Lhind the Thief by Sherwood Smith

  Lhind the Thief

  Sherwood Smith


  Book View Café Edition

  August 20, 2013

  ISBN: 978-1-61138-292-1

  Copyright © 2013 Sherwood Smith


  “Stop the thief! Robber!”

  A couple of stones thumped me in the back.

  I enjoyed the angry bellows until my pursuers got close enough to hit me. The stones made me tuck my head down and run faster.

  The street narrowed ahead. I scrambled around the corner of a dingy, crack-walled house, scattering poultry in a cackling wake, and found myself in a closed courtyard, high fences joining the three cottages that opened onto the court.

  The closest fence stood about twelve finger-spreads high, made of thin, weather-beaten slats nailed together with warped rails. I risked a leap to the top, balancing on my toes, and from there another leap to the tiled roof of a cottage, crouching down as the first of the chasers bounded into the courtyard.

  They stopped, confused to find the court empty, until those following behind ran smash into them. The hunt became a pushing, shoving crowd, everyone bellowing and nobody listening. I had to bury my mouth in the crook of my arm to smother my laughter. Then I raised my other palm and shimmered an image of myself disappearing over the fence on the opposite side of the courtyard.

  “There,” the blustering bully in the lemon-yellow smock howled, pointing in the direction of my shimmer. “He’s crawled up the curst fence like a curst fly!”

  “Around, you slow-footed slugs,” someone in back yelled as Yellow Smock scowled up at the fence. Would he actually climb? I hoped he’d try, and bring the entire dilapidated rampart down.

  One of the warped, iron-reinforced doors opened and a brawny woman appeared, a carving knife gripped in one of her mighty fists. “You’re trespassing,” she snarled. “Git!”

  As quickly as they had gathered the mob scattered again.

  The shouts faded away. The woman cast one last squint-eyed glare around the empty courtyard, then retreated inside and slammed the door. Whump! went the inside bolt.

  I patted my stomach, where I’d stuck Yellow Smock’s moneybag, the week’s take from his so-called ‘protection’ service. That might buy me a corner to sleep in, even if it turned out the local Thieves Guild (which, I’d been warned by some young orphans who lived at the docks, was run by the harbormaster) wouldn’t let me join.

  Or maybe I ought to get something to eat first. I began the climb down, wobbling because my head felt light, as if it was about to roll off my shoulders and float away. Nothing but stale rain water, stolen from people’s barrels, had passed my lips in nearly two days. No wonder Yellow Smock and his gaggle had almost caught me.

  Breathing deeply until I felt steady again, I reached the filthy ground. And then, contemplating hot cakes with butter, I eased out into the street.

  I stepped wide to avoid a foul mess in the street, then heard a scrape behind me, like boots against stone. A dark, heavy cloth flapped down over my head.

  I fought as hard as I could, but I had two unseen foes, and both were stronger. I was thrown firmly to the ground. A knee thumped across my back and both my wrists were dragged behind me, and tied. Then someone picked me up, leaving the cloth still swathed around me, and I began to kick.

  “Murder, he’s a scrapper.” The words were in a tongue I’d never heard before, but as always I got the sense of it right away. The speaker’s voice was that of a young man, caustic and unfamiliar. “Aren’t we in enough trouble? Are you certain we have to do this?”

  He was answered by a younger male voice—also completely unfamiliar—in that same language: “I am bound by council rules.”

  The caustic one muttered (with difficulty, as I was struggling desperately), “You might allow another mage this pleasure.”

  “A servant of Dhes-Andis perhaps?”

  Just then I got a foot free, and kicked hard at empty air. Mages? I thought, distracted. These two were definitely not Yellow Smock’s blood-lusting friends.

  The younger voice now addressed me, this time in Chelan: “Look you, boy. We have no quarrel with you. Stop fighting. We won’t hurt you.”

  Naturally I fought harder. My toes walloped something soft.

  “Oof!” someone snorted, and down I thumped onto the ground again. This time two heavy knees held me flat, and someone wound more cord around my feet and then around me and the sack, turning me into a kind of worm. It was getting chokingly hard to breathe, which forced me to give up. For the moment.

