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Brendell: Rogue Thief

an extract from the novel
by Patrick Welch

Brendell: Rogue Thief by Patrick WelchAs Cordita had promised, the Fess manor was easy to find. I was surprised how quiet and empty the streets were, which was another symptom of Houff's poverty. "Where are the guards?" Algorph asked as we studied it.

She probably can't afford any. "Inside I would suspect. With her powers, she probably believes she doesn't require them. Now that you know where it is, go get our horses. If I'm successful, we'll need them."

"I don't like this. I don't like leaving you on your own."

I grinned. "Are you suddenly concerned about my well-being, Algorph? Get the horses; we may have to leave quickly."

He grunted, then headed back. I waited until he disappeared in the darkness, then took a deep breath. I was about to take the biggest gamble of my career. And everything was predicated on the words of a serving wench. Brendell, you are a fool. And possibly a dead one, I told my inner voice as I approached the manor.

I proceeded to make a leisurely study of the building. I suspected there were no exterior guards because her magic and the realm's economy weren't that strong. Inside should be a different matter. While I fully planned to announce myself, it wouldn't be through the front door, so I entered through the rear. I found myself in the kitchen, but, unlike homes of other royalty I had visited, there was no cooking or cleaning staff hard at work. I wouldn't have been surprised if Pipo Fess cooked and cleaned for herself.

I went through the door into a hallway. Immediately an oil lamp on a table burst into light, followed by four more leading down the hall. She knows I'm here. Taking a deep breath, I walked down the hall, following the lights that continued to ignite as I neared them. They led me through a maze of hallways until I was led to a closed door. I knocked softly.

"Bourherr Gastinell?" a woman responded.

"Of course."

"Please come in."

I entered to find myself in a study. Again, however, the poverty of Houff was evident. The shelves were nearly empty, the walls bereft of art. A small fire burned sullenly in the hearth, providing the only light. Pipo Fess rose as I entered. As she approached, I was startled to find how tall she was, how proudly she carried herself. Thin, but I suspected she had an inner will like iron. Her youthful beauty had long given way to aged wisdom. She held out her hand and I took it and bowed. "I've been expecting you. Please have a seat."

"Why is that?" I asked as I did as bidden.

She sat across from me. Even in the darkness I could see the lines of worry that crossed her eyes and forehead, aging her prematurely. I suspected she wasn't much older than I, but the demands of ruling had stolen years from her. "Few visit Houff, especially traveling merchants."

"So I've gathered. Your men informed you, I take it."

"That is their duty. You've picked an odd hour to visit me, Bourherr Gastinell. If that is indeed your name."

I smiled. "It will suffice for now."

She remained nonplussed. "So why are you really here?"

"I would think my intentions are obvious. To steal from you."

She laughed, a heartfelt laugh that warmed the room. "Interesting. An honest thief! I'm afraid, however, that Houff has very little to offer."

"You offer more than you can imagine. And I can offer something as well."

"Which is?"

"A way to solve at least some of your problems."

She crossed her legs and relaxed. "And why would you do that?"

"Simple. I need your help. And you need mine." And I quickly told her why I had been brought to Houff.

Her lips were tight with tension when I finished. "Then there is really nothing I can do. I've tried to protect my people from the pressure of Kastikaan, but my magic cannot battle drought or invade their land and destroy their dam. We can't afford the protection of the Assassin's Guild and now you tell me they are working against us." She sighed heavily, her shoulders slumping. "I don't know. There are too few of us left to even make the effort."

"You say Kastikaan dams the river."

"We're sure of it. But they do it on their land and we are powerless to stop them."

Perhaps not. "I might be able to help you there. Perhaps with some other things as well. But you have to help me first."

"And how do I do that?"

"Simple. You kill thieves, don't you?"

She studied me for a moment, then decided I was serious. "That would be under my discretion, yes. But isn't that a bit drastic?"

"I don't know. Do you have any magical tethers?"

Algorph had recovered the horses when I returned. "Good," I said, already mounting my animal.

"You found it? Already?"

"Don't just stand there, get on your horse. We have to get out of here now." I reached in my pocket and pulled out an ornate ring. "This gives her power over magic. Without it she is helpless." I handed it to him.

"How did you do it?" he asked as we started down the road.

"I'll tell you later. We don't have time to talk now." And then the darkness abruptly disappeared as all the street lamps burst into life at once. Algorph froze, staring at the now-well-lit street like a child at a traveling show. "Don't dawdle, idiot. They're coming. Ride!" And I whipped my horse and started galloping down the brick road.

