Chapter 1 – The Thief
The old man was like a father to me. Sometimes it was easy to forget that he was a father. Father Benjamin, that is. As I grew up, I would pretend that he didn't have any parishioners. It was just me… and Father Benjamin. Uncle Ben. I laughed bitterly as I looked out the window of the nobleman's home I had broken into.
It was when I was about to commit a sin that I thought of him most. I always found it ironic that the man that chastised me most about my wrongs was the very man I thought of as I committed them. It was easy for him to say I shouldn't steal. He had food and a bed to sleep in. Unlike most parishes, his "flock" actually paid their tithe.
Of course, that's what happened when your "flock" was a bunch of nasty, rotten, self-absorbed, and corrupt politicians. Uncle Ben was the highest priest around… He used to be the highest priest around. Nobody cheated him, not with the King's watchful eye on him. Of course, nobody noticed the boy in rags that was Ben's shadow. I was invisible to them. Still am. It used to bother me. But then I made it my business to be invisible.
I cautiously approached the Lord's room, wondering what jewels his Lady kept in her dresser drawers. It's a tricky thing, entering a lord's room at night. Too many people were around during the day. Night was the only time to get any real money. I pressed my ear gently to the door, listening for activity…
Tonight was not a good night… at least not for me. A good night was an easy break in, and a speedy theft. Tonight, it seemed I went to a great effort to get in and up to the Lord's rooms. Too bad he was busy, if you catch my drift. I turned and headed back down the hallway, swiftly and quietly. I silently prayed that the watchman hadn't recovered from the bump on his head just yet. I had planned on leaving out the window. Now…well…that would be a little too difficult…
Even for a practiced thief like me. The Lords' manors were my turf. Nobody worked the area but me. I made sure of that. I carefully lifted a crystal candlestick off a table in the hall and placed it inside my ratty cloak. I wasn't about to walk off empty-handed, after all.
As I approached the stairs, I heard heavy footsteps approaching them from the other side. I muttered a curse under my breath as I looked for a place to hide. I tried to open the door closest to me.
"Shit." Locked. Looking around desperately, I cursed the fact that the hallway had no windows. I was going to get caught, but I sure as hell wasn't going to let myself get trapped too. I ran down the stairs, throwing the watchman down as I brushed past roughly. The noise of the heavy oaf rolling down the stairs was sure to wake the kingdom. Knowing my luck, the castle's guards were headed my way that very moment.
I ran out of the house and sprinted to the manor's outer wall. I swung myself up onto a tree branch, silently thankful that I could both run and climb trees exceptionally fast. I jumped over the wall and landed hard in the mud just outside of it. I felt my leg buckle under me as I landed.
"Shit!" I pulled myself up and sprinted down the street and into the alleys as pain shot up my right leg. The guards wouldn't follow me into the alleys. Nobody goes into the alleys unless they have permission. They serve as hideaways for every sort of scum, thief, murderer, and villain I can think of. If a soldier ventured into the alleys, you could be sure that he'd be dead within 10 minutes. There may be no honor among thieves, but nobody wants knights, guards, soldiers, or watchmen on our turf. I slowed, caught my breath, and limped off to find a tree to sleep under. The forest outside the city was my favorite place to sleep. Sure, it was dangerous. But it was precisely that reason that nobody bothered me there.
I woke in the morning, and went to see Macyn. I met Macyn when I was a young teenager. I'm not sure how old he was, but I suspect he's only three or four years older than me. Macyn wore his dark brown hair in a ponytail similar to my own. I always thought the style looked humorous on a guy that tall and scrawny. His long hair coupled with his thin frame resulted in a slightly feminine appearance. At a glance, one would think he was a woman in a man's clothing.
Despite his fragile appearance, he had provided most of my livelihood over the past few years. He was like a brother to me. Granted, he was an idiot sometimes, and I could beat the shit out of him. True, he cheated me every time I brought him something of value. But what are brothers for, anyways? He often provided a roof over my head when it stormed or the snow was deep outside. Aside from Uncle Ben, he was the only person in the world who knew that I even existed.
I entered his shop from the alleys. I was one of his only clients that entered the shop through the back entrance. He didn't like it. He thought I was a fool for using the alleys. I think that deep down he still won't believe the fact that I'm a "bad guy."
"Hey, Slick!" He called, "I'm in the front!" I walked through the back room and into the shop. His store was a mess as always. The shelves were filled with odds and ends of every nature. Tables were covered with exotic and mundane objects, all jumbled together with no sense of order to them at all. On the sidewall, a clothing rack had everything from puppets to rugs hanging on it, except for the clothing it was intended for. The clothing he had was in a neatly folded pile in a bin right next to the clothing rack. I never could understand how he managed to find everything he needed in a split second. It was almost as if the catastrophe that he called a shop had a sorting system that only he could understand.
