Arvid Semminson, lying naked, bound, and bruised on the cold ground somewhere in northwestern Aarenis, reflected that honor among thieves was a myth. Valdaire’s Guildmaster had taken everything he had: clothes, weapons, gold, his Guildmaster symbol, and that very damning—in the Guildmaster’s eyes—letter of safe passage from the Marshal-General. In return, the Guildmaster had indeed found a room for Arvid, as he’d offered: Arvid had spent several very unpleasant days in the Guildhouse cellar before his kteknik gnome companion Dattur, worried by his absence, had tried to rescue him, only to be captured himself.
After some additional time in the Guild’s cellar, they’d both been dumped into the lower compartment of a trade-wagon and driven out of the city—several days out, in what direction Arvid had no notion—in the untender care of journeymen enforcers who intended to pry every detail of information from them both before killing them.
Now the journeymen tossed dice for first choice of his weapons, all the while loudly discussing what they intended to do with him. Certain tools were, they’d said, heating in the coals. He would be warm then, one jeered, throwing a hot coal that bounced off his back before he felt more than the sting.
He heard the fire crackling somewhere behind him. Smoke fragrant with the scent of roasting meat curled past his nose, but where he lay only cold wind caressed him, and his belly cramped with hunger.
He should have stayed north of the mountains once he was sure the necklace had already gone south. He should have realized that his long absence from Vérella had given his second in command—Harsin, with his false smiles—a chance to seize power and proclaim him a traitor to the Guild because he had gone to do the Marshal-General’s bidding.
He would have Harsin’s liver roasted on skewers if he got out of this alive, which—at the moment—seemed unlikely. What he needed was a rescue, but who in all Aarenis knew or cared about him? His gnome servant, maybe, but Dattur was trussed up as tightly as Arvid himself, and gagged as well.
You could ask for help.
Arvid had heard that voice before, and it was not a voice he wanted to hear. Nor the chuckle that followed. He was not a Girdish yeoman; he had respect for the hero-saint, but . . . it was not for him. Besides, it was Gird’s Marshal-General’s letter in his pocket that had put him in this mess. If not for her—
You’d have been hanged long since for the thief you are.
He was not a thief—he had been a thief, but that was years ago, and anyway—all right, yes, theMarshal-General had saved him from those Girdish who were sure he’d stolen the necklace, but he hadn’t. And it was being seen as too friendly with the Fellowship that had turned the others against him.
Would you have let her die?
He knew which “her” that was, of course. Paksenarrion. Of course he would not have let that vicious jealous bitch Barra kill her after all she’d suffered—
And the gods healed.
Well, yes, that was true, too. But now, here . . .
You are almost as stubborn as I was, lad.
Arvid felt a gentle hand on his bruised head and then the sting of something cold on his bare shoulder—one and then another. And another.
The fire hissed. The men swore and stood, their weapons—some of them his—clanking. “What about them?” one said. “Let ’em drown or freeze,” said another. “Take the meat inside.” Arvid heard the door of the hut—hardly more than a shed—creak open and then slam shut. Cold rain, the winter rain of Aarenis, pelted down on him, harder every moment. He shivered; his teeth chattered. Cold water ran into his face, melting away the blood that had glued his eyelids shut in the last beating. Under his nose he saw a stretch of dark earth speckled with pebbles glistening in the rain.
Wet leather stretched. Arvid remembered that even as his hands twisted . . . but it had to be really wet, and he was chilling faster than the leather softened. He struggled on. Hair by hair, the leather thongs stretched. Enough? It had to be enough.
You could have sent a paladin, he thought into the dark sky.
She has her task. You have yours.
It did not seem the right moment to tell that sort of voice that he was not in service to that sort of voice. It was the right moment to escape, if he could. He worked one stiff hand loose, then the other. He could scarcely move his fingers and fumbled at the thongs tying his knees, his ankles. All the time the rain pelted down, hard cold drops—some of them ice pellets now, it felt like. He needed a knife, a sharp— His hand knocked against something, a loose rock—and he saw the glassy scalloped edge of broken flint as if outlined by the sun.