  They held no further conversation for a seemly stretch. When they stopped I was unloaded onto wood, judging from the muffled thunk. The floor jounced as more thuds and knocks told me somebody else was climbing aboard, then the conveyance gave a jerk. I heard the clopping of horse hooves. I was in a cart, then.

  The enemy started talking in low voices. Wrapped as I was in that dratted sack, it was difficult to hear them.

  Caustic-Voice said, “We really don’t need any extra trouble.”

  Light-Voice chuckled. “I have a plan . . .” And his voice dropped too low to make out individual words.

  Alarmed—and puzzled—I lay quietly, to wait, plan, and gather my strength for the getaway.

  A long time passed before the cart stopped. I heard a lot of shouting, and other noise that I was unable to recognize, but I was left alone. After another wait someone lifted me, and as I started to resist a voice said close to my head, “I’d advise you not to move, lad, or we might drop you and you’d drown.”

  Drown? Was I at Stormborn Harbor? The thought of all that water—and myself helpless in it—made me stiffen up, my heart thumping against my ribs, until I was dumped once more on a wooden floor.

  The next wait seemed to stretch for three forevers, and I fell asleep. I woke up when someone began unwrapping the cord that bound the sack around my body. The cords binding my wrists and ankles were left alone, but at least that sack loosened, and someone pulled me up to a sitting position and propped me against a wall. Then the sack was, at last, pulled from over my head. Cool, tangy air ruffled across my hot face and I sucked it in gratefully, blinking against tears caused by the brightness of the light coming through a tiny, round window.

  I shook my head, trying to clear my vision. Then I faced the enemy, scowling from habit.

  Two of them sat side by side, both on low chairs. They were giving me as curious a scrutiny as I gave them, and for a moment no one spoke. One was a tall, brown-faced young man with long, braided black hair and the thin mustache of the warrior-lords west of the empire of Charas al Kherval. He was definitely a noble, complete with device stitched on the breast of his dark blue tunic, and both sword and knife at his belt. His long fingers sported several rings which I priced mentally, and decided to pinch before I made my escape. Fair exchange for being tied up and thrown in a sack when I hadn’t done anything to them.

  Because I hadn’t—I’d never seen them before.

  The other was shorter and slighter than the warrior-lord, fine brown hair just a shade or two darker than his flesh. It was tied back with the plain black band used by servants or clerks. He wore a simple, undecorated gray tunic, and no weapons. His only ornament was a ring of pitted, rough silver worn on the little finger of his right hand; the bumps on the face might have been age-worn, but the whole reminded me of something a bad prentice might have made. It wouldn’t bring the price of two meals if I stole it.

  This fellow had just begun to speak when the floor gave a pitch. Since my wrists were still bound, I nearly lost my balance, catching myself painfully on my elbow. The black-haired one grinned.

  Then I realized why the floor had pitched: I was on board a ship. A ship? I changed my
scowl to a slit-eyed glare, and the black-haired lord laughed. “Caught fairly, you are, young thief,” he said in Chelan.

  I scowled so hard my brow began to hurt outside as well as in.

  He only laughed louder. “What a sight! And—are you sure you want to do this, Hlanan?—what a smell.” He still spoke in Chelan, which meant he wanted me to hear and understand.

  The one in gray frowned as he looked up at the black-haired Toad-brained Tick-Picker, then back at me. “Boy,” he said slowly and carefully, “please believe we are not friends of that cross-looking man back in Tu Jhan. But we saw an illusion cast, while you were hiding behind that house. You did it, didn’t you?”

  I was sorry that my scowl was already at its most terrible.

  “Answer him,” the black-haired Son of a Scum-licker drawled.

  “You got ale on the brain. Everyone knows no spell-casting’s allowed in this land,” I sneered. “And if you were thinking of trying same, they burn you for it in Thesreve.” Then, so they would not think I was afraid of the threats of any Noble Pig-Wallowers, I spat on the floor in front of them.

