Posted by: lordkyler | November 19, 2016

The Thief – Short Story

I’m getting too old for this, Garrett thought, pausing to catch his breath. The bell-tower offered a vital vantage point, but the stairs did little favor for his knees. If he’d had his way, he would have retired years ago, but here he was, about to embark on the most ambitious job of his career.

Only a handful of thieves in the kingdom had the skill to rob Copperhold Keep, the  fortified estate of Altheus Copperhold, one of the most powerful and paranoid men in the city. Garrett still numbered among those few – using ingenuity, experience, and extensive planning to compensate for his lack of vigor – but that didn’t make the task easy, by any means. This job would push him to his limits, even if everything went perfectly.

And things never went perfectly. 

Arriving at the top of the tower, Garrett settled into position, snapping open a small spyglass. He had spent hours studying the estate over the past week, but caution paid for itself twice over. Even a small change in the routine could cripple his plans.

Copperhold Keep bore more resemblance to a fortress than a palace, towering over the shops and shanties of the city, an island of elegance in the midst of a squalid sea. Garrett’s lip curled in disgust as he studied the elaborate grounds and sprawling mansion. The divide was so obvious from up here. Paradise within the walls, hell without. How could anyone live like this while so many suffered and starved? The man kept peacocks, for hell’s sake.

Garrett cut that thread of thought before it could ensnare him. He was already angry enough about having to take this job – he couldn’t afford to get himself worked up and make mistakes, Too much was riding on this job. Time enough to curse the evils of wealth once he’d made Altheus a little less wealthy.

A careful scan of the patrols revealed nothing out of the ordinary – for Copperhold Keep, anyway. Altheus had reinforced the walls until they could have withstood a siege, and nearly twice the normal number of guards patrolled the grounds, all armed and armored with the finest equipment. Typical of noblemen, really – throwing money and manpower at a problem until they buried it, heedless of cost or complication.

Snapping the spyglass shut, Garrett made one last check of his equipment and made his way back down to the street. He emerged winded but ready, fears fading in the thrill of the heist.

It was a good night for thieving, black as a beggar’s prospects. The starless sky seemed to press down with an almost tangible weight, as though trying to smother the life out of the city, and fog flooded the streets, swirling at the walls of Copperhold Keep like a ghostly sea breaking against the cliffs.

On a night like this, the guards were nervous, lingering by the light and warmth of the torches, jumping at shadows and clutching their spears with white-knuckled superstition. Back in his fiddle days, Garrett might have chosen to scale the wall, slipping through the blind spots between the sloppier patrols, but he had learned subtlety of a different sort over the years.

“I know you’re there,” he said to no one, making an educated guess. “You may as well come out.”

Sheepishly, a small pack of boys emerged from their hiding places, some looking awed at his perception and others annoyed they’d been caught.

Garrett sighed. The orphans were good lads, and he was glad to give them work, but seeing their grimy faces always brought back unwelcome memories: his parents, succumbing to the plague in the gutter, his son, making the ill-fated decision to join the bandit crews, his own days on the streets with Diane…

Again he had to stop himself. Reminiscent rambling, another weakness of age. If he couldn’t focus on the job, he might as well hang himself now and save Altheus the trouble.

“All set?” he asked the boys, dragging his thoughts back to the business at hand. The boys nodded, nervous but excited. “Good. Give me five minutes to get in place, then let ’em have it. Don’t kill nobody and don’t get killed, understood?”

More nods. He nodded back, and the boys vanished into the darkness once more.

No turning back now, Garrett thought, moving into position. Not like it had truly been an option before. Eager to make his own fortune, his son had crossed one too many lines, and now the Hightown Crew was demanding he complete this job or see his son executed. Garrett couldn’t approve of his son’s actions, but he couldn’t stand by and let him die, either.

That didn’t mean he had to like it, of course. He knew he was being used, breaking his own rules in order to uphold his standards, but he had no choice. There were some lines he could not cross. and some things worth being foolish for,  If he refused to help someone in need, how was he any better than the bastards he’d robbed and ruined over the years?

Just one more job, he promised himself, not for the first time. Now, where are those boys?