"Hey, Macyn." I replied, "I've got something for you." He looked up from the shelves he was "arranging" when I walked in.
"Only one thing?" He answered, eyebrow raised. Usually I make off with a small bag of expensive items. One crystal candlestick wasn't very much.
"Yeah. One thing." I answered, pulling it out of my cloak and setting it on the counter. "Almost got caught, too." He laughed.
"So that's why you limped in here." He walked over and picked up the candlestick, examining it closely. "I keep telling you, a shop is the only way to make good money around here." I grimaced.
"Yeah, well not all of us have a substantial inheritance from our fathers to get us started." I retorted, trying not to think about my father.
"Get over it," Macyn said, punching me playfully in the arm. "That was…what? 17 years ago?"
"Yeah, something like that. And if I ever find the fucker I'm going to strangle him with my bare hands." I answered back, darkly. "What will you give me for it?" I gestured to the candlestick. He considered it for a moment.
"One silver coin."
"One silver coin?!" I replied, "That's worth at least 10 gold coins!"
"Yes, well I'm sure you stole it! You're profiting too! What's the problem?"
"The problem is that I need to EAT!"
"Well, tell you what, I'll just pull out my magic lamp and summon up a genie to make your life easier!"
"I could really use a genie right about now, to kick you out of your precious shop and make you spend a day in the real world!" I snapped back.
"Alright, tell you what," He answered, "I'll give you three silver coins, and I'll throw in a good luck charm, because I'm just that nice."
"Yeah, sure. I'll bet your 'good luck charm' is just some piece of junk you can't trick some rich guy to buy." I joked. "I'll take it." Yes, I was being cheated. Three silvers could barely buy a nice meal. Macyn wasn't likely to give me anything more. Bantering further would just make him lower his offer.
He gave me the coins and a charm on a string of leather. I tied the "good luck charm" around my neck and tucked it under my shirt. Glancing outside, I realized that I was running late. If I wanted to get to the church before anyone else did, I'd have to hurry.
I said goodbye, walked out the front entrance, pulled my hood over my head and limped down the main road. I knew it was foolish to be out so soon after a job, but I wanted to go to Uncle Ben's funeral. Besides, it wasn't like they knew what I look like.
How wrong I was. As I approached the church's heavy wooden doors, I noticed a piece of paper posted on the outside. On any other day, I would have ignored it. Why bother to stop? It's not like I can read. Still, something deep inside stirred. I knew that paper was bad news.
Looking at it, I was surprised to find my own face staring back at me. I don't know what it said, but I recognized the King's Seal and I knew there was a very big number underneath it. Shit. I was the only robber in the area. So, obviously, they knew just as well as I did that the string of thefts in the past months were all my doing.
Call it a hunch, but I knew that they weren't trying to give me their address so I could come to a fancy party and eat their food. I hesitated for only a moment. I pulled my hood further over my head and reminded myself that this was Uncle Ben's funeral. He was there for me in life. I wanted to be there for him in death. It's the least I could do to repay him for the support he gave me as I grew. Without Uncle Ben, I'd be just another morally bankrupt vagrant roaming the streets, taking advantage of unsuspecting women. Sure, I may steal. But I steal to eat. I'm going to be something someday… if I live that long. In the least, I refuse to starve to death.
I walked into the church, head bowed, and sat on one of the cold stone benches near the door. I watched as a large number of very wealthy people walked into the church. I put my hands in my pocket, reminding myself that it would be a downright insult to Uncle Ben's memory to steal something now. Maybe I'll get something when I leave.
I sighed, knowing that I wouldn't steal anything. If I used it carefully, I could last a week on three silver coins. Assuming no other nimble fingered boys pick them out of my pocket. Last time that happened… well, it wasn't pretty. He'll never pickpocket again. Some might say I was harsh on the boy. Me? I think I taught him a valuable lesson. You need to know your victims. A random passerby may have more to him than you initially think. I learned that the hard way. That's how I met Uncle Ben. I never tried to steal from a priest again. They're quick. I didn't expect such a swift reaction from an old geezer. But Uncle Ben wasn't just any old man.
I watched with a growing sense of foreboding as two richly dressed attendants came in with trumpets. Shit. They blew their horns, heralding somebody's entrance. Somebody important. Shit. I silently prayed that it wasn't the royal family. But today, it seemed, was not my day. I lowered my head, hiding in the hood that was the thin veil between life and a very painful and prolonged death. I rubbed my leg, wishing it would stop aching as the king, queen, and princess entered the church.