  Well, tried. I was too thirsty to work up any spit, but I gave it all my effort, knowing full well how rude a gesture it was.

  The black-haired Night-Crawler reached down and gave me a cuff on the side of the head. It wasn’t hard, but because I was sitting on a ship with my hands tied, I lost my balance and thumped my head against the wall with a hollow thok! that made him look surprised.

  The other said “Rajanas,” in reproach.

  The black-haired Molester of Slime-eaters Rajanas (I memorized his name for adding to future curses) said, “I only meant to get his attention. And to discourage fouling the deck.”

  Hlanan said, “There’s no need. He’s obviously used to that sort of treatment, and he’ll only mistrust us the longer.”

  Rajanas the Stink in Man Form shrugged. “He’s a thief. Being tough with a thief is the only way you’ll get any truth, instead of a lot more insolence. But very well. As I said at the outset, this is your mistake. Permit me to withdraw.” He still spoke in Chelan, and he addressed the other as an equal, not as lord to servant.

  He left, but not before I spat again, this time in his direction. His laugh floated back as he shut the door.

  Hlanan left his chair and came forward, sitting cross-legged directly before me. He had wide-spaced brown eyes, and a thoughtful cast to his expression.

  “Boy, I give you my name. It is Hlanan Vosaga.” He said it such a way that I suspected there was a part missing. Though I was not certain, because I did not yet know his rhythms of speech, and also, naming can differ from place to place. But his tone? That I knew. He wanted me to trust him. Hah! “I want you to realize I mean you no harm. There are others who do. Who, if they find someone like you who can cast illusions, enslave them to cast evil illusions at their masters’ will.”

  He waited expectantly. He’d been pleasant enough—for a captor—so I decided to answer him. But not give him what he asked. “I’ve managed to avoid the slavers for many years. And there are ways and ways of cheating a person.”

  “I trusted you with my name.”

  “Then you are a fool.”

  He surprised me a second time by sitting back and blinking at me, with no trace of anger in his face. I watched carefully, with no expression—except the scowl—on mine.

  “What do they call you?” he asked finally, in a more cautious tone.

  “My name is Lhind,” I sneered. “And don’t see any trust in the telling. Enchantments on names don’t work unless . . .”

  “. . . unless you’ve the cooperation of the victim, however unwitting.”

  As soon as those words were out I saw the real trap. I jammed my teeth down on my lip in disgust. This is what I deserve for blabbing! I, who had spent my life guarding my secrets, had blundered like any village yokel first time in the city.

  “Or, put another way,” he said with an interested air, “if you expect to be enchanted, then you permit it. But there are not many who know that. Who is your tutor?” His steady gaze searched my face as he waited. I just glared back, unblinking.

  He stood up. “Well. I can see you won’t talk to me at all now. I want you to think over my words, and these. If you permit, I can help you make a better life for yourself. Safer, too. Till you decide, I’m afraid I must leave you tied up. Illusions cast aboard the yacht would be regrettable, to say the least.” He gave me an apologetic smile, went out and shut the door.

  I inspected the cord around my ankles. It was woven silk, very thin and not uncomfortable, but unquestionably well tied. The knot looked like a slip knot; if I pulled, it would tighten. The cord around my wrists felt much the same. No chance of wriggling free. I needed a cutting edge.

  I thought with disgust of the dagger in the waistband of my knickers. It was right in front, just where I couldn’t possibly reach it. Remember this for the future, too, I told myself.

  I looked around the little cabin for a substitute. Against the far wall was a built-in bunk, and below it two cabinets, opposite a table with three fine carved chairs. Above the table shelves had been fitted, whose various objects were held in place by a carved guardrail.

  I’d just finished my scrutiny when the door opened abruptly, and in walked the Strutting Root-Mold Rajanas. I had just enough time to give him a welcoming glower and to tense my muscles in readiness. He kicked the door shut behind him, then reached down with that deceptive slowness to grab the front of my tunic and straighten me up.

