“I need your help,” the voice called to Kenet. The place was dark about him, and memory eluded him. Where am I, he thought? He cast around the place, looking for something to tell him where he was. Dim fog filled the air, and shadows stretched across towards him.
The figure stepped from shadow. It was Ele, her slight form cloaked in little more than shadow. She looked at him with sad, loving eyes. Her broken and blood-splattered hand reached for him. The deep cut in her throat made a sickening movement and spilled blood with her every breath. Her lips moved as if to tell him something, but Kenet only heard the sound of wind.
“Please sir, wake up. I need your help.”
Kenet rolled away from the light and fell off his pallet. His back hit the cold boards of his room and he continued to move. He rolled his shoulder and came to a stand, his hand reaching for and finding the blade. Pointing his long guild knife at intruder, Kenet crouched ready for a fight. “Who are you, and why are you in my room?”
A terrified face stared at him. Her body locked with the lantern held out at maximum arm length. The young girl’s eyes were red and puffy. The marks of a bruise were just beginning on her cheek. Kenet estimated her to be thirteen at most.
“Please don’t kill me, sir.” Her timid voice sounded like a whisper.
Kenet’s eyes still saw dead Ele for a moment. Her sad, loving eyes still watching him. The vision faded, and as he looked at the young girl, he was sure he knew her. He relaxed a little and came up from the fighting stance he had been in.
“I am not going to kill you, girl. You’re the innkeeper’s daughter, aren’t you? There is no profit in killing you.” He stood tall, looking down at her, his knife still in hand. One can never be too careful.
“Why are you here, child?”
She took a deep breath. Forced herself to relax a little. “I am sorry, sir. I am called Wheat, sir.” Kenet grinned a little at her, which only seemed to make her more nervous.
“I did not ask your name, child. I asked why you are here.”
“I am sorry, sir,” she said once more. She seemed torn between bowing and nodding for a moment. She took another deep breath and began. She explained that her father’s place had been robbed that evening. The robber had stolen all of her father’s coin. Her mother’s jewelry had also been taken, and when her father had tried to stop the man, he was killed.
Kenet looked at her as her appraising Wheat as the tale ended. He had sat down by then and Wheat’s eyes glistened with fresh tears when she spoke of her father’s death. Kenet remembered the man as a big, and strong fellow, with a quick smile.
“So Wheat, why do you have a bruise?”
Her hand went to her cheek and winced as she touched it. She closed her eyes and looked away. A touch of anger and shame came to her face. “That is from my mother. I told her we should seek payback. The people who killed dad should pay for what they have done. She slapped me and told me that I was a stupid child.”
Wheat met his eyes once more. For a moment they simply stared at one another. Kenet thought she had a faint trace of defiance in her. She was daring him to agree with her mother.
“And why are you here? Why have you come to me, Wheat?”
“Because you’re of the guild. Uncle Tappen always says so. He said you were a Mesatta of the Shaded Path.” She said it with speed and anxiousness. Many hopes were clearly being laid at his feet, Kenet thought. He sighed heavily once more.
“What of it?” he said, slightly annoyed. “Why not go to the town guard or constable? Why would you come to a thief to help you? Why would you come to me?”
“Because my father paid the guild for protection, and still we were robbed, sir.”
Kenet half opened his mouth to say something but stopped. Paying protection was supposed to keep all the guilds from robbing you. The Guild protected the neighborhood. The protection money was paying them for their service. It was a service they had performed in this city and most cities since time long forgotten. Nobles and the powerful did not care about the people on the streets and villages. Someone had to protect the weak and if there was a fee attached then it was better than nothing. He took a deep breath.
“Did the thief leave his mark?”
Wheat nodded and pulled out the silk cloth from her pocket. A wooden square sat where the cloth bunched. Etched into the wood was a guild symbol. It was a stylized image of raging water in black. The symbols above the guild mark were the personal thief marks.
“Hmm. It is Black River guild. I don’t know the thief off the top of my head, but that is Gendo the Fat’s operation.” Kenet returned the mark to Wheat and looked her in the eyes. “There is a way to these things. Do you know the ways?”
Wheat looked unblinkingly back at him and nodded. And Kenet stood to full height. Still shirtless he reached over and grabbed his staff. A staff was as traditional in the guild as the knife, and was used in the ceremony of request. The ceremony was as old as the guild, and while they were informal about much, the ceremonies were a part of the way things worked.