He wanted to say,You could have sent a knife,but what if the rock disappeared? By repute, the gods were big on gratitude. He clutched the flint awkwardly, sawed at the thongs, pulling and sawing together, and finally his knees were free and then his ankles. He tried to stand, but the blows he’d taken, the hunger of two days trussed and gagged in a wagon, prevented it. He crawled instead, the flint in his mouth, bruised hands splayed out on the cold mud, bruised knees gouged afresh by the stones, until he reached Dattur, who was himself struggling with his bonds, but unsuccessfully. They had bound the gnome upright to a tree, using a length of rope—and rope did not stretch in the wet, but shrank.
Arvid sawed away at the rope. One strand then another parted. The gnome finally got free and pulled the gag from his mouth.
“Shh . . .” Arvid was shuddering with cold.
“Give rock.” The gnome reached for his hand and pried the flint out of it. Arvid collapsed against the tree trunk. Leafless though it was, it broke the wind and some of the rain. The gnome hopped off the boards the men had placed to keep him from touching the rocky ground; Arvid had a moment to think rock-magery, and then the gnome touched the flint to one of the exposed rocks between the tree roots. The rock opened silently as a mouth, and the gnome and Arvid slid into the gap, out of wind and rain alike.
Still cold, still wet, still shivering, but alive, for which he should, he knew, be thanking the gods . . .
He muttered a shakyThank you in a voice he scarcely recognized as his own, and scrubbed at his arms and body, trying to warm them. Dattur, he realized, had moved to one side of the hole they were in and had begun chanting at the rock. Arvid wanted to ask what he was doing, but as a dim blue-gray light spread from the gnome and his working, he could see for himself. The rock opened without sound or mess . . . The light brightened as if rock were transmuted into light. Did the light show outside? Would the robbers, should they discover him missing, find them by the light coming out a crack in the rock by the tree?
Arvid forced himself up and staggered to the foot of the hole they’d slid down; a wet cold draft touched his face, and a snowflake kissed his nose. He moved back into the tunnel and huddled near one wall. Their captors wouldn’t see anything through snow.
Under his feet, against the curve of his back, he felt a faint warmth. Was the rock warming up? He flattened one hand against it . . . warmer than he was, at any rate. Dattur was ten full paces away now, chanting in words Arvid did not know; the space in the rock grew distinctly warmer but did not extend. The warmth gave Arvid strength; he pushed himself up and started to walk forward, but a jerk of Dattur’s head was a clear signal to stay back.
Now he could see that the rock was disappearing upward. Arvid tried to calculate direction and distance . . . could it be that Dattur was making a passage into the hut where their captors lay sleeping? That would be disastrous—the two of them, naked and unarmed, could not deal with four armed thieves—but Dattur had proved no fool so far. Arvid leaned back against the rock, felt its warmth drying the hair on the back of his aching head. Just as he finally remembered the rockfolk talent for bringing cold sleep to humans, the entire contents of the hut fell into the gap Dattur had created: walls and roof landing on the packs, pallets, weapons, and men still wrapt in rock-magery. Snowflakes whirled down through the opening, and the cold wet met the tunnel’s warmth, melting instantly. Even the fall did not wake the men. Before Arvid could reach the mound of debris, Dattur had burrowed into it, snatched up his own sword, and sliced four throats.
Without a word, he dropped the sword and held up both hands; stone flowed up and over to close the gap as the light dimmed. Then it strengthened again, and Dattur finally turned to look at Arvid. “It is between us no debt owed for this,” he said. “Without my master freeing me, it could not be done.Without my doing, it was no chance.” “I—thank you anyway, Dattur,” Arvid said. “Does it not tire you?”