As if on cue, a soft hiss cut through the cold air, followed by a sharp crack. One of the torches on the wall sputtered and died. A guard cursed loudly, only to find himself the target of a second volley of sling-stones. Pandemonium erupted – rocks ricochetting from the walls, guards ducking for cover, cries of alarm and shouted commands filling the night.

Street folk often harassed the nobility, showing their anger in the only way left to them, and in turn, the guards tended to retaliate, dispensing punishment to whatever unfortunate souls they could lay their hands on.

Sure enough, the gates ground open a moment later, releasing a swarm of armed men to deal with the harassing youth, fifty at least. Far too many for a fruitless job, but if you had the men, you might as well give them something to do.

After a half hour spent searching alleys and rooftops in search of lads long gone, the guards reassembled, filing back into the Keep. In the mass of men, nobody noticed one more body had joined the ranks. The perils of excess. When it came down to it, a uniform is just another sort of key, and tailors were much easier to bribe or burgle than captains of the guard.

Once inside, muted bells began to toll, signaling the changing of the guard. Garrett ducked away in the confusion before anyone could question his presence, heart hammering with the thrill of success. The first hurdle cleared.

Taking a shortcut through the gardens, Garrett made a few adjustments to his uniform,  promoting himself to captain as quickly as any nepotism could. Adopting a persona to match this new identity, he emerged from the gardens with a scowl, approaching the manor house with long strides and purposeful intent, the last thing a man wants to see at the end of a long shift.

It was the work of a moment to bluff his way past the doormen, allowing him inside the manor itself, unsuspected, undetected, and unharmed – the thief’s trinity. Now came the tricky bit.

Somewhere in this edifice to indulgence lay a trinket of tremendous worth, apparently more valuable than the manor and everything in it. Nobody knew exactly what the blasted thing was or what it did, but rumors suggested a relic from the ancient lands, a magical weapon that would allow Altheus – or anyone else – to rule the city.

Garrett didn’t give two clicks of his heel for stories of lost magic or political intrigue, but his investigation had revealed little in the way of practical details. The object was small, they said, and likely some sort of jewelry. He might as well be trying to find a particular leaf on a tree. Given the nature of noblemen, however, he suspected that the relic was hidden in the most secret and secure corner of Altheus’s quarters. The man was too paranoid to leave it anywhere even slightly removed from his personal protection.

Bribes paid to workmen and former guards had produced a comprehensive map of the manor, allowing Garrett to find his way to Altheus’s door with a minimum of fuss, though he had to take a few detours to avoid house servants and guardsmen.

Given Altheus’s reputation, Garrett had expected to find the typical nobleman’s house, packed with so many displays of extravagance that it was impossible to appreciate the beauty amidst the clutter. Instead, he found the decor tastefully subdued, the art carefully curated, every element set to provide the maximum effect, given room to breathe.

As much as he despised the money wasted, Garrett was impressed by the furnishings. You could tell a great deal about a man by the state of his home, and Copperhold Keep suggested someone cautious and clever. Altheus might be paranoid to a fault, but he wasn’t a fool. Keep your guard up, Garrett thought.

He stopped before reaching Altheus’s chambers. Altheus undoubtedly had bodyguards standing watch, and there was no point in trying to bluff or fight his way past them. Instead, he slipped into an empty conservatory, climbing from balcony to balcony whenever the guards on the grounds were looking the other way. It was grueling work, but there were plenty of decorative features to provide handholds, and he had a chance to rest between each maneuver.

All told, it took him an hour of spidering about to reach Altheus’s private balcony, stained in brilliant hues by the light from the stained glass windows. He was surprised to find the doors properly locked instead of merely latched, and it took him an embarrassing two minutes to crack it. His dexterity wasn’t what it used to be, and his hands still shook from the climb. Tread lightly, he warned himself. You can’t help anyone if you’re dead.

He took a moment to steady himself before entering. He had made it, still in the grace of the thieves’ trinity. With luck, he would be gone within the hour. Silent as a king’s conscience, he eased the door open and slipped inside, already planning where to begin. Then he stopped dead.

