A man with a beard sang of a distant battle while a woman played softly on a three-string. Tess sat quietly on a stool near the bar and drank her mead, listening to the tale. Her short silver-grey hair lay flat on her head, and from behind anyone could easily mistake her for a young man. Her pale skin did not resemble that of the locals of Heimyal, but rather that of the Easterners from the Marshlands. She wore a reasonably clean, white, hooded tunic and dark linen trousers that had been cut short at the ankles.
Tess sat by the bar for a while, waiting. The red-faced man she was watching was seated deeper within the tavern. For a while he just sat there, staring at his mug, perhaps entranced in the tale or maybe dreading going back to his master. After he had emptied his mug he rose from his chair. The singer in the background ended his story and was being cheered on by the crowd gathered in the barely-lit tavern. Tess swallowed the remainder of her mead and as the man left, she followed him out into the streets of the Commons.
Outside, the wooden sign, which read ‘The Meadery’, dangled in the wind. The red-faced man walked in the direction of the Grey Market. With the ease that comes from repetition he passed through the scattered crowd of commoners coming back from the market after working since sunup.
Tess pulled the hood over her head to avoid standing out from the crowd, and to shield her face from the cold evening winds that blew across the city.
As the man entered the Grey Market district, the number of people coming back and forth increased significantly. Tess doubled her pace to catch up with the unsuspecting victim, skilfully dodging people coming towards her. She was as a fish in water, flowing gracefully to and fro, avoiding impatient individuals hurrying home. Her eyes remained fixed on her target.
She bumped into the man and apologised, ‘It was my fault.’
Her beautiful face and deep russet-brown eyes made the man’s already ruddy face light up like a torch. ‘It is all right, I should watch my step.’
As she disappeared back into the crowd she held a little key firmly in her palm. The man might check his pockets to see whether his key was still in it, and if he did he would find the fake one Tess had placed in its stead.
Tess sat in her little house studying the old key, waiting for the darkness to settle on the city. It was, she had been told, at least two-hundred years old. The metal was muddy green and had black marks of wear on it. Besides the obvious signs of age, it was very plain, having one end in the form of a circle, but the remarkable thing about it was that instead of the one head that normal keys had, this one had three. The three heads meant two things, first that the key belonged to an old house in the rich part of the city, and second that no thief Tess knew of could pick the lock, to which this key belonged, not even Jack.
She held the dagger in her hand, wondering if she should bring it along. Usually she did not need weapons when she broke into a place, but this was different. It was not just any house she was robbing. There had been a reason why she had to think everything through, rather than just pick the lock of the house, walk in and steal the specific item, and then leave again without a trace.
The difference was that this time she was hired to rob one of the King’s Men. If she was caught, she risked severe punishment, and most likely, death. Tess had heard stories about the brutality of the King’s Men from other thieves and once when she was younger she had witnessed a public punishment of a captured thief. The man had been branded and they had broken every bone in his hands.
She left the stinking Beggar’s Corner, later that same day, wearing the black hooded jacket and trousers that Jack had given her. They were tailored for another thief who had been taller than her, but she had remedied the fact that the outfit was too big by rolling up the sleeves and the legs.
Without a sound she crept through the city, through the smog-ridden district of Anvils and past the glowing Great Forge, where skilled smiths would hammer all manner of weapons into shape. She passed through the streets of Hangman’s Square that during the day was a sprawling centre of people from all over the land of Heimyal, but at night was so deserted it seemed impossible that people actually lived here.
She came to the gate of Old Town. Behind it lived all the rich, important and powerful.
Stationed on this side of the gate were two guards. One was asleep in a standing position, while the other polished his short sword with an absent look in his eyes. These guards were the usual lazy, half-poor and abusive types, who took care of all the districts except Beggar’s Corner and Old Town. Beggar’s Corner had no law, and the guards generally avoided it. Old Town was a different story though, the gate might have been guarded by the regular guards, but inside Old Town, the King’s Men were the law. Throughout history the Kings demanded a special guard to keep the rich safe. These guards went through ten years of training, and less than half the trainees ended up qualifying. Many tried to become a King’s Man, because being a one meant power and wealth, two very appealing aspects to common folk, but most of them had no grasp of how hard the training would be.
