Notes: this story takes place in the same world (Midhem) as Feather and Stone, but a different country (Roydene). Roydene is one of the Six Realms, but has always been rather isolationist; the Roydenians have very little interaction with their neighbors or the wizards.


Prologue

He paused, eyes moving unceasingly. From the shadows under the overhanging eaves of the smithy, he had a clear view of the narrow, cobbled street, and the entrance to the unimposing Temple of Maelgwyn. He shifted slowly in the cold night, readjusting the scarf wrapped around the lower half of his face to both provide anonymity and hide the treacherous brume of his breath. Soon.

The night was cold and clear and damp, the streets shining in the new starlight. Far off to the northwest, the stars were obscured by the black lumps of storm clouds, moving on to Seward after cutting its path across the grain fields of Roydene. The sound of the priests' chanting rose like a breath of warm air over the distant shouts and raucous drinking songs emanating from the taverns further down the street, and Murrough closed his eyes briefly, leaning against the damp wood, listening. The rise and fall of the priests' well-trained voices reverberated in the hollow air, and when he concentrated, he could make out a few words of the Old Language. They would be ending soon.

He opened his eyes when their voices fell to one last, low, throbbing tone, and steadied his breath as his heart began to pound; the rush of adrenaline that he was so familiar with pulsed through his veins, sharpening his mind and his hearing. Moving slowly so as not to attract attention, he reached back and secured the knot that held his scarf in place, tucking the loose ends down the back of his tunic so they wouldn't get in his way. He lifted his feet slightly, examining the lacings of his boots. Both were tied firmly, with the excess lacings folded into the tops. He tightened the belt around his waist, slid black, woolen fingerless gloves onto his hands, and breathed.

His eyes glinted in the dim starlight, a wicked gleam full of purpose and just a touch of fear. She was depending on him. He had to do this. If she realized the sham that he was... if she knew the secret shame that constricted his throat like a hangman's noose.... He couldn't let that happen. As he waited, he conjured an image of the child's pale, heart-shaped face, her snub nose and suspicious gray eyes, pale brows brought together in a thoughtful frown. He smiled into his scarf. He would do this, for her. She would hunger no more.

Movement caught his eye, and Murrough turned from his daydreaming of her reaction when he arrived, laden with meat and glory, to crouch in the shadow, intent on the blue-robed figure that paced out of the front entrance of the temple, lighting the torches that would burn outside the Dark God's temple all night.

The priest, an elderly man with the long hair and smooth face of his vocation, looked outward into the night for a brief moment, the guttering light of the torches deepening the creases in his face, before turning back into the temple. There were rumors of thieves about, and in a temple so close to the boundaries of Exile's Haven, even the priests had to be on guard.

The priest never noticed the new shadow he had acquired, a shadow the slid away from the light and into a dark nook further down the entrance hall as his unwitting host locked the door against danger.

Murrough waited, pressed against the wall, with his eyes closed; he forced his breathing to slow and deepen, like that of a sleeper. Oxygen flooded through his veins with the adrenaline, and his fingertips began to tingle with anticipation. Itchy fingers, his apprentice called them. He pushed the thought of the child away as he centered himself, listening.

Far off, he heard the distant hum of voices, an occasional lilt of laughter rising above the low murmur. Nearer, he heard footsteps. He pressed himself further into the wall, stilling every muscle, and waited. The footsteps continued to approach—and, abruptly, stopped. He heard the sound of a door opening and then closing. He breathed again.

He waited for nearly an hour in his little nook, wedged between the wall and a beautiful, inlaid table, no doubt the gift of some wealthy, conscience-ridden patron, before the temple fell silent. He traced the patterns in the mosaic with his eyes so many times as he waited that the image was burned into his memory, six crossed spears surrounding an intricate, woven, Sewardian figure, representative of the sea. It was the seal of Maelgwyn and his priesthood.

Finally, he dared to step out of his hiding spot, every nerve on edge, his eyes constantly roving. He moved with practiced silence and agility, as smoothly as flowing ink in the darkness. The sanctuary door was near—but so close to the priests' chambers. Too close for any other thief.

But Murrough was the Lord of Thieves. It was no inconvenience to him.

His dark eyes quickly found the entrance to the sanctuary; it had no door, simply wide openings in the wall on either side of the room, to east and west, with words scrawled in the Old Language upon both thresholds.

The sanctuary was relatively bare, as were most of the temples' rooms, but what decorations it had were lavish beyond compare. A silver statue of the Sea God sat before the northern wall, sitting cross-legged on an intricately carved dais of expensive, pale wood; sapphires so dark that they glittered like jet or black opal in the dim light of the sanctuary replaced eyes in His noble, hard face. He held a slim, silver spear in one hand and a conch in the other.