“Who comes to seek an advocate in the guild? Who seeks a Mesatta?” he said with the staff held out.
“I am Wheat, daughter of Erneson, of the Dragon Flagon Inn. I come seeking an advocate for a wrong.”
“Wheat, daughter of Erneson, what wrong has been done?”
“Theft and… murder.” She seemed to choke for a moment, and Wheat’s voice cracked on the word murder.
“And what does the wronged offer for the payment?” he asked with a cocked eyebrow. The tradition required some form of payment, but he also knew she had nothing. After all, she was thirteen, maybe, and her father had been robbed and killed. He had no idea what she could possibly offer.
She nodded slowly. Her brow furrowed and a grim look reached her eyes. “I offer my service.”
“Wait…what?” He dropped out of the formality of the ceremony, and knelt before her and met her eyes. “Are you sure? Do you know what you’re offering? This is no small thing, child.”
She gave a slow determined nod, trying to meet his eyes. Offering service to the guild meant joining. Once in the guild there was no leaving. Kenet realized, looking into her eyes, that she knew that full well. He closed his eyes for a long moment, and just breathed. There was a responsibility on his part as well. Taking someone’s service meant he had to train her. She was his responsibility if he accepted it. Why should he take that on himself? He could tell her he needed something else in payment.
The image of Ele flashed before his closed eyes. She nodded at him and he nodded back. He stood once more and dropped his staff. His knife came to hand with a quick and efficient motion. The edge slid across his open palm and blood welled.
“So be it. Service is accepted. The wronged has offered payment. The contract is made and the wrong shall be avenged.” He motioned for her hand and tentatively she lifted it. The stroke across her palm was light, and quick, but she flinched. To her credit she did not cry out. His cut hand, and hers, clasped and their blood mingled.
“That will not be the last cut you receive. Get used to the touch of steel, and the taste of blood, child. They will be familiar before I am finished with you.”
“I know, sir.”
“And stop calling me sir, damn it. My name is Kenet. If you need a title, then use Uncle, which is what I will be till you get remade. Then it is cousin. Brother, if you achieve the same rank. But that is for later.”
“What do we do now…uncle?”
“Well, first I am going to get some breakfast. After that, though, I am going to go talk to a fat man.”
Breakfast went well. Kenet bought bacon and fresh eggs at the tavern he slept in. He also ordered some sweet breads for Wheat. She sat and ate, watching the door all the while. After breakfast was done they left to walk the city streets.
“Sir?” She inquired over the din of the morning streets. She came just shy of jogging to keep up with the large man’s strides.
“Yes, Wheat?” he replied, scanning the street with a practiced glance. His was staff in hand as he walked. The sky was overcast and the air smelled of an oncoming rain.
“So I am member of the guild now. “
“That is correct. From now to the end of your days you are in the guild.”
“Well..” She began sounding uncertain of how to proceed. “um.. what do new members of a thieves guild do?”
Kenet missed a step and then stopped. He turned and looked Wheat in her hazel eyes. He smiled and returned to walking down the street. There was a lot of ground to cover to make it to the other side of town.
“What do you think we do?”
“Well sir, I think we steal things, being thieves and all.”
“And is that all a thieves guild is? A collection of people who steal?”
“I would think so, sir.”
Kenet stopped to point along the city walls to the point where the castle was. The curtain walls were higher than the standard city walls and it was situated on a hill. In the morning the sun rose behind the castle causing most of the city for a while in the mornings to lie with in the castles shadow.
“Wheat, do you know who lives there?”
“Yes sir. Prince Donas lives there with his family”
“Did you know he was a thief?’
Wheat stared up at Kenet unbelieving. Her moment of shock slowly turned to one of suspicion as she raised an eyebrow and looked at Kenet askance. She shook her head a little uncertainly at Kenets wide grin.
“Of course he would not say so.” Kenet went on as he continued to walk through the crowd. “You see Wheat, all the princes of Verdien are thieves. Maybe all the great nobles of the world are.”
“But sir, I don’t understand. Prince Donas is supposed to be a hero. He leads the war against the city of Cavas. He is supposed to be a great leader and fighter. I have never heard of him stealing things.”
“Ah,” Kenet said holding up his finger to make a point. “but you have also heard of the press gangs? You have no doubt seen those.”
“Yes sir. They got my brothers last year.”