I tried to ignore their presence as the funeral commenced. The priest offered the floor to anyone who wished to speak about Uncle Ben. I started to stand, and caught myself. That would have been stupid. Very stupid. Frustrated, I remained seated, cursing the royal family that calls itself an "effective ruling body." Ha! What a joke! The king's chief advisor is the real power in the country.
When the sermon ended, and the ceremony concluded, I rose to try and leave as quickly as I could, cursing the limp in my right leg. I silently hoped that little detail wasn't on the warrant on the church door. Of course, I didn't realize that the royal family would be allowed through the crowd to exit first. I watched my feet, allowing the side of my hood to obscure my face. It's no surprise that I didn't notice the particularly fine cloth of the woman next to me…until I ran into her.
She gasped in surprise. I stepped back, looking for the girl I had run into. I realized that she had fallen over. Leaning down, I took her hand to pull her up. I pulled her easily to her feet, and then I felt my heart sink into my stomach as I realized who I had knocked over. None other than Princess Kyla stared up at me, smiling ever so sweetly. A weaker man would have been sick. How can a girl grow up to be that obviously… empty?
I slowly became aware of the sudden silence in the crowded church. Then, of course, I realized that, not only had I knocked over the princess and heir to the throne. No. My hood fell off too. I could hear mutters in the back of the church starting. Whispers. Rumors. Shit.
"He's kidnapping the princess!" A terrified Lady's voice echoed through the silent church. Shit. Shit. Shit.
"No! I…" I backed up, suddenly aware of the sheer number of accusing eyes staring at me. My heart sank so deep into my stomach I knew that it would never come out… or at least that I'd never be hungry. The watchman from the previous night caught my eyes and I knew that brushing it off as a simple misunderstanding wasn't a possibility.
In a situation like that, what choice did I have? I wasn't stupid. I wasn't a panicky guy. I knew that I wasn't going to get out of there alone. I sure as hell wasn't going to escape with my life. So what did I do? The stupidest thing I could have, but the only way out of there unharmed.
I pulled the girl up against me and grabbed my ever-so-handy knife out of my boot. Stupid. Of course, with a knife to the throat of the only heir to the throne, I was as untouchable as the princess herself. Every gaze was pointed in my direction… as well as every blade.
As for the girl, well… I don't know what the hell she was thinking. After the initial shock, the strangest expression crept onto her face. Despite her distinctly vacant appearance, I could sense the wheels turning in her head. Still, I didn't particularly care what she was thinking, because she wasn't struggling. Oh, how I later regretted not checking myself then.
"Back off! Everybody back off! Put down your swords!" I yelled into the utterly silent stone building, feeling like a complete idiot in the process. Slowly, I began to hear swords clanking to the stone ground. I cautiously backed out of the building, my arm still encircling her waist. For a brief moment, I wondered how it was that she was more emaciated than me. Pushing the thought from my mind, I limped backwards and down the road, watching to make sure nobody followed me.
I "dragged" her into the alleyways, released her waist, grabbed her hand, and pulled her along behind me as I ran through the twisting maze of dark alleys. After the fourth turn, I realized that, for the slow pace I'd chosen, she was breathing rather heavily. I stopped for a moment, looking back at her. She bent over, trying to catch her breath.
"Don't you do anything exerting?" I asked impatiently, tucking my knife into my belt.
"Not…in…a corset…" She glared up at me, "Stupid." I let out an angry breath, picked her up, threw her over my shoulder, and ran on. It was easy enough to ignore her squeals, but they were a dead give away. As I ran, I yelled over my shoulder at her.
"Would you shut up?"
"Put me down!" She squealed back in a voice that was impossibly high-pitched.
"Do you want to get me killed? Shut up, or I'll have to gag you, and I really don't have time to stop and find something to do it with." I continued to sprint through the alleys, carefully avoiding the sound of the soldiers throughout, very grateful that she had decided to heed my words. Eventually, I reached the edge of the city, set her down, and pulled her along into the forest. The most important thing at that moment was putting distance between the guards and myself.
I pushed her ahead of me and limped after her, cursing the morning's exertions. We walked on into the forest, pushing through brambles and the undergrowth. After some time, she stopped and looked back at me.
"Why are you walking funny?" She asked, batting her eyes.
"I'm not 'walking funny'" I spit out, bitterly, "I'm limping. That's what you do when your leg screams in agony every time you so much as bend your knee. Keep moving." I walked on; she jogged to catch up, asking annoying questions.
"Are you a cripple?"
"No. A cripple can't walk at all."