After observing the gate for a bit, Tess decided exactly how she would get past the guards. Jack had taught her to approach every situation with an open mind, and take all options into consideration.
After her mother died, Jack had taken care of Tess. He taught her everything he knew about being a thief, as well as installing some manner of decency into her.
Tess picked up a small rock, one of the many that lay scattered throughout Hangman’s Square. She held it firmly in her palm, and threw it in an arc above the guards. It hit a wall some distance away from them, far enough for them not to see where it landed, yet close enough for them to hear the sound it made.
The guard polishing his sword put the cloth in a side pocket of his leather vest, and tapped the sleeping guard with the flat side of his blade. The man awoke and grumbled something unintelligible, to which the first guard responded with a sigh and walked off in the general direction of the sound.
Tess smiled to herself. She came out from her cover and sprinted towards the wall on the right side of the gate. In one leap she hit the side, planting a foot on a brick that stuck out from it. In the second leap she secured a tight grip on the top of the wall. With ease she hauled herself up onto the wall and dropped down to the cobbles on the other side. Her worn leather boots creaked as she landed firmly on her feet. The remaining guard at the gate noticed nothing, though this might have been because he was fast asleep again.
Tess stood a short distance from the wall that separated Old Town from the rest of Modai, and pulled out the map Jack had given her earlier that day.
‘You will need this for later,’ he had said, explaining that Old Town was such a mess of streets and back alleys that without a map an outsider would never be able to find one specific house.
She peered at the creased paper map, frowning and trying to find ‘Septimer Street’, the main road that went through Old Town. She put her finger on her location on the map and traced it along the main street until it came to a crossing, her finger then followed the west-going road that went past The Winery and ended in Parcel Street.
It was a long way to Parcel Street, and to avoid detection by the patrolling King’s Men she would have to stick to the smaller streets and alleyways, which meant it would take a while to get there.
After skulking through the unknown district for a long time, she reached Parcel Street. Thankfully, it was still dark.
The house, when she found it, was at the end of the street. From the second floor candlelight shone out through the windows. Since the nights in Modai were as dark as soot, candles were generally used to find one’s way around inside. Of course there were lanterns and torch-bearers scattered throughout most of the city, but their light was never sufficient for moving about in a house at night. The candlelight indicated that the resident inside was not asleep. Tess knew that only one man would be in the house, as Jack had promised to take care of the servant from whom she had stolen the key, but she had not expected the resident to be awake at this time.
With silent steps she crept to the big door. It looked similar to the key, muddy green with spots of black. The grey brick walls of the house were cracked and moss-covered. The roof was tilted so that rain would pour off, and this was very important for any house in Heimyal, since it rained incessantly during Fall. The small houses in Beggar’s Corner were cheaply made and usually had flat roofs, which often cracked under the weight of heavy rain. Fortunately Tess’ own house, one of the older houses in Beggar’s Corner, had been built with a slanted roof.
She pulled out the key and inserted it into the old door, turning it slowly until three hollow thumps were emitted from the lock. She took her hand off the key and held on to the handle of the door. Her heartbeat doubled as she pushed it. To her relief the door made not a sound and swept open, revealing a room darker than the night outside.
She stepped inside and closed the door behind her, waiting for her eyes to adjust, but alas they did not.
With a sigh she put her palm on the hilt of the dagger, closed her eyes and focused. When she opened them again, the room was a dark grey, and she could see the outlines of all her surroundings. She almost fell backwards in surprise when she found herself face to face with the open-mouthed head of a bear, hanging proudly from the wall in front of her.
She looked around. The room was big and looked as though it was used for guests. The walls and shelves bore numerous trophies collected by the resident, and at one end some comfortable chairs circled a small table. A display case with a glass window stood against the far wall and she crossed the room to look closer. A sword with a leather-covered handle and a curved spike on the hilt lay inside. Its blade was the length of an arm and was decorated down its spine with a repeating symbol etched into the metal. The etchings were black and seemed to be glowing without giving off any light. She thought back to an earlier conversation with Jack.