Dattur shrugged. “Not this little.” He frowned then. “No human should see rockmagic at work. No human should see rockfolk unclothed. I know you have a good memory, master, but . . . do not speak of this.”
“I will never speak of it,” Arvid said. Having said that, he had a powerful desire to look, to commit to memory the differences between gnome and human anatomy. Instead he looked down and turned to the heap before them. “I will look for what we need.”
In the end it took both of them to untangle the mess. Finally, clothed in a mix of the thieves’ garments and what remained of their own, he and Dattur built a small fire at the end of the tunnel near the tree and ate what food they’d been able to salvage from the dusty pile: two skewers with hunks of half-cooked meat still on them and a loaf of coarse bread. They didn’t care; the fire burned off the dirt, or so Arvid told himself.
“It would be well to leave while falling snow covers our tracks,” Arvid said after picking a string of meat from between his teeth with the bodkin he carried. “Surely the Guildmaster will send someone to check on those four.”
“They will never be found,” Dattur said. “When I leave, I will close the stone, all of it.”
Arvid shuddered at the thought of men encased in stone, even dead men, but he knew it was best. He looked out the opening—dark now and still snowing. Madness to start when they could not even see. “We’ll have to wait until morning,” Arvid said. Surely they would be safe until then.
He woke when daylight—dim enough through falling snow—returned. Dattur was awake and already smothering the coals. Arvid clambered up, wincing at his various bruises, cuts, and burns, and gathered up the little clutter they’d made. Then Dattur began filling the space behind them. Once more Arvid watched stone behave as no stone he had ever seen, finally rising up beneath their feet and lifting them to the surface.
Snow still fell; the ground was covered with it. As they looked around, talking softly, a horse snorted. Arvid found the team hitched to a line between two trees, ragged blankets tied on their backs with cord. The wagon’s arched cover had shed the snow, and the space inside was dry, if not warm . . . but travel with a wagon would slow them. And surely the Guild had placed secret marks on the wagon—he felt along the rim of the sides, where the cover was pegged down. Yes, there.
The horses, however, were not marked. Dray horses didn’t matter that much—any horse would do, and these two thick-coated, thick-legged beasts of middling size were nondescript brown, one lighter than the other. Arvid found the nearly full sack of oats and a pile of hay in the wagon and filled their nose bags. Bridles and harness were in the wagon, too. He checked the bottom compartment where he and Dattur had been carried. A small chest, with a stack of parchment scraps, an inkstick, a small stone bowl, a lump of wax, and a seal . . . He felt the seal. A Guildmaster seal. So the Guildmaster expected his men to send reports? Arvid added the seal, wax, inkstick, and four or five scraps of parchment to his pack. He found a bag of coins, enough for four men to supply themselves for almost a quarter-year. Payment? Or just for supplies? A small keg of coarse meal, a sack of onions, and another of redroots.
He tossed the harness out of the wagon, and he and Dattur spent some time unbuckling sections until they could strap the blankets to the horses’ backs as pads to sit on. The tugs made reasonable stirrups, and on these beasts, which showed not the slightest concern for anything but food, they needed no more complete saddle.
“It’s better if you ride,” Arvid said to Dattur, who was eyeing the preparation of both horses with obvious concern. “We want this to look like human thieves came along and stole both the horses and everything out of the wagon. If the snow doesn’t cover our tracks, yours would reveal that a gnome was here, and they’d know we’d escaped. With the hut gone and their people gone, they just might think it was wizard work.”
Dattur agreed to ride if Arvid would lead the horse. Arvid put the half sack of oats across its back, making sure the sides balanced, and then lifted Dattur—surprisingly heavy—atop.
He had no idea where they were or who they were likely to meet, but at least they weren’t tied up and left to freeze, and they could survive for a few days on meal and onions and water if they found no other source of food. He had no intention of being captured again.