Algorph caught up quickly. "I'll take the point. We have to leave through the gate." He held his knife in one hand. "Curse the gods; if I only had my sword."

We turned a corner, the sound of hooves on stone the only break in the bright silence. Still there was no light in any window. Either the people of Houff were remarkably heavy sleepers or they were terrified of what was occurring outside, I decided. "Let's hope they haven't closed the gate."

Algorph favored me with a hurried glare. "If I could have brought my men, that wouldn't be a problem, Brendell."

"We wouldn't have her ring, either."

"That is debatable. No wonder the Guild kicked you out." Then he grunted. "Good, I can see the gate ahead. It's still open."

But not unguarded. Archers suddenly appeared as if from thin air. And then the air itself became thick with arrows. "Don't slow down," I yelled, urging my tiring mount onward.

"That's your first command I agree with, Brendell." Algorph was leaning over his horse, making himself as small a target as possible.

Unfortunately I wasn't the horseman he was. I was having difficulties controlling my now terrified mount, let alone trying to evade the arrows flying around us. Then I lost control totally as one buried itself in my horse's side. My steed whinnied loudly and began falling. I managed to jump off before I could be pinned beneath it, but that only delayed the inevitable. "Algorph," I managed to yell even as I was being seized by several armed men who sprang from the shadows.

He looked back but didn't even try to rescue me. Which would have been impossible anyway. I watched as he rode through the gate and the darkness beyond. Then I allowed myself to be pulled back down the street to the home of Pipo Fess.

She was in the same study when my entourage arrived. "You've done excellently," she told my captors. "Now leave us."

"But mistress, are you sure?" one complained. "You said he is a thief."

"Who is now working for me. I have nothing to fear from Master Gastinell. Now go, and tell no one of this."

"They did perform well," I agreed after the door closed behind them. "Unfortunate about the horse, though."

"It was much more difficult for my construct archers to miss you than hit you, you know."

I nodded. "Magical constructs. I thought as much." Unlike my first visit, there was a decanter of wine and two glasses waiting. I helped myself and sat beside her. "Algorph now has your ring of power. He should be satisfied."

She laughed. "'Ring of power.' As if magic were that simple. Granted, there are amulets and such that can be helpful. But a ring! How gullible!"

I shivered, remembering my early experience with the Disk of Garnula. It had been my first face-to-face experience with demons and led to the death of a baron who fancied himself a magician. "The Assassin's Guild isn't noted for their intelligence. Just their diligence."

"So are we done now, or do we continue this charade?"

"Algorph knows I'm caught; he doesn't know yet that I'm dead. And he'll want to make sure of that."

"He won't try to rescue you?"

I shrugged. "I suspect not. I'm not that important to the Guild. I accomplished what they wanted. I'm as disposable as the bones after a feast."

She sipped at her wine. "We'll have to do this quickly, I suppose. I'll make the proclamation tomorrow and your execution will be the following morning."

"Your magical tethers work, correct?"

She giggled. "Why, Bourheur Gestinell, one would think you didn't trust me. Yes, what you propose should work."

"Should" work, not "would." I forced the thought aside. I had seen another magician do what I was proposing. "Perhaps we should do a test."

She shook her head. "I'm already exhausted. You cannot imagine the effort involved in summoning so many construct bowmen. It will take me more than a day to recover." Then she smiled. "Don't worry; I will be recovered sufficiently to do what is necessary."

"Good." I finished my wine. "I cannot go back to the inn, of course."

"Of course. You shall stay here. There's a room by the kitchen that has a cot. That should suffice." She rose. "Good night. You may stay and enjoy the wine if you wish."

I nodded. "Thank you for your hospitality and trust."

She paused at the door. "I don't necessarily trust you. But you are worth the risk. Still, my magical wards remain in place. I will be alerted immediately if you try ... anything."

"Understood. Good night." I poured more wine as she left the room. She had just told me I couldn't leave, but I had no intention of doing that. I had to escape the Assassin's Guild and only she could help me. Would my untested plan work? Could I trust her? Was her magic strong enough to succeed? "You'll find out in two days, Brendell," I whispered into my glass. I enjoyed her wine long into the morning and fell asleep in the chair.

"Quite a crowd," I observed. It was now the morning of my execution. The street in front of the Fess manor was filled with people awaiting the spectacle. A wooden pole had been erected at the front of the house, and men were busy surrounding it with more wood. It promised to burn quickly and grandly.