‘An enchanted sword?!’
‘Keep it down, there are other people here,’ Jack said.
‘I’ve never seen an enchanted sword before,’ Tess said eagerly.
‘That is because they are rare and illegal. It makes sense that he is willing to pay three gold crowns for us to retrieve it.’
‘But Jack, what does he need such a sword for?’
‘That is none of our matter, but I am sure it is for nothing good,’ he looked her in the eyes.
‘Yes. I’ll do it.’
‘Good. Here’s what you do first…’
The pulsating beat of the glowing symbols matched the rhythm of Tess’ heart.
She leant forwards to open the case, but it was locked. She cursed silently for having forgotten to bring her lock-picking tools. She would have to find the key, which would most likely be in the upstairs bedroom, along with the man she was robbing.
Stalking in the shadows she passed through the house, passing the kitchen and climbing the staircase as silently as a wolf tracking its prey. Candlelight flickered from what she guessed was a bathing room, and a crack under the door cast a sliver of light onto the landing. As Tess reached the top step of the staircase, the light seemed to disappear before it hit her skin, as if it was being absorbed by the air around her. With her palm still resting on the dagger’s hilt she crept across the wooden floor, which, to her surprise, gave off no sound.
There were three rooms upstairs, the bathing room that was currently occupied, what she guessed was the servant’s quarters and the master’s room. Upon entering the master’s room Tess was overwhelmed by the awful smell of rosewater, a scent that was, and had been for many years, the favourite of the rich. When the liquid was cast into the air or rubbed on skin it produced a scent so sweet that even bees despised it.
The carpet was made from a Sand Wolf, a beast twice the size of a bear. She had not known how big that was until she saw the pelt strewn across the floor. The mouth and eyes were, similar to the mounted head downstairs, wide open.
She searched around the room for the key. There was a cabinet, presumably for the resident’s clothes, a wooden desk with a chair under it, the large pelt on the floor and of course an enormous bed, which every rich person in Modai seemed to have. Tess was one of the few ‘lucky’ people in Beggar’s Corner to actually own a bed, something that had caused some minor fights with her peers, however her bed was not even half the size of this one and still took up most of the space in her little house.
Tess walked over to the desk and pulled the chair back so that she could open the drawer underneath it. In the background she could hear someone humming a jolly tune and splashing about in what she imagined was a tub. It amused her that the dreadful and horrific King’s Men could be so peaceful when left to themselves. She had pictured them all as brutes, who drank wine from the skulls of their enemies.
The drawer slid back gracefully on its oiled mechanism to reveal a mess of letters or at least it was a mess after Tess had gone through it searching for the key. She found it though. It lay under some personal letters smelling pleasantly of lily-of-the-valley and quite clearly the resident had not done his best to hide it.
With the key in her hand she descended the staircase silently, and in the receiving room, fitted the key into the small lock. It opened with a low click.
‘Careful,’ a voice said.
‘Be quiet,’ Tess whispered back.
She pushed open the display case and grabbed the handle of the sword, grazing her thumb across the metal as she did. With a cry of pain she threw the sword away. The touch of the blade had sent a searing pain through her hand as if she had burnt it on an open flame. The weapon fell to the ground with a clatter.
Muffled footsteps crossed the floor upstairs and began creaking down the staircase. She froze, her heart pounding, and in the silence, heard a blade being unsheathed. She was still in shock from the pain in her hand, and by the time she came to the man had reached the bottom of the staircase. His figure loomed in the doorway, lit by a flickering candle in his hand, its wax dripping unnoticed onto his skin. He was naked except for a piece of cloth wrapped around his waist. In his left hand was a slender knife, the kind used for stabbing. Water fell from his short golden hair as he positioned himself awaiting Tess’ first strike.
He had not noticed the sword lying between the two of them, until Tess darted across the floor with the dagger in one hand and her free arm outstretched, reaching for it. As she got a firm grip on the handle she shouted, ‘Now Mhran!’
‘As you wish,’ echoed the voice and just as Tess was about to be run through with the King’s Man’s knife, she turned black as the night outside, and disappeared into the shadows.