Snow stopped by what Arvid guessed was midday. By then they had crossed a creek and followed a trail upstream and around several bends without finding any sign of habitation. The clouds lifted slowly, letting in more and more light. Now he could see mountains rising above the slope they climbed, higher, snow on their sides. Which mountains, those to the west or those north of Valdaire? The pass to the north? After the blows to his head and riding in that closed wagon, he had little idea of direction. He glanced at Dattur and pointed. “The pass?”
“Dwarfmounts. Dasksinyi,” Dattur said. “We cannot cross until spring.”
“I don’t want to go north now,” Arvid said. “I want to kill that man and get the necklace back. And my horse.” The shaggy beasts they were on had the short plodding stride of a typical farm chunk and jolted his bruises and strained joints.
“You think he has the necklace?”
“I think he knows where it is,” Arvid said. “And if I’m beaten up, robbed, starved, and left to die in a cold rain because I’m running errands for the Marshal-General of Gird, then I intend to finish the job.” He rubbed his cold nose. “And I want my own Guildmaster medallion back.” That treacherous scum Mathol, the Valdaire Guildmaster, would have it locked safe away.
“Are you sure?” Dattur asked. “You don’t act much like a thief, really. Maybe you will reform—”
“Of course I am . . . well, not an ordinary thief . . .”
“You’re a liar—I’ve seen that—but I’ve never seen you steal.”
“I used to,” Arvid said. “When I was a lad; we all had to. But stealing . . . it’s boring, mostly. And when the Guildmaster asked me to check on some businesses we had a contract with, he found my insight into accounting most useful.” He sniffed. Was that a hint of woodsmoke? A current of air brushed his left cheek. He looked at the gnome. “Do you smell smoke?”
“Aye,” Dattur said. He pointed. “Upslope and ahead. It’ll be woodsfolk, I don’t doubt.”
In the north that would mean woodcutters on some lord’s estate. Here he had learned to be wary of his assumptions. “Do you know anything about them?”
“Sly. Dirty, thieving, mischievous—” Dattur looked disapproving, not frightened.
“My brethren,” Arvid said, grinning. “Apart from ‘dirty,’ though right now we qualify there. I wonder if they’re under the Guild, though . . .We could be walking into danger.”
“I don’t know,” Dattur said. “If you help me down, stand me on a rock, I can find out more.”
The horses had shambled to a halt; Arvid slid off, then lifted Dattur down to stand on one of the many snow-capped boulders. He himself was stiff, cold, and still very hungry. One horse snuffled hopefully at the sack of oats across the other’s withers; Arvid led them a length apart, tied Dattur’s to a small tree, and considered whether to give them a handful of oats. Might as well. It wasn’t the horses’ fault that his stomach felt glued to his backbone.
By the time he’d untied the sack and put oats in both nose bags, Dattur had finished whatever gnomes did with the rock and hopped down. “They’re not Guild connected,” he said. “Woodsfolk.” He sniffed.
“They have a fire and maybe a cooking pot, and we have meal, onions, and redroots.” Which would be better for being cooked in a pot. When the horses finished munching, Arvid lifted Dattur back onto his horse and mounted his own.
The horses told him where the woodsfolk were before he could see them, ears pointing at both sides of the track. Arvid could see the drift of smoke through the trees now and smell baking bread. His mouth watered. He reined in.
“I would share,” he said loudly. For a long moment, no one answered, then a stocky man wearing a dirty sheepskin as a crude cloak stepped out from behind the very tree Arvid had picked as most likely. He had a short bow in his hands and a wicked-looking arrow to the string.
“You not us,” the man said in Common so accented that Arvid could barely understand.
Arvid’s horse flicked both ears backward; Arvid glanced back and saw that another man had stepped into the trail behind them, also with a bow. In the distance, another horse whinnied; Arvid’s horse whuffled.
“Friends for food,” Arvid said. “We share.”
“You give. Us eat.”
“No.” Dattur launched into a language Arvid didn’t know, sounding more like quarreling cats than words. The men answered in the same language, and finally the one in front removed the arrow from the string of his bow and stuck it in a quiver by his side.