Altheus’s suite was empty. Not decorated in a minimal style like the rest of the manor, and not completely barren –   a lonely table and chair sat in one corner, and an old wardrobe in the other displayed a handful of fine linens– but all the trappings of wealth were gone, as though every thief in the world had already taken their fill.

Astonished, Garrett nearly let the door slam shut behind him, only managing to catch it at the last moment. Had he been misled? Perhaps Altheus had moved to a more secure location, or he was having work done on the room… No, there was no evidence of that. Besides, why bother to station guards outside an empty room?

While attempting to puzzle out this strange circumstance, Garrett realized that the room wasn’t empty after all. A deep, slobbery snore rumbled from the next room over, echoing in the barren chambers.

Brow furrowed, Garrett glided across the floor, avoiding the noisy floorboards by pure habit. Sure enough, the snoring man was Altheus Copperhold himself, lying on a simple bed scarcely large enough to hold his bulk.

Garrett had caught glimpses of Altheus once or twice in the past, before the nobleman had sequestered himself with the relic. He had never seen anyone fatter, a claim with some fierce competition among certain circles of the nobility.  Altheus was a self-made man, coming into prominence after a series of daring deals and good fortune. Then, as so often happens, riches revealed the worst of a man, and Altheus gave himself over to gluttony, throwing lavish feasts every night of the week and twice on Sunday.

But something had changed since those days. He was still a large man, but where he’d once been as plump and rosy as a sausage, he had since… deflated. He looked as though someone had made a man out of dough and left it to rise too long. Flesh hung in folds from a skeletal frame, slick with sweat and pallid as a corpse.

If not for the steady snoring, Garrett might have thought the man was dead, the victim of some poison or disease. Every exhalation sounded like Altheus’s last, each new breath a startling resurrection. How easy would it be to stop that breath and rid the world of one more miser?

The thought took Garrett aback. He’d spent his life taking revenge on the elite of the city, but he refused to become what they were – the selfish and cowardly oppressors of the less fortunate. Killers. He’d learned the hard way that no vengeance was worth the cost of his conscience.

Of course, that didn’t mean he had to play nice.

After a second’s hesitation, he drew his knife. The weapon hadn’t drawn blood for forty years, but the blade was good steel – a bit tarnished with age, but well-kept through daily diligence and sharper than lost love.

Trembling ever so slightly, Garrett placed the tip of the knife against Altheus’s throat, gentle as a butterfly. It hovered there for several moments while he composed himself, rehearsing the role in his head. He was in control. All he needed was the relic, and he could leave. Nobody had to die tonight. Surely Altheus valued his life more than some fairy-tale trinket?

Suddenly, Altheus opened his eyes, instantly alert. Caught off his guard, Garrett fumbled with the knife, trying to avoid hurting Altheus and threaten him at the same time. Faster than he would have thought possible, Altheus reached out and caught him by the throat, squeezing with enough force to crack walnuts.

Frantic, Garrett pressed the knife into the fat of Altheus’s neck, driving deeper with every second, forcing the nobleman to relent or perish. He wouldn’t murder a man in cold blood, but he had no qualms about defending himself. Blood trickled from the wound like wine, staining the bedsheets, while Garrett squeaked for breath, trying in vain to keep the brutish fingers at bay.

Altheus was the first to crack, unable to bear the pain of the knife in his neck. Carefully, deliberately, he relaxed his grip, allowing Garrett to breath again, but he kept his hand firmly in place, poised to resume at a moment’s notice. Garrett did likewise with his knife, pulling back just enough to avoid starting a second struggle. A moment passed while both men recovered, taking each other’s measure. Again, Altheus relented first.

“It seems we are at an impasse,” he slurred, spitting out a mouthful of blood. Despite waking to an ambush in the middle of the night, he was fully lucid, his dark eyes darting like a weasel’s, looking for a way out.

“I think not,” Garrett croaked. “Knife’s quicker.”

“Perhaps not quick enough,” Altheus said. He was annoyingly calm for a man in dire peril, like a scholar giving a lecture to an unruly student. “There are books filled with the feats of dying men. Maybe I won’t last long enough to kill you, but I assure you I will last long enough to shout for my guards.”