Fess walked up to me. "My people don't enjoy such entertainments very often. Are you sure your friend -- what's his name? -- is out there?"

"Probably not Algorph, but at least one of his men. The Assassin's Guild is trained in disguise, although not as thoroughly as my Guild. You wouldn't find them no matter how hard you tried."

She sighed. "I don't like killing people, Gestinell."

I smiled. "That's why you are a beloved ruler. If only more felt like you. But it's the only way. I can do much more for your people dead than alive. You have the tether?"

She opened her hand to reveal an unassuming pin. I shivered as I recognized it. Once it was attached to an object, a magician could retrieve it instantly no matter what the distance. "Undress."

I frowned. "Why?"

"To ensure your safety. It would be most unfortunate if I only retrieved your vest, wouldn't it?"

I couldn't argue with that. She tried, not successfully, to hide a smile as I dutifully removed my vestments. The morning was cool and the flags outside revealed a steady wind from the west. I could only hope my planned execution was not going to be an all-day affair. "Now what?"

"Put it in you mouth." She paused. "Those are your real teeth? Not wooden?"

"Real," I nodded.

"Good. I don't want to retrieve only dentures."

It could be worse, I thought as I placed it under my tongue. It was small enough to cause no difficulties. "Are we ready?" I asked with a hint of a lisp.

"Yes. Guards," she said loudly and clapped her hands. Two armed men entered. "We're ready. You know your instructions. Follow them accurately."

They nodded and seized me, one on each arm, then conducted me from the room. We said nothing as we went down the stairs, the main hall and through the front door. The crowd greeted me immediately with a chorus of jeers and laughter. I looked down with shame and humiliation as I was roughly brought to the awaiting pyre. A few threw rocks and rotting vegetables at me, but the guards quickly discouraged them. "He will die most painfully," I heard one assure an eager onlooker. I was lifted over the pile of wood surrounding the pole, then quickly tied to it. This was my first real concern. Since I had nothing with me save the magical tether, I would not be able to cut my way out of the knots. And I didn't want to leave my hands behind when Pipo Fess brought me back.

But the knots were purposely loose and I had my hands free in seconds.

They didn't even bother to tie my feet. I held the rope and kept my hands behind my back anyway, in case an observant onlooker, or Assassin's Guild member, became curious. So I stood there, the rough pole burying into my back, stones on the ground cutting my feet, trying to ignore the angry horde surrounding me and the damp cold wind blowing in my face. And waited.

Meanwhile the fine people of Houff continued to curse me, jeer at me, make degrading comments about my character and manhood. At least one had to be an Assassin's Guild spy, and I wondered idly if they would make any attempt to rescue me. I had told Fess the truth; I was sure they wouldn't as they considered me a disposable tool. And since I had supposedly obtained what they wanted, they would see no need to risk a member's life to save mine.

I did recognize one face, the tavern wench Cordita. She glared at me when our eyes met briefly and I sighed. How could I explain to her that what I was doing was to help her and her people? But that would be a problem to solve another day as I heard a sudden blare of trumpets. It must be time.

The horde cheered, then hushed so that I could now hear the breeze and approaching footsteps. I couldn't see what was going on behind me, but I could imagine. Pipo Fess had to be making her slow progression to where I stood bound and waiting. I could only hope she hurried as I was getting colder and more miserable by the moment. I was almost ready to tell the executioner to light the fire when she finally appeared.

She was now dressed in all her royal finery. A purple silk robe embedded with pearls and jewels covered her from neck to ankles. She wore golden bracelets on each wrist, golden earrings and a small golden tiara. She kept her back to me as she spoke to the crowd. "Good people of Houff, I have called you today to bring justified vengeance on those who would destroy us. This man has sought to steal from you, each and every one of you, by stealing from me. Our laws will not be violated! Our homes and our land shall be protected and those who try to harm us must feel our wrath!"

The crowd called out in rage and triumph as she raised a fist to the sky.

"Thieves will not be welcomed or harbored within our borders." She turned and for the first time faced me. "Bourherr Gastinell, for the crimes you have perpetrated against the people of Houff, you have earned our just vengeance. You shall die within these fires, which will burn you to your immortal soul. Pray to your gods for forgiveness, for you shall receive none from Houff! Executioners, you may begin."

