I'd never run faster in all of my life.
The trees, the trees. If I could just make it to the forest, I would be okay. I could lose them there.
But there was at least a half-mile of open field ahead of me, and between my gasping breaths, I could hear the bark and growl of the dogs and the shouts of the men gripping their leashes. Soon they would let them go, and their animals would pin me to the ground.
That was what you did to a thief.
My name is Myra, and tonight was not supposed to happen like this. It wasn't supposed to happen at all, but I made a mistake. More than one, actually, but the first mistake was returning to the Baron's estate.
The Guild had agreed that Baron Eaves was too high-risk of a target, the valuables in his castle notwithstanding. As part of the Guild, I was obligated to go along with that agreement. Especially since I was the one who had failed in our last attempt on his estate, something which had haunted me in the week since it had happened.
There may be no honor among thieves, but there was pride, and I harbored a grand amount of it. Too much, perhaps, which was why I decided to redeem myself while also proving the rest of the Guild wrong about the security at Baron Eaves' estate. I decided to steal from the Baron, and do it right this time.
I told no one. And the night after the meeting, I went back.
I entered the castle easily enough, getting in the same way that I had before; a small window on a tall tower that was left unguarded because they assumed it was inaccessible. All it took was a rope and hook to get in. Well, that and many years of experience scaling the un-scaleable. Part of the reason I wanted to have a successful hit on Eaves' estate was because I was certain I was the only person who could pull it off.
Once inside, I was confident. The goal was the small coat of arms on the Baron's desk. It was easy to conceal and could be carried away without trouble. It was also one hundred percent gold, and the fences at the Guild would give good money for it. Most importantly, it very clearly belonged to Baron Eaves, and everyone at the Guild would know where I had gotten this piece. I'd end the night a richer and much happier woman.
But for the first time, I didn't have my mind on the job. I was too caught up in my wild fantasies of success. I didn't notice that there were hounds.
You can fool a guard in many ways. Sneak around him, distract him, knock him out. I'd done everything on the list a million times. But a dog was different. Thieves feared dogs. A dog could find you no matter where you hid. A dog could detect you much easier and much quicker than a human. And that's just your run-of-the-mill mutt. A bloodhound, bred and trained specifically for the purpose of finding and catching outsiders? Nobody would go on a hit that involved those. Not alone.
The Baron hadn't waited a moment to improve his security. His estate had been targeted by us just a week ago, and since then, it had gotten ten times harder to move around on his grounds. I was ready for more guards. I was even ready for lethal force. But I didn't case the new estate, and I didn't know what I was in for until it was too late. I got into the study, had the coat of arms in my hands, and that was when I heard the snarl.
My blood stopped cold in my veins, and I jerked my head toward the door. It was hard to tell how far away a sound was when it bounced back and forth off of stone walls, but it was close. Down the hall, maybe thirty feet. My brain spun back into action.
Can't hide. Have to run.
With the prize tucked into the pocket of my cloak, I bolted out of the study. And as soon as I left the doorway, I heard an excited bark and the dangerous click of claws on the stone floor.
I didn't look back. I knew what was there, and getting a good look at it wouldn't make this any easier. I had to get back to the window where I had come it. My rope was still there, waiting for my escape. I'd go back down the side of the tower, hop onto the wall surrounding the castle, and be out and into the woods.
If I could outrun this dog.
Eyes ahead, I sprinted down the stone hallway. I was very aware of how quickly the steps of the hound fell on the floor behind me, and began to imagine—or not?—that I could smell his breath. I swept my fingers across the wall as I turned the corner, steadying myself and trying not to break my gait.
All too soon, I heard the scrabble of claws as the dog rounded the corner behind me. He may have an infallible nose, but he wasn't as graceful as a cat burglar. I heard his bulk smack into the wall, his own momentum too much for him, and I allowed myself a small grin. The tower was right at the end of this hall. Just two hundred feet away was the slightly-ajar door I had left for myself.
The dog was slowed for a moment, but not stopped, and with another fierce bark, it was on my tail. Closer and closer still, but the sound of the beast's feet was getting closer to me much quicker than the door was. But he wasn't fast enough—there was time!
When his teeth clamped onto my cloak, I screamed. Just a tiny one, but I cursed myself for doing so. In a fluid motion, I shed my cloak while slipping the coat of arms from its inner pocket, losing a bit of speed in the action but keeping steady. I chanced a glance behind me to see the dog buried in my cloak, shaking it off. It would have been comical if my very life wasn't at stake.
I knocked the door to the tower open with an outstretched palm, and it smashed into the wall loud enough to wake three floors. I didn't care. All I was focused on was my out; my escape. The tower window, beautiful and open, was before me, my steel hook still secure on the sill.
No time for careful alignment; the damned dog was on the move again. I leapt onto the sill, ducking my head low to fit, tucked the prize under my arm, and dropped out of the window.
I free-fell for just a moment before grabbing the rope that hung down the side of the tower. It burned my hands as it slowed me to a stop, but I hardly felt it. With quick movements, I dropped down the side of the spire, letting the rope fly through my hands each time I kicked off of the stones. Down ten feet, twenty, thirty, and then there was the wall, the barrier meant to keep me out. Normally I'd shake my hook free, but there wasn't time for that. With a last look up at the window to see the slobbery, vicious head of my pursuer sticking out over me, I kicked hard off of the tower and fell onto the top of the wall.
Shit! I landed badly. Not bad enough to hurt myself, but enough to lose my balance and slip over the side of the wall. I reached up for the ledge as I tumbled, the golden emblem falling free, and I managed to catch myself on the edge with one hand and snatch the coat of arms with the other.