"Oh. Why does your leg hurt?"
"I don't know, why don't you ask it yourself?" I answered back sarcastically.
"That's silly! Legs can't talk." I stopped, let out a breath of exasperation and looked back at her. Unbelievable.
"Did they teach you anything even remotely useful in that castle of yours?" I asked.
"Sure! Astronomy, History, Foreign Languages, Art Theory, Needlepoint, Etiquette, Decorum, and a touch of politics!" She replied happily. Great. The future ruler of our nation… and she knew a "touch of politics." She'll probably take after her father and let the chief advisor rule. If I get out of all of this alive, I could look forward to another 20 years of misery and oppression at that idiot's hands.
We pushed through the underbrush until we came to a thieves' path. Thieves' paths ran throughout the forest, along major roads, and deep into the forest. They're very convenient if you know the paths. They're downright deadly if you don't know your way around them. I led her down the path, heading away from town. Through it all, it never occurred to me to wonder why she was not only cooperating, but enthusiastic.
Night swiftly approached, and I felt her tug on the thin remnants of my sleeve.
"It's dark." She said, looking down, resembling a small child.
"I know." I answered, "There's a clearing 10 minutes up the path. We'll sleep there for the night. It should be enough distance from the city." She looked up at me, aghast.
"There are wolves in the forest!" She looked around, "Bears! Cutthroats! Vandals! Murderers! Thieves! …Monsters!"
"There are no wolves around here. The only bears in the area live near the river, 14 miles from here. Cutthroats won't bother you, because you're with me. Vandals are harmless idiots trying to get noticed. Murderers are the same thing as cutthroats. Monsters don't exist. And as for thieves… What the hell do you think I am?" She looked up at me, smiling.
"Fate." Great. She's not only innocent, naïve, and empty-headed. She's insane too!
"Right…" She giggled and followed me down the path. When we reached the clearing, night had fallen. I kicked a few branches out from under a tree and sat down, situating myself to sleep. I heard her clear her throat.
"What?" I asked. "Lay down! Get some sleep." She stared at me incredulously.
"But it's dirty."
"Very observational. Lay down."
"But… I'll ruin my dress." This, of course, brought my attention to the rich luxurious fabrics that comprised her heavily jeweled gown. Being a thief, you'd think I would have noticed earlier. As I've said before, today was not my day.
"Doesn't matter. Tomorrow, I'm going to take you back to the castle, and they'll get it all fixed up for you. Now lay down."
"You can't take me back!" She squealed, looking absolutely shocked.
"What the hell did you think I was going to do?" Honestly, the girl was insane. I held a knife to her throat only hours ago. I dragged her away from her family. I carried her through the most dangerous parts of town. I dragged her along after me through the forest…. And she didn't want to go back home?
"I don't know."
"Look, Your highness. There are two options here. First option: I take you back, leave, and never return. Second option: I kill you, string you up from a tree, leave, and never return. I don't particularly care which method we use. Either way, I'm leaving. So I suggest you thank your lucky stars that I don't kill you now and sell your dress!" She stared, open-mouthed. After a few moments, she replied.
"Why would you kidnap me just to kill me and sell my dress?" Shit, she's naïve.
"Look, your highness, I didn't kidnap you to sell your dress. I'm not a complete idiot. I'm a dead man, no matter what I do. I kidnapped you because I'm a wanted man."
"Oh. Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I'm not that kind of girl. Although, I can see why so many women would want you. You're quite dashing." The stupidity of it all was astounding.
"I don't think you understand me. When I say 'wanted man,' I mean that I broke the law, and if they catch me, I will die…" I paused before adding, grudgingly, "And thanks."
"Oh, well… it was nice meeting you!" She smiled, "I have to be on my way." She curtsied. I rose to my feet, and grabbed her arm as she turned to leave.
"Where do you think you're going?"
"I don't know. But I'm not staying here, and I'm not sleeping on the ground." Now, I'm not exactly a saint, but I was not about to let an innocent young woman go wandering off into the woods on her own. Particularly considering the fact that we were on a thieves' path and she happened to be worth quite a bit of money if any endeavoring cutthroat happened to pass her.
"Look, you know how I said you don't need to worry about thieves, cutthroats, vandals, or murderers?"
not the case if you're wandering around alone. In fact, you
attract them… By the wagon-full. I'm sure that it's
become widespread knowledge that you've been kidnapped. The fact
of the matter is, I've made a name for myself in the Thieves
Underground. Nobody messes with my territory or anyone
within it. As of now, you are in my territory. If you step
out of that territory, you're free game."