Garrett’s heart sank. He stood no chance against Altheus’s elite guard. He could possibly silence Altheus if he moved quick enough, but he wasn’t yet desperate enough to bet on those odds.

The nobleman seemed willing to talk. Perhaps if he stalled, an opportunity would present itself – some chance at distraction or a false feeling of confidence. For all his strength, Altheus surely couldn’t have much in the way of stamina.

“An impasse,” Garrett conceded. “So, how does this play out? Shall we off each other or do you have some addled idea that the two of us can make some kind of compromise?”

“You could leave,” Altheus said levelly. Though he had cleared his mouth, his words were still somewhat mangled, perhaps a symptom of whatever affliction had befallen him. “Given that you managed to make it this far, I surmise you are the same thief that stole Lord Emerson’s tapestry? The Cerulean Sapphire? Perhaps even the king’s private ledgers? You are already a legend. Why risk your life for one more feather in your cap?”

“I don’t do this for feathers,” Garrett growled. “And you sure as hell couldn’t pay me enough to make this job worthwhile.”

Altheus raised an eyebrow. Garrett could practically see the machinery churning in hi head. “I must say you’re rather more direct than I expected. So it’s a personal matter, then. Revenge? Redemption? Blackmail?”

Three for three, Garrett thought. Cleverer than most. He leaned in closer, pushing against Altheus’s hand. It gave, just a little. “Here’s an idea: Why don’t you give me what I want, and then I leave? Why are you willing to die for this trinket?”

“It’s the only possession that matters to me now,”  Altheus said, shifting slightly in discomfort. He didn’t meet Garrett’s eyes. “I sold everything to get my hands on it. I put myself in grave debt to keep it safe. Men fought wars over magic like this, you understand?”

Garrett leaned a little closer. “Like what?”

Altheus sighed. “As dear as it cost me, you are correct, Master Thief. Keeping the relic is not worth my life, but I’m not the only–”

“What does it do?” Garrett pressed. Altheus’s strength was waning. Any moment now…

“It gives life to the dying,” Altheus whispered, looking suddenly exhausted. “A ring of healing. Whoever wears it can control its power, for themselves or anyone they touch. Wounds vanish, illnesses abate, madness retreats – all in a moment.”

A face flashed unbidden across Garrett’s mind, tearing open an old scar on his soul. Dianne. He would have sold the world and everyone in it to have held such a power on that hateful day.

He found the knife quaking in his white-knuckled grip, but Altheus didn’t seem to notice. He was babbling on about the ring draining vitality if used too often – apparently the cause of his condition – but Garrett’s thoughts were elsewhere.

What miracles could be wrought with such a power? What atrocities could be accomplished under its protection? The Hightown crew certainly weren’t about to start fighting plagues and curing cripples, but what good did it do hoarded up in a nobleman’s clutches? It was a gift too great to be wasted by either of them.

Altheus barely resisted any more, rambling on about the sacrifices he had made, almost incoherent with that strange slur to his voice. All at once, Garrett realized exactly where the ring was hidden.

All at once, Garrett burst into motion, using every ounce of strength he had. With one hand he slashed at Altheus’s arm, weakening it enough for him to reach for Altheus’s mouth with the other.

Altheus responded in a heartbeat, and it was instantly clear that his fading strength had been a ruse. He bucked like a bull, thrashing madly, but he was a moment too slow. Garrett’s fingers found their way past the tearing teeth, heedless of harm, and closed around a small round object. The ring, attached to a fitting in Altheus’s tongue, the one place where Altheus could be sure of its safety.

Without hesitation, Garrett ripped it free.

Altheus’s hands flew to his mouth automatically, but he couldn’t find the breath to scream. Garrett muffled him with a blanket anyway, biting back his own curses – his fingers were in ruins. After a second of mute agony, wondering how he was going to escape with a mangled hand, he realized he already had the solution to his problem.

Holding the knife in his teeth, he managed to slip the ring onto one of his undamaged fingers. It certainly didn’t look like anything special – plain copper with a small green stone – but as soon it was on, he could feel its power singing through his body.. In the span of a second, the wounds on his hand closed up completely, as though they’d never been there. His aches and exhaustion disappeared like a bad memory, leaving only the glow of triumph.