I hung there for a moment, getting my breath. I would have preferred to lower myself off the wall with two hands, but I wasn't going to climb back up to ensure a safer descent. Ten feet to the ground, facing the wrong way. Easy. I dropped.
The wind whistled in my ears for one long second before I hit the ground. I let my knees bend and rolled backwards, tucking my arms to my chest, and ended up in a crouched position none the worse for wear.
But, nearly-flawless an escape though it was, I was not alone. I looked to my right and saw four dogs and as many men racing along the wall, heading right at me. I didn't have enough distance on them. Could I make it to the woods in time? I had to try.
I turned and ran, taking off like a shot, like a cannonball, like a mouse fleeing from a cat or a big, murderous dog. The grass was dry and easy to run on, but I wished it were wet or the ground were uneven. Anything to give me an advantage. In an even foot race, I wasn't going to beat a hound.
Every snarl that ripped through the night air made my blood pump faster. It was a wonder I could hear at all above my pounding heart and rapid breaths. I locked my eyes onto the tree-line like a drowning man spotting a piece of driftwood. The forest, if I could just make it to the forest, I would be okay.
The sounds were getting louder, but my salvation was getting closer. I grew confident, seeing the grassy field begin to disappear into the thicket of trunks and bushes. Not more than a quarter-mile, now. I could cover that in record time. I was going to make it.
I really, truly believed that I was going to make it, right up until the moment that the heavy paws hit my back and dropped me down into the grass.
I gasped in surprise as my world tumbled downward. I hit the ground on my elbows, and the impact jarred the golden emblem out of my hand, sending it sliding across the ground. I planted my palms on the ground, ready to struggle, when I felt the jaws close around the back of my neck and my blood froze into tingling ice. Sharp canine teeth dug into my neck. Hot breath washed over my gooseflesh-prickled skin. One hundred pounds of dog rested firmly on my back, holding me in place.
I waited for its jaws to crush the life out of me. And waited, and waited, until I heard a panting voice shout, "Good boy!"
The dog should have killed me by now. I was literally in its jaws. Why was I still alive?
Footsteps approached, those of the four men and the remaining dogs. They'd only let one off of the leash, then. And it had gotten me. I never stood a chance.
"Give me the rope, Albert."
Rope? I dared not to move with those teeth pressed into me, but I spoke, half-muffled by the grass. "What...what are you doing?"
Big hands shoved my ankles together tight, then wrapped them up, tying them together securely. A moment later, my hands were shoved up my back and tied together the same way.
"Off, Brute. Good dog."
I sucked in a breath as the beast lumbered off of me and I felt cool air on my neck as the jaws disappeared. Then I was rolled over so that I stared up at the starry sky and the men who had caught me. My eyes flared with recognition.
"You," I said.
"And you," the man said to me. His name was Lundgren, keeper of Baron Eaves' estate, and de facto head of security. He was tall and thick, not more than a silhouette in the darkness, but I remembered him from the last time I had come here. The man who had stopped me last time. Not catching me, not then, but getting damned close. And now he had me in ropes at his feet.
Lundgren knelt down, looking closely at me. I saw the heavy lines in his face, and the cold eyes set into them. "Baron Eaves was very angry at me when you got away, you know. Furious. You didn't manage to steal anything, but you violated his sanctity, and that's unforgivable." He stood up again. "You're probably wondering why you're not in Brute's belly right now."
I said nothing.
Lundgren chuckled. "Trust me, I would have fed you to him in a heartbeat if it was my choice. But the Baron wants you alive, miss thief. It's very important to him for some reason." He shrugged, then waved his hand at his men. "Get her up. Let's go."
One of his men picked me up, holding my restrained form in his arms like a cord of wood. "Spit on me and I'll carry you upside-down all the way back to the castle," he muttered.
He didn't need to worry about that. I still needed to talk to Lundgren. "You're taking me to the Baron?" I turned my head to get a look at him.
"Where else?" Lundgren responded, sounding a little bored. He must have really wanted to kill me. How sad for him.
"Why?" We were moving now, marching back to the castle, men and dogs all in tow.
"Orders," Lundgren said. "That's all you need to know. Maybe," he continued, sounding a little brighter, "the Baron will have me torture you to find out where the rest of your little band of thugs is hiding out. That would make this night a whole lot better, eh, boys?"
They made sounds of approval, and I gritted my teeth. Every now and then, one of the dogs would growl at me, and one of them kept turning his head to look at me. I bet that one was Brute.
"You know why I was able to get you this time?" Lundgren called back to me.
"Please enlighten me," I muttered.
Whether he heard me or not, he said, "Because you're a fool. The last time you came here, you left your scent all over this castle. I know this place inside and out, and no one has ever broken in before. I knew that if it was going to happen again, it would be you. So I got Brute, here." He waved his hand at the biggest hound, the one who kept eyeing me. "Best bloodhound in the territory. He had your scent right away, and as soon as you made the mistake of coming back, you were as good as caught."
I didn't say anything while Lundgren's laugh boomed through the air. Of course I made a mistake. I acted too fast to think it through, but I was too proud to do anything but act. Now I was hog-tied and heading to heaven-knew-what fate.
"You didn't catch me," I said, making sure Lundgren heard this time. "Your brainless mutt did a better job at pinning me down than you ever could."
Lundgren didn't have anything to say to that, but I still took little solace in the fact that I had managed to miff him. It didn't make me any less captured. Any less doomed.