"Technically, this is my territory." She answered, smiling… It like was trying to teach a puppy dog how to pick a lock. No matter how I explain it, the dog will just sit there and wag its tale.
"You're missing the point!" I answered. "If you want to get out of this forest alive, you're not going to do it alone!"
"Well then, take me to an inn."
"I can't. They'd kill me, and take you home."
that's not good. I don't want go home."
"Never mind that my life is at risk…" I muttered under my breath.
"Oh, don't worry. I'd make sure they pardoned you." I stared at her in disbelief.
"Look, Princess Kyla. They aren't going to pardon me. I kidnapped the fucking princess! Do you have any idea how many laws I've broken? I was a wanted man already. Add kidnapping and treason to burglary, theft, and murder… It's not a good combination! I'll bet they trump up charges and add child molestation and possibly rape to the list! They aren't going to listen to you just because you bat your eyes and shed a few tears. I am, without a doubt, a dead man walking!"
"Oh. You just say that 'cause you haven't seen me bat my eyes and shed a few tears. I'm very persuasive."
"Lay down. Get some sleep."
"I told you. It's dirty."
"Fine!" I yelled. I took my cloak off, laid it on the ground and gestured, mockingly imitating an attendant. "Now, will you lay down, and get some sleep?" Thankfully, she grudgingly sat down, and curled into a ball to sleep.
Sighing, I cleared another patch of dirt, and settled down to sleep. Now, in the spring, it was warm and comfortable during the day. The night, however, was still just as cold as it was weeks earlier. Cursing the cold, I rubbed my leg, trying to ease the pain. After a few hours, I fell into a bitter and restless sleep, contemplating what I would do the next day.
I woke, and curled in closer to the source of warmth wrapped around me. After a moment, I opened my eyes, realizing that I didn't bed a woman last night. I hadn't done that for years. Once was more than enough. That woman was insane.
It seems that the princess is a heat seeker. At some point in the night, she had managed to find her way over to where I slept and curled up to me. Miraculously, she had managed to bring my cloak with her, and not a scrap of the jewel-laden fabric of her gown touched the ground. If I didn't know better, I'd think she'd gotten up in the night and intentionally moved next to me. That, of course, would be absurd. I gently shook her shoulder.
"Your highness?" I whispered, hoping to wake her gently… No response. "Princess Kyla?" She groaned and curled up closer to me. That didn't work. "Princess!" I shook her shoulder, not roughly, but not gently either. She sat up with a start, screaming, and slapped me. As she raised her hand to hit me again, I grabbed her wrist and clamped my hand over her mouth.
"Hush!" I said urgently. "Please, Your Highness!" At this, she seemed to regain her composure. She stopped screaming and looked… remorseful as I cautiously removed my hand from her mouth.
"Are you okay?" She asked, looking worried.
"It takes more than a slap to the face to hurt me." I answered simply. I started to stand and put my weight on my right leg, not thinking. I let out a cry of pain, falling back to the ground. A curse escaped under my breath, and I rubbed my leg, hoping that I hadn't seriously injured it in my last burglary attempt. The girl looked at me, shocked.
"Oh my god, are you all right? We need a doctor!" Her voice rose desperately as she got to her feet, "Help! Help! Somebody, please! Help!" She was calling for help. Shit. Shit. SHIT!
"I'm fine! Please! Stop!" I pulled on her skirt to get her attention. She looked down at me, confused. "Please. Don't call for help. The last thing I need is a knight to come traipsing through the woods to save the poor damsel in distress. Really. I can't deal with one of them right now. It's hard enough to kill off a cutthroat or a fellow thief. Knights… They have armor. It makes things considerably more difficult. At the moment, I'm a bit handicapped. That doesn't exactly bode well for my chances in a fight."
"Well, what am I supposed to do?" She asked.
"Nothing. In a few minutes, I'm going to stand up, and hobble down to a small lake I know of near here. Then I'm going to get cleaned up. Hopefully, the cold water will soothe the ache. You just have to be quiet." I didn't say it, but I was starting to get the impression that, for her, staying quiet was a feat.
"How are you going to bathe without soap?"
"Soap?" I laughed bitterly. "Soap is a luxury that peasants can't afford. I wouldn't even steal soap, because what's available is rough, scratchy, and leaves you smelling worse than before. I'll make due without."
"Then, I take you home."
"No! You can't take me home." She stomped her foot. "You can't make me!" I sighed.
"Come on." Carefully, I stood, and lead her into the underbrush, heading for the lake nearby. From the look of things, she wouldn't go willingly. I didn't want to force her to go home, but I would if I had to.
A/N: All done! Chapter 1, up and running! Just some housekeeping left.
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