“Share,” he said, and gestured. Arvid slid off his horse and lifted Dattur down. The gnome stamped three times with his left foot and twice with his right. Arvid had no idea what that meant but hoped it would mean supper and a safe night’s sleep.
The fire they’d smelled lay in a slight hollow; four wagons surrounded it, brush piled on the windward side to break the wind. Their two horses joined nine others tied to a picket line; Dattur took their sack of redroots and onions to the fire. Arvid took off the bits of harness while Dattur jabbered away with the woodsfolk, then filled the horses’ nose bags with oats and spread the tattered blankets over their backs. When he bent to pick up a hoof, the man watching him grunted.
“You care horse?”
“Horse needs foot,” Arvid said. Without a word, the man passed him a hoofpick made of horn. “Thanks,” Arvid said, and went to work. By the time he’d finished both horses, he was trembling again with cold and hunger.
As he came to the fire, the dancing light picked out details he had not noticed before: men, all in rough sheepskins with the fleece turned out; women in layers and layers of long shirts and skirts. All the women wore a string of blue beads across their foreheads. In the north, blue would mean Girdish. Did it here? Children, legs wrapped in strips of sheepskin with the fleece in.
A man brought him a round of bread and held it out. Arvid looked at Dattur. “Share?”
Dattur nodded at one of the several pots on the fire. “Cooking.”
Arvid bowed, hoping it was the right thing to do, and tore the round, handing the larger piece to the other man. He tore it again and offered the larger to Dattur, but Dattur shook his head and took the smaller one.
The bread was warm; Arvid could hardly wait until the other man tore off pieces and handed them to the oldest man and woman and then bit into his own piece. At last he could eat, and he sat with a thump, his legs betraying him, and stuffed his mouth with warm bread.
“Who hit?” asked the first man, pointing at Arvid’s face.
“Thieves,” Arvid said.
“Not same.” A woman handed him a bowl of something that steamed; Arvid nodded his thanks and sniffed. Onions and redroots and whole peppers as long as his thumb. Something else . . . he looked up. The woman’s eyelids were almost closed. Without taking a bite, he turned to the man. “I don’t steal from fire-friends.”
The man blinked, looked away, looked back. “Only give little sleep. You need.”
“Not fire-friends,” another man said. “No gaj is fire-friend.”
“Is fire-friend,” the first man said. “One night. Give me bowl, firefriend.” Arvid handed it over; the man dipped his bread in it and ate. “I could sleep better. Ajai, give him only the plain.” The woman turned back to the fire. “Is insult to refuse food from woman.Woman angry causes trouble.”
“I meant no insult,” Arvid said. “But I have had a bad several days. Makes trust hard.”
“So face shows,” the man said.
The woman brought him another bowl; she widened her eyes at him. Arvid dipped his bread in and ate it. If it was drugged . . . he would be robbed, but he did not think they’d leave him naked in the rain or snow. The stuff burned his mouth so he gasped; tears ran down his face. The women laughed at him; the men grinned.
“No peppers so hot in the north,” Arvid said when he could.
“No,” the first man said. “But is good for many things. Makes sweat.”
“I can tell,” Arvid said.
Across the fire, a man began to pluck the strings of a fat-bellied instrument, and another tapped sticks . . . or bones, Arvid saw on second look. A woman began a song in a high nasal voice, words Arvid could not follow. It would not have passed for music in any city tavern in Tsaia, but here in the snowy woods, as more voices joined in, that human resonance had a similar effect. He did not know the tune or the song . . . and it stopped abruptly. Another instrument was passed from hand to hand toward him until he took it and tried to pass it to the man on his right, who shook his head.
