my stomach growled longingly.

I was just passing the middle of the market with the stone buildings, intending to go right by them, when something shiny caught my eye. One of the more well-built buildings had rare glass windows that displayed all types of weapons. The glint of the sun shining off a beautifully made rapier is what had caught my attention. The double edged blade was razor sharp and had a design of flowering roses that was etched deep into the metal. The vines trailed down to the hilt that was wrapped in green leather with a ruby set where the hilt and the blade met. It was the most beautiful piece of workmanship that I had ever seen and for some reason that I couldn't explain, it took my breath away. I felt like weeping at the sight of it because there was something profoundly sad about it resting on top of the green velvet pillow. My hand automatically reached out to touch the glass before I could snatch it back, wondering what had come over me.

Even though, I knew what I was feeling towards the rapier wasn't normal I couldn't keep myself from walking into the store. Inside, the walls were lined with racks of weapons. Some contained long pikes and spears, while others held sharpened swords. Maces and axes hung from wooden pegs in the wall by the window and display cases placed strategically throughout the room held daggers ranging in size from the length of your elbow to your hand to the size of your smallest finger. A bell had rung as I entered, and a tall, portly man walked through a doorway leading to the back of the shop. His brown beard was well trimmed, and green eyes sparkled under thick brows. When he saw who it was that had just walked in, a brief frown crossed his face before he quickly replaced it with an engaging smile.

"What can I do you for missy?" His baritone voice filled the room.

I shifted uneasily from foot to foot, not knowing what to do, before I replied. "I'm – uh – just looking, sir."

The frown once again crossed his face, but he nodded curtly and moved behind a glass display case where he pulled out a rag and began to clean the nooks and crannies where no dust resided. Nervously, I shoved my hands in the pockets of my trousers before I lightly stepped over to where the rapier rested. Leaning over to peer more closely at it, I could smell the oils that had been used to clean and polish the metal. The scent washed over me like a close friend and, suddenly, I became lost in the image of the rapier.

I could almost feel that it was calling to me, begging me to just touch it. To caress it…to hold it. My right hand began to leave my pocket of its own accord, itching to feel the smooth leather hilt against my palm.

"That's a rare piece there, missy." The shopkeeper's voice coming from directly behind me broke whatever spell the rapier had over me and my hand paused in midair unsure of what to do next.

I brought it back and, once again, jammed it into my pocket silently willing it to behave. Turning around to find the large man standing over me, I gave him a watery smile and nodded. "Yes, it's very pretty."

The shopkeeper couldn't keep the scowl off his face. "It's not some pretty bauble to be played with. That blade is finely crafted mythril and was made for killing."

"Yes, sir." I glanced back once more at the rapier. "How much is it?"

A laugh burst forth from the man, and I could feel my cheeks start to flame. "Young lady, that weapon is far too expensive for the likes of you. Only a king would be able to afford something like this."

I had to quickly put a clamp on my temper to keep from shouting at him. I was no longer a princess that demand respect from anyone off the street. "Perhaps you could show me some of your other wares, then."

I tried, but was unable to keep the hard edge out of my voice and the shopkeeper's frown returned again. "What did you have in mind?"

"I was hoping for something small, perhaps a dagger that could stay hidden in a boot or sleeve." The man walked over to one of the many display cases and waved me over as well. Pulling a ring of keys from his pocket he swiftly searched for the correct on before opening the top of the case, and pulling out several well-made daggers of the correct shape and size. I traced the outlines of the well-made weapons with a finger noting that the styles of these weapons were completely different from rapier. The steel lacked the same shine and were adorned only with the symbol of a bucking horse that I had seen when I came into the shop. The hilts were all encased in black leather rather than the forest green of the weapon in the window, though all the weapons were sturdy and suited for the purpose for which they were made.

The shopkeeper noticed that I was comparing the differences and offered an explanation. "These weapons were all forged by my blacksmith's. That one I bought off a southern trader that did not know the true value of the sword. These ones may not be as pretty, but they'll certainly be able to get the task done."

I nodded as I made up my mind. While I was opposed to stealing from this man, I needed a weapon if I was going to survive the rest of today. Slowly, I went through and picked up each weapon that the man had lain before me testing the weight and the feel. Though, I had never had to choose my own weapon before, I could feel my body instinctively weighing the pros and cons of each piece before I set it down once more.

The shopkeeper watched my every move, and with each dagger that I passed over he seemed to gain a new respect for me. Apparently, the way that my body was methodically eliminating each choice was correct in the man's eyes. Finally, I made a decision. The blade of the dagger was a little more than a hand span long and the hilt's weight was balanced in my palm.

"I'll take this one."

"A fine choice, missy. That'll be five gold pieces."

I nodded and reached a hand into a pocket pretending to be reaching for my money pouch, before I paused, chewing on my bottom lip as if thinking. "I don't suppose you sell sharpening stones, cleaning cloths, and belts as well?"

The shopkeeper's smile reached to his ears at the thought of another sale to go along with this one. "Certainly, just let me get my helper to run to the back and bring out some of our best supplies." He turned and went to the doorway that I had first seen him come through.

As soon as his attention was occupied with shouting at someone to come and help him with a customer, I grabbed the dagger and bolted. The bell above the door clanged as I burst out onto the street. My feet pounded against the ground as I sprinted for the nearest corner that would hide me from sight. Cries of "Thief!" followed, as I took a turn at full speed and nearly stumbled. I thought I heard steps echoing my own not far behind me, but after glancing over my shoulder I found that no one was following me. Weaving in and out of stands, I felt my breath come in shorter and shorter bursts as my body tired from my speedy escape. It didn't take long to reach the western edge of the market, and I ducked behind an empty stall to rest for a moment and catch my breath.

The cries of "Thief" were now long gone, but my heart wouldn't stop thundering in my ears as I slowly tried to calm my breathing. My hands were shaking and, for a moment, the enormity of what I had done overwhelmed me. Tears slipped from my eyes as I put my head on my knees, and I couldn't stop thinking about the crime that I had committed knowing full well that if I succeed in the Tasks that there would be much more ahead. I wallowed in self pity for a few minutes hearing the clock strike the afternoon bell. I now only had a few hours before I had to be at Tera's River.

Carefully, I checked the surrounding area before I stood, wiped my eyes and dusted my pants off. The dagger that I had stolen was carefully slipped into my boot and I did my best not to walk funny because the weight was throwing me off. Ahead of me was the western entrance to the Market, and I slipped once more into a stream of people that were leaving Laes with the items that they had purchased.

Taking the main road, I again began to head for the West Gate. I had only been walking for a few moments when I glanced behind me long to realize that I was being followed. I couldn't tell who it was right away, but it was obvious from the silent way they were hunting me that they were waiting for me to leave the crowd so that they could complete that task they had been sent to do. Sighing heavily again, I decided that it was really time to start what I had come to do.

I sped up a little to give some room between me and my pursuer and then made my way out of the stream of people that I had been following. I crouched beside the wall of what looked to be a merchant's home and removed the dagger from my boot. My silent shadow paused at a fruit stand while they waited for me to move on. Glancing back, I finally managed to get a good look at the face.

I felt the bottom of my stomach drop out as fear gripped me tightly. I recognized the slightly balding brown hair that sat atop a pale head. His stubbled chin chewed the fruit he had just bought with a menace. My hands began to shake once more as I remembered the hard and wiry body that had assaulted me the night that I had been taken captive. Inthel's malicious brown eyes were smiling evilly in my direction.

Turning back around, I got up and walked into the nearest alley, knowing that this time it would be either him or me.