Kenet looked back at Wheat as they walked. She had no trace of sadness in her eyes. To her, Kenet supposed, the absence of her brothers was just one more in a line of unfortunate facts.
“Don’t you suppose that stealing a whole person is a bigger theft than stealing a purse?” Kenet said it as he held up the small pouch and small knife he had used to take the pouch from the passerby’s belt. He winked as he slid them in his pocket.
“But he takes them by the law. When the men came, they said it was the law.”
“True” Kenet said as he took an apple from a merchant stand. The merchant made to stop him, for a second, then backed down with a look of recognition, and only a faint hint of resentment in his eyes.
“Wheat, the people have always been on the receiving end of the great. It has been like that for as long as anyone remembers. A thieves guild steps in, when the people receive too much from the Princes and Kings of the world.”
“But don’t we steal as well, sir?” Wheat breathed a little hard as she followed Kenet up a steep set of stairs.
The stairs brought them up to a roof. From there they could see the city spreading before them. Cook fires were sending spots of smoke up here and there. Three tall stone walls ran from outer walls to the castle. Each wall had a couple of gate houses in it to allow traffic. This made for a city in three sections. The city was designed with the potential of attack in mind.
“We do steal. That is true, but we never take too much. We never take the last, if we can help it.”
Wheat looked haunted for a moment, Kenet watched on. The loss of her father was still too new. Kenet nodded at her as she looked up to him and they both looked over the city.
“So, the story is this.” Kenet began. He would tell it the way it was told to him. He would tell it the way Ele had told him.
“Once there was great war. No one knows when or where. All they know is there was a war and the great powers of the land fought throughout a time which is now forgotten. As is always the case in war, the small people bore the brunt of the pain. They were the ones on the front being smashed. They were the ones starving in the burnt out remnants of their homes. The war ground down any and all, but the nobles said it must be, no matter what the cost.”
Kenet sat on the edge of the roof with a groan. His knees were not what they once were. Wheat sat next to him and stared at him with her big hazel eyes.
“So it came that the great thieves of the land gathered. Cavadas the Stone was one of them they say and Jenarra of Silk was another. Who knows for sure? After a time, these are only names but they came from all across the land. They gathered and spoke of what to do. While they were thieves they were also of the small folk. They knew the burden of those around them and wanted it to stop. They formed the first guild. They went out with staff in hand. They went out and called all their brothers and sisters. They had the first great council of thieves. ”
“The council said three things when it was done. The first was that all thieves would live by a code, that no thief would be allowed to ignore the code. The second was that all thieves were subject to thieves. Thieves will govern their own, and in the end, serve none but the family of thieves. The last thing they said was that the guild would stop the war because stealing from people who have nothing gets you nothing.”
“Within a night some say, the thieves ended the war. It is hard to have a war without food for your soldiers. A battle is a little sad when half of the combatants have no weapons. A soldier is less eager to fight when the pay he was to get goes missing. Whether it was a night or a week or a month, one thing is certain. The war ended. Nobles found excuses and reasons for why they should have stopped on their own, but we thieves know the truth.”
Wheat kicked her legs back and for the over the ledge not looking at Kenet. He leaned back and watched as the sun finally clear the castle and let the light shine upon the city. He closed his eyes and thought of the time he first heard the story. He smiled and enjoyed the warmth of the sun.
Wheat stood up and looked down at him for a long moment.
“Sir, do you believe that story.? Is that what really happened?”
Kenet opened his eyes and squinted back at her silhouette. He sighed and stood up himself and brushed off the dust.
“I don’t know, Wheat.” He said starting to walk once more. “I have been told a different tale by a thief from the Caliphate. The Fengian guilds have their own version as well. But in the end, this is the one I learned. It is the one I prefer.”
He continued his walk along the roof and onto the next. Wheat continued quietly behind.
Fat Gendo was aptly named. His large form was clad in as fine a clothing as any other rich merchant. He was a sharp contrast to Kenet’s plain and unassuming browns. Gendo’s thick finger had many rings and a thick gold necklace hung round his neck. At his wide belt hung a dagger on one hip and a short axe on the other.
“Kenet dear boy, How have you been?” His arms went wide in welcome and then he shook Kenet’s outstretched hand. He vigorously shook it with a wide grin. He reached over and patted Kenet’s shoulder.