He looked at it more closely. Flatter than the other; when he plucked a string, it had a strong sound. “I once played a small one something like this,” he said, plucking one string after another and feeling out the sounds it could make. “As a boy, my father bade me learn.” There . . . and there . . . and there . . . he could find a half dozen notes, four or five combinations that sounded good. “I do not know your songs, but here is one of my people.” A drinking song, common in all the taverns of Vérella because it was easy to make up more verses. He started with the ones that came first to mind:
“A pretty girl in springtime
Sweet and fresh as the air
Is like the wild-plum flower
But only for an hour . . .
A handsome lad in springtime
Is like the Windsteed’s foal
Quick to dance and fight
His pride is his delight . . .”
One of the men beat a rhythm, this time with a stick against a box, and a woman shook a gourd with pebbles. Two men started the next verse with him.
“A pretty girl in summertime
Working in the sun
She ripens like the grain
But harvest brings her pain . . .”
Feet stamped when he finished. Arvid could not tell if it was courtesy or actual pleasure. He held the instrument out; this time his neighbor took it. He was handed a bowl of something that smelled of strong drink. He pointed to the lumps on his head, shrugged, and passed it on. They seemed to understand. After more songs—mostly long, plaintive laments—one of the older women said something in their language, and the men got up slowly.
That night, Arvid set himself to sleep lightly despite the supper he’d eaten and the exertions of the day. No matter what the woodsfolk said, he knew they still regarded him as a target. He guessed that their laws required him to prove himself worthy of their friendship; it could not be bought with redroots and onions, a song, or even gold. Residual soreness from riding bareback, from the bruises and cuts, helped him stave off deep sleep.
Soon he heard the faint sound of steps approaching, pausing, the creak of a knee joint as someone bent down to him. Arvid lay still, aware of every probing finger, every stealthy shift of his cloak. He did not tense at the slight tug before the thongs that held the sack to his waist were cut away, but as the thief settled back, letting the cloak fall, Arvid rolled, sprang, parried the cut aimed at his head, and tripped the thief.
As they rolled together, trading blows, others awoke and lit torches from the banked fire. No one interfered, though Arvid heard mutters that sounded suspiciously like bets being laid on one or the other. Finally he managed an elbowstrike to the other man’s head and then rolled him into a choke hold, held until the man dropped his long knife.
“Mine,” Arvid said, snatching the sack of coins as he released the man and shoved him aside. He stood.
Those watching all nodded; the man felt his neck, nodded, and left his knife on the ground, looking from it to Arvid.
“Yours,” Arvid said, making a pushing motion. The man grinned, thrust it into his belt, and stood. The women made a peculiar sound, a fluttering whistle, thin and high, and then one of them threw her arms up and whirled around, skirts flying.
The brawl made them all friends, even the one he had fought. “You did well,” the man said over and over, nodding and grinning. “No gaj lie so still, breathe so sleep. You one of us, Torre’s childer.”
“Torre?” They went off in a mix of Common and their own speech Arvid could hardly understand, about Torre Bignose, a poor shepherd, and Dort the Master Shepherd. Was this the same Torre as in the legend of Torre’s Necklace? And—as he was following the trail of a necklace—did he have, Simyits save him, another legendary figure interested in his fate? Gird and Torre working together? He shuddered.
He asked about the way to the pass; they shook their heads. “Too late. Much snow.”
They were stuck in the South for the winter, then. Dattur agreed . . . no one took the Valdaire pass in deep snow; it would be worse on the other side. Despite repeated invitations from the woodsfolk, Arvid had no mind to spend the winter with them. For one thing, the Guildmaster in Valdaire needed a lessoning, and for another, he wanted to redeem his reputation by coming north with the necklace in hand. They stayed with the band through another snowstorm, then refused an invitation to stay through Midwinter. Arvid knew he would learn nothing more of the necklace here; he needed the city. Arvid could not walk the streets of Valdaire as himself, Arvid Semminson, but his beard had grown in, his hair was unkempt, the woodsfolk happily traded their typical garb—more colorful than he’d worn in years—for one of the horses, and two men guided him within sight of the city walls. No one, he was sure, would recognize him now.