The statue was undoubtedly the most lifelike that Murrough had ever seen. He could see the grim determination in the face of the Steward of Death, the finality of transience written in the taut lines of His jaw and brow. He looked moments away from lifting the conch to his lips and issuing the Call for yet another mortal soul. Murrough, who was by no means a gods-fearing man, swallowed hard. It took the memory of the girl's dour grimace of hunger to drive him onward.

Around the dais stood hundreds of tall, dark blue candles, wax dripping steadily as their flames flickered, disturbed by air currents made by the thief's slight movements. A rich, cobalt blue rug led up towards the dais, the edges embroidered elegantly with silver thread, and between its fringed end and the pale wood sat a smooth silver dish, holding the remains of that night's sacrifice. Goat, it looked; the pallid fur was stained with blood.

Murrough moved forward, his fingers inches away from the meat, when a sound caught his attention. His head snapped around; footsteps were approaching from the eastern entrance. He slid out the other side, silent as a shadow, and waited.

"Do you have it?"

"Yes, Elder."

"Give it to me."

Murrough frowned at the tension in the priest's voice, and the tremble in the boy's fluting soprano. A novice, then, accompanying his mentor. But the day's services were done....

A rich, rolling sound emanated from the sanctuary, and Murrough turned, his chest pressed against the wall, and peered with one eye through the entrance. The priest, whose brown hair was as yet untouched by gray, was kneeling on the carpet before the statue, a large tome before him. He was chanting.

The words had a dusty feel that made them seem even older than the Old Language. But what could be more ancient than the tongue of the founders of Roydene?

Still, the priest chanted onward, oblivious of the fact that the language he spoke simply could not exist. The novice, a boy of perhaps eleven or twelve, watched nervously, wringing his pale hands as his mentor reached forward his own ashen fingers, dipping them delicately into the sacrificial blood. Murrough cringed as the priest, whose expression was a strange muddle of adoring exultation, anger, and triumph, brought his fingers to his face and traced the lines of his features. The bloody patterns of his countenance gleamed dark in the sputtering candlelight.

The novice's eyes grew wide as his mentor's voice edged up a key, repeating the chant more swiftly and surely than before. Murrough wondered vaguely what religious mystery he was witnessing, and why it alarmed the boy so much. It set his own nerves on fire; though his fingertips, he noted with a distracted scowl, had stopped tingling.

Without warning, a gust of cold wind burst from the sanctuary, extinguishing the candles; the boy whimpered and fell back against the wall, sliding into a ball in the corner, his delicate hands protecting his face. Murrough winced as frigid air hit his eyes, making them water and sting. Moving away from the entrance of the now darkened sanctuary, he rubbed at them furiously with his bare fingers. He did not notice the strange sounds now echoing from the priest's throat.

Once his eyes were clear again, he turned again, peering boldly back into the sanctuary with both eyes this time, confident that the darkness would protect him.

In the dim light, the priest rose, trembling, to his feet. His arms were held stiffly away from his body, his hands splayed with palms towards the statue of Maelgwyn. His head hung, face hidden by a curtain of hair, and he was breathing heavily, as though he'd just run a footrace.

"Alun."

The novice, who had remained where he sat in the corner, terrified, looked up. "E-Elder? Are you—did it work?"

"Oh, it worked, Alun." There was a strange timbre in the priest's voice, a chill edge that sent icy fingers of foreboding tracing patterns down Murrough's spine. "Come here, my boy. There's no need to fear me. He's under control."

The boy clambered to his feet, dusting off his robes tentatively, before striding forward. At the same time, as though forgetting his own orders, the priest turned his back to Alun and took a single step closer to the statue. One of his hands closed on the silver spear. White teeth glinted in the darkness; he was smiling. The other hand closed around the spear's slender shaft, and the priest pulled.

Murrough's eyebrows rose as the spear, previously melded to the statue's hand, came away easily in the priest's fingers.

"Elder!" came Alun's gasp.

The priest spun; Murrough fell back against the far wall as the boy's dying scream was reduced to a surprised gurgle of blood in the throat. Those cold fingers were running up and down his arms and chest now. Murrough felt as though he'd been doused in icy water as he watched the priest lovingly caress the flesh that now served as a sheath for the Sea God's spear, lifting a blood-stained finger to his lips. "You're mine now, Alun."

A whimper escaped the throat of the Lord of Thieves at the sound of the priest's voice; his knees felt wobbly, watery—he only prayed that they would hold him until he made his way home, to her. Forgetting both meat and silver, Murrough gathered the last of his strength and staggered out of the temple, cold still clutching at his chest and throat.

The demon watched, smiling, as the thief fled.