  “I thought I’d better make the time to give you these words, my foul-smelling little thief. Hlanan is a friend of mine—”

  “Pity him,” I started.

  He cuffed the side of my head. My cowl and hair were thick enough to cushion any sting, but I yelled “Ow!” anyway.

  “Shut up,” he said evenly. “He’s also tender-hearted and idealistic to the point of rashness. I expect three things of you, and if you comply you will be cut loose in the first harbor we come to, with a coin for your pains. The first is: in the morning he will probably ask you where you came from and how you came by your ability to cast illusions. You will tell him. And when he offers to take you up and further train you, you will refuse. I do not believe you learned that trick by accident, but whatever incompetent fool of a sorcerer thought fit to teach the likes of you that spell is not going to learn anything of Hlanan that can be used to harm him. Or if you have escaped from your master then I do not intend to see you set free with any information to sell to the nearest practitioner of the dark arts. Do you understand me?”

  He paused, and I tried to work up a good spit. He smiled suddenly. “The third thing is: you will improve your manners from this moment henceforth, or I will bestir myself to thrash some into you. Do you understand that?”

  I gave him my deadest stone-face. He stared at me out of pale eyes, a paleness accentuated by his brown skin, and then, with that faint smile, he turned away. “You may as well remain here for the night. You have already rendered this cabin unfit for civilized company—” He smiled a little wider as he opened the door “—and your presence would probably shock said company right off my yacht.” Laughing softly, he shut the door.

  I snorted. “You don’t frighten me, Offal-Faced Littermate of Skunks,” I shouted at the door. I added a few more imprecations, then came the comforting thought that I’d had fair warning. That gave me all night to concoct a plausible lie.

  I pushed myself against the wall and stood up. My head was light—though not nearly as empty as my belly—but I still managed to judge the rhythm of the water under the ship and hop over to the little window over the narrow table. Being somewhat short, I could just barely see through it, but what I saw was enough to convince me I was indeed on a very fine yacht, with no land in sight. A swim, then, was definitely out.

  Not much of the yacht was in view: part of the gangway, along which two people in splendid dress strolled slowly. Beyond the rails, the water reflecte
d sunset colors, and above marched a line of heavy clouds. Rain was coming.

  Fine. If a storm was due, I wasn’t going to spend it on the floor just because I’d been put there. I reached the bunk in two hops and a somersault dive. Glad to find my balance still good despite my dizziness and my hair and tail being confined, I wriggled around until I was as comfortable as those cords would allow—and then I sank into sleep.

  Within an unknown stretch of time I woke up again, to find the ship rolling and pitching. Outside the wind shrieked, and under me the wood groaned like a live thing. My stomach lurched queasily, but I tightened it, thinking, Quiet, gut. Not enough in you to make a fuss. Curling up, I slid into more uneasy sleep, dreaming of ghost-riders in the thunder.

  Nothing happened to me, though—that is, nothing until my door opened. I woke to see pale morning light slanting across Rajanas’s angry face, and gleaming on the naked blade of the long knife in his hand.


  Still hazy with sleep and hunger, I brought my feet up to make a last try at defending myself.

  “Hold still,” he said curtly, swatting my ankles aside. He reached down and grabbed the neck of my tunic, then flung me over onto my face.

  “The yacht seems to have become separated from the other ships by the storm and the fog,” he said. “We’re about to be boarded by pirates.”

  He was interrupted by a long scream, followed by sudden shouts and clangs of weapons. I tried to sit up.

  “Even a little rat of a thief deserves a chance to fight for its life,” he said grimly, shoved me back down again, and sawed quickly through the silken cords binding me.

  “Here.” He pressed the blade into my hand, then dashed through the door. From outside came the sounds of cries and the clash of weapons.

  I jumped down from the bunk and shook my head, trying to get my scattered wits to focus as I moved to the door. What do I do now?

  Rajanas shouted a command, then he himself appeared a ways down the deck, running toward a knot of struggling people as he pulled a sword free of the sheath across his back. He turned his head and snapped more orders at the sailors swarming up from below-deck.

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