Chapter 1

The night was quiet.

That was how Roach liked it. A dark table by the wall and a cup in his hand at the end of the day was the perfect way to ease the mind and body before he let sleep take him. Lately, it felt like sleep either avoided him or tortured him with nightmares from the other night.

If he closed his eyes and breathed deep, Roach could still remember the chill that seeped into his bones with the nightly rain, hear the pained gasp of the poor girl before her body dropped to the muddy street with a slick thud.

A sharp tremble raced down his spine as fear gripped his heart like a fist. However, the loud clatter of a cup on a nearby table snapped the thief back to his present surroundings.

The patrons at the Round Horn Tavern were deep in their drinks. A few shot dice in a corner table near the fire and a serving woman swiveled her way from table to table. No-one really talked but no one seemed to care. Why would they? No-one had much to talk about lately. Nothing that could be solved, anyway.

Taking another deep pull of his cup, Roach forced his sharp, mismatched eyes to focus on the fire crackling with life against the back wall. He needed to focus on the warmth, the light. Light was a comfort. Light didn't deceive or hide. It revealed. And, as long as he kept his focus on the flames licking upward, he wouldn't have to think of what happened in the dark and cold.

Rich aromas of pipe smoke and cooking food drifted heavily through the air, enticing but not enough to tempt the skinny thief to ask for either. He was good to keep his drink down. Shifting slightly in his chair, Roach felt the familiar weight against his chest to remind him of his failed mission. It only caused to sour his stomach further.

He'd run. There was no excuse for his cowardly actions. He'd run and there was no way to fix what he'd messed-up. But, still, he had to figure out some way to get rid of what he held. There was no way Roach could be caught with the message. It would be the death of him.

As if summoned by Roach's very thoughts, the front door slammed open, shaking all present from their stupors. The glint of gold on the new comers' armor had Roach slumping low in his chair, breath catching harshly in his throat. Royal guards never came to this part of the capital unless they were looking for trouble.

The one leading the group stepped toward the owner, a large man with a balding head and a barrel chest, muttering low for only the two to hear. When Old Sean's beady eyes jumped in Roach's direction, the pick-pocket knew his evening was over.

Quiet as a mouse, he crouched his small frame beneath the wooden table, careful to stick to shadows as he crept across the floor, toward the back door.

Sean made as much of a fuss as possible to draw the guards' attention away from the sneaking thief. Roach could almost kiss the bald man as he spotted Sean starting to lead the guards to search the other end of the room.

Roach was almost home free when he miscalculated and brushed against another patron's leg.

With a yelp, the fool jumped to his feet, up-ending his chair with a banging clatter. Roach cursed under his breath and bolted for the door, not waiting to think as he heard several pairs of booted feet scrambling behind him.

Shouts and crashes drowned out the leader's commands as the pick-pocket scrambled out of the building and ran full tilt down the shadowed street. Roach thanked his luck there was no moon that night. It would make it easier to hide. But the leader's voice still rang through the night air as Roach bolted down street after street. He wasn't giving up.

Mismatched eyes searched frantically for one of the hiding places he'd collected over the years. There had to be somewhere that was safe. He'd spent countless brushes with close-calls discovering every abandoned nook and cranny in the capital to avoid capture from Captain Raldos and the other guards. Surely, one was good enough to shield him till morning.

However, the sharp barking of dogs caused the hair on Roach's neck to stand on end. They'd brought hounds.

Shifting tactics, Roach threw himself into one of the abandoned towers along the back outcroppings of the city walls. Count on the Royal guards to abandon a tower in the lower side of the capitol. Roach almost laughed at the irony as he dug out the dirtied, wrapped bundle from his shirt.

He'd have to lead them away, but they wouldn't find this. They couldn't have this.

Fumbling in the dark, he found the loose stone by the room's opening, the dilapidated door rotted off its own hinges. As quickly as he dared, Roach shoved the wrapped package behind the widened crack before shifting the stone back into place. He'd have to send word somehow. Let the others know where to find it. But, first, he had to look after himself.

Listening carefully, Roach waited for any sign of pursuit. A hissed whisper, a rushed footfall; it wouldn't take much. But, not hearing anything, he took off as fast as his thin legs would take him.

Taking a few quick turns, Roach wove his way through the dark streets. Dogs or not, they couldn't track him forever. If he bided his time, confusion would force them to give up.

In the meantime, he knew the perfect place to wait out the night. They never searched the granaries this time of year. They were too full from the recent harvest.

Spying the large looming structure in the distance, Roach resisted the urge to sigh with relief. The distant echo of baying not that far behind him, had the nimble thief rushing towards the back of the granary. He'd slip between the sack stored along the top for the noble houses and let the fools scramble with the loose grain piled along the bottom for the common population. There'd be no-way they could find him in all the chaos.

He'd just managed to find a foothold in a support beam when sharp teeth drove into his ankle. Howling in shocked pain, the terrified thief clung to the wooden beam as the animal growled viciously and started to pull.

Stars flared behind Roach's eyes, causing panic to start to take over as he kicked blindly against his attacker. The angry beast thrashed his head, fighting back as voices grew closer. With a sharp jerk, Roach lost his grip and landed hard on his back.

Twisting in a desperate attempt to shield his throat, Roach was almost relieved when a gloved hand suddenly pulled him up. It wasn't till he turned wide eyes on his savior that Roach realized his mistake. The one who dangled him at least a good foot from the ground was none other than the Captain of the Royal Guard, Raldos.

"So, this is the one called Roach, eh?" he sneered as he turned the skinny thief one way then the other. "Fitting we'd find him here."

The answering chuckles told the thief he was surrounded in the darkness. There was no escape.

"Well, it's your lucky day, Roach," the Captain continued with an almost manic glee. "You get a better bed tonight."

"Think I'll keep what I got, if that's alright with you," Roach jested quickly.

A fist in his gut answered the thief's challenge, causing him to gasp before crumbling to the ground.

"Put him in irons and take him to the Keep," Raldos ordered as he glared down at the trembling boy. "The king's been waiting to meet this one."

A swiftly moving boot was the last thing Roach saw before darkness took him, pain bursting behind his eyes.