The crowd broke out in cheers and more insults--they were an imaginative group--as men stepped forward on all sides and set their torches against the pile of wood that surrounded me like a moat. It caught immediately, sending thick black smoke to the sky and causing me to cough uncontrollably. But the smoke also effectively hid me from the view of the crowd. I could now drop the rope and not pretend my hands were tied behind me. I could have even tried to escape by diving through the steadily rising flames. Of course, with all the people still outside and watching my cremation, I wouldn't have gotten very far. "You better hurry, Fess," I whispered as I huddled by the pole, trying to find fresh air to breath and avoiding without being obvious the embers that were flying like moths everywhere. Now I was grateful I was naked; the embers hurt, of course, but at least I didn't have to worry about my clothing catching on fire.

But the heat was getting unbearable and sweat poured down my face, obscuring my limited vision even more. I was light-headed and already gasping for breath, which only brought more smoke into my lungs, causing me to cough even more.

And then I felt something. Something like a giant hand seizing me, wresting me from the here-and-now. And then the smoke and heat and fire vanished and I found myself standing next to Fess in her manor.

But not standing for long. I've been possessed, albeit briefly, by the spirit of a deceased queen; I've been enveloped by a demon. This was the worst sensation I have ever experienced. It was as if some mad chef had tried to make an omelet with my insides. I could do nothing but lie on the floor, curled up like an infant and whimpering in pain. I had no control of my limbs, wasn't sure I had limbs. Even my eyelids hurt.

Ever so slowly I regained control of myself. Still it must have taken over an hour before I could even sit up. Only then did I notice Fess had draped a blanket over me. I managed to look up and saw her standing near me. She was pale and trembling as well, and I assumed she was nearly as exhausted as I from bringing me here.

I saw food and water on a nearby table. Summoning all my strength, I crawled to it and managed to obtain a glass. It was filled with water, but it didn't taste like water. It tasted blue, which somehow I knew made no sense. I drank it anyway and it burned all the way down to my stomach. But it helped as I felt a burst of energy. I took the other glass and drank that as well, then had enough strength to take the pitcher and drink directly from it. I eschewed the fruit however; I wasn't certain my stomach was up to that.

Then I felt someone lift me and lead me to a chair. "Thank you," I said as I collapsed in it. "I don't think I could have done that myself."

"Rest," said Fess. She adjusted the blanket around my shoulders, then sat gratefully across from me.

"I don't think I have a choice." I shuddered, and not just from the cold.

"Remind me that the next time you plan to burn me at the stake, just do it."

She gave me a wry smile. "Now you know why we don't use tethers for living beings. If the distance would have been greater, you might not have survived."

I wiped sweat from my forehead with a trembling hand. "I can imagine. I'm afraid I will have to impose upon your hospitality another day at least. Right now I couldn't pick my nose, let alone a lock."

She laughed. "I think you'll have the time. It sounds like the festivities are winding down. Would you like to look?"

I nodded. She helped me to my feet and led me to the window. Below, the crowd had almost dispersed. The fire was burned down to nothing and I noticed several men sifting through the ashes. "What are they looking for?"

"Proof of your death. Bones and burned flesh I would think. Undoubtedly your friends from the Assassin's Guild. But we've taken care of that."

I hadn't considered that. Of course the Guild would want physical evidence I was now a mere memory. "How?"

"One of our farmers died last week from The Blight. His body was hidden beneath the pile of wood. Ah, they've found it."

One of the men was holding up something and waving to the other. They spent several minutes searching that one location, then left carrying what I assumed were charred limbs. "Good. That should make them happy."

"Yes." Weariness was heavy in Fess' voice. "We've saved you, Bourherr Gestinell. Now how do you propose to save us?"

"Help me back to the chair." She did so, then sat across from me, waiting. It was a good while before I could work up the strength to speak; just walking to and from the window had exhausted me. "We have to stop Kastikaan from damming the river."

"Agreed."

"I think I may know how, but I won't be able to do it here. But first we have to find another source of income for Houff."

"My people have always been farmers," she said. "We don't have the resources for mining or timber or fishing and we certainly have nothing to attract visitors."

"Which means we'll have to do something more direct. The people you select are going to join me in the challenging yet rewarding field of thievery."

...continues


© Patrick Welch 2005.

Brendell: Rogue Thief was published in January 2005 by Double Dragon E-books; ISBN: 1-55404-218-6.
The Body Shop and Other Amusements by Patrick Welch Brendell: Apprentice Thief by Patrick Welch Brendell: Rogue Thief by Patrick Welch

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