He almost laughed aloud. He felt young again. With this power, he could battle the Hightown crew himself. He could tear down every nobleman in the city, and bring hope and healing to the common folk. He could set everything right.

Brimful of vigor, Garrett spun on his heel, ready to make his escape before Altheus recovered. And then he saw the picture.

It was a small, simple drawing, done in ink, angled so that Garrett hadn’t been able to see it earlier. A young girl, around twelve years old, with a shy, gap-toothed smile and her hair in braids. The label read My Darling Elinia, but in that moment, all he could see was Dianne.

They’d been so young, then. The plague had taken their parents, and although they weren’t really old enough to fend for themselves, they did their best to scrape by, working together to steal scraps of bread and bits of clothing.

Dianne was the elder, the planner, the protecter – an angel in his eyes, albeit a grimy and impish one. She used to tell stories at nights, beautiful tales that always ended with heroes and villains each getting their just rewards.

Things hadn’t turned out that way for them. They’d been on their way to beg outside the church when a young prince came thundering down the street on a new stallion. Without hesitation, Dianne shoved him out of the way, but could not save herself. She bled to death in the middle of the street while Garrett cried for help that never came. Just one more body for the morgue-heaps, as far anybody else cared.

At Garrett’s naive insistence, the young prince was questioned by the city guard, but gold weighed more than justice on the city scales, and nothing ever came of it. Garrett received a pittance in consolation – what was left after the guards had taken their share. He used the coins to buy the knife that would one day claim the prince’s life – his first and only kill.

That knife now clattered to the floor as Garrett stumbled back, head spinning in a way the ring could do nothing to correct. Altheus had a daughter. A loved one. Perhaps the only thing Altheus valued more than riches.

Acting on impulse, Garrett reached out and laid his hand on Altheus, extending his stolen power to the nobleman. After a moment, the man stopped shaking and looked at Garrett in undisguised awe.

“You… healed me?” he asked, incredulous. “I thought–”

“Your daughter?” Garrett interrupted, grabbing the drawing and shoving it in Altheus’s face. “You said you weren’t using the ring for yourself. It is for her?”

Altheus nodded, tears still streaming from his eyes. “She fell ill of the plague a few months ago. None of the physicians could help. When I heard of the ring… I stopped at nothing. We brought her back from the edge of death, but while the ring could cure her symptoms, it could not purge the disease entirely. Every day, I use my strength to heal her, and she gets a little stronger. Please… she’s nearly well again.”

She looked so much like Dianne.

“Your health, your wealth, all given for her?”

“And for others,” Altheus said, with a sigh. “Elinia’s illness reminded me of what truly mattered, and… well, I wanted to give something back. As I said, the ring draws on your vitality, so I can’t use it all the time, but the guards bring me people where they see the need, and I spare what I can…”

He trailed off awkwardly as Garrett began to pace.

Hell take me, thought the thief. Now what? Should he condemn an innocent child to death, or sacrifice his own son? Or was he no better than the bastard prince, using his power to avoid facing consequences? Taking the ring meant condemning the child, but was there a difference if she would have died anyway?

What sort of man was he, in the end?

Seeing his indecision, Altheus rolled out of bed, falling heavily onto bloated knees. “Please,” he begged.

With a roar of raw frustration, Garrett tore the ring from his finger and threw it to Altheus’s feet. At once the hum of power left him, allowing his age to return twofold, but a deeper strength kept him standing despite his weariness.

Altheus’s bodyguards burst into the room at the sound of Garrett’s cry, swords drawn, but to their surprise, Altheus ordered them to stand down. They watched in bewilderment as the intruder picked up the ring and knelt across from their master, placing the relic back into his hands.

“Heal your daughter, Altheus, and then use this ring to do the most good you can. If you don’t, no amount of guards will save you from me, understood?”

Altheus met his eye and nodded. “I swear it on my daughter’s life.”

Fitting, Garrett thought, since I’ve just pledged my son’s. 

Without a word, he picked up his knife and headed for the door.

“Where are you going?” Altheus cried.

Garrett paused for a long moment, not turning to look back. “I’ve got some changes to make,” he sighed.

And then he was gone.

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