“Things have been fine, Gendo. The profits have been steady. No uppity nobles trying to put us out of the business. The Throne is to busy fostering wars lately to pay attention to us. Our pickings in the first district are a little leaner than here in the Black River territory but the Shaded Path does well enough in this city”
Took the offered chair near Gendo’s writing desk. Wheat stood dutifully and silently at his shoulder. Her bright blue eyes taking in the room.
“And who is your friend?”
“This is my new niece, Wheat.”
Wheat stared at Gendo for a moment and he in return. They both seemed to be sizing one another up. Gendo grinned and laughed at the girl. He was easily given to smiling.
“Hello Wheat. It is a pleasure to meet a new member of the family.” He offered his large hand and she put hers in his and they shook almost formally. As they shook hands, she calmly spoke “I don’t have a knife.”
“I don’t have a knife. You won’t be able to lift one from me like you did from Uncle Kenet.”
Gendo glanced over at Kenet who gave his best glower. Gendo held his hands out in a gesture suggestive of an apology and reached back behind him to pull the knife and hold it out. He grinned sheepishly.
“Sorry about that. Old habits die hard.” he said as he handed the long dagger back. Kenet slid it back into the sheath at his side.
“It’s okay.” Kenet said calmly as he pulled for a small pouch of coin. “I took your purse.”
They both laughed at each other as Kenet tossed the coin purse to Gendo. The fat man went to sit at his desk and leaned into the chair.
“She is pretty good. How long have you been training her? I thought you would never take an apprentice.”
“She took the road only this morning. I am beginning think it was maybe fate. She became a part of the family in exchange for my services.”
“I had wondered what brought you to my side of town. It has been a while since our guilds had their conflicts. That all stopped when….well…you know. “
Kenet nodded as the image of Ele came to him. The memory of her soft skin was on his fingers. The smell of blood and the panicked gurgled noises she made was in his ears as she died.
“Yeah I remember.”
There was a long silence between them. Wheat had wandered over to a wall and was looking at a tapestry hung against it. Her fingers traced the lines of the story etched in the image.
“So why are you here Kenet? What brings the Mesatta of the Shaded Path need of the guild master to the Black River guild?”
Kenet took a deep breath. Business was business.
“I have been contracted to seek payment for stolen property and for the life that was taken.”
“And this brings you to me?”
“The marker was one of the Black River markers. I do not know the personal mark though.” Kenet pulled out the marker and handed it over. Gendo examined it in detail and turned it over in his hand.
“That is one of ours. Certainly not a fake. What was taken?”
“All the meager wealth of Wheat’s family and…” Kenet turned and looked at Wheat as she examined the tapestry. “her father. The family was paying protection to the Shaded Path. They were to be unmolested.”
Gendo stood and walked over to face the tapestry that Wheat was intent on. He examined the lines and colors as well. His thoughts were hidden behind a calm face.
“I know the mark. It belongs to particularly vicious little man by the name of Zivo. Zivo has been an up and coming fellow in the guild for sometime. I am surprised you and he have not met already actually.”
“Nope, never heard of him.”
“He is a real piece of work. I know at least 7 murders laid at his feet. He is on a path to being a Reaper at this rate.”
“Why have you not put a stop to him?”
“Oh, I have considered it but, he is dangerous. If I try and bring him in line he will challenge for leadership. Honestly, I am not sure I can take him.”
Gendo turned to face Kenet once more. The distaste at admitting he could not deal with one of his own was evident. Kenet had known Gendo for a long time. He had seen the man’s axe at work before and knew him for the master at it’s use. Things had become more complicated, it seemed.
“What is a Reaper?” Wheat’s voice was so quiet it took both men a moment to realize what she had asked. Gendo bent his knees and came down to her eye level.
“A Reaper is an assassin. In every nation there is some sort of assassins guild. The Caliphate has one led by an old man. The Empire of the Cranes has its Women of the Black Orchid. Here the Assassins belong to the Reapers.”
“Are they like thieves guilds?”
“Not as such, no. The guilds have rules. We do not take more than the people can bear. We generally don’t like to kill people. You can steal from a man only once if you kill him. Also we take responsibility for the people in our care. The Reapers are not so concerned with preserving people. They kill for money. They may have traditions like a guilds and pretensions to go along with that but, they are not like the guilds.”
Wheat nodded. She thought for an instant and then looked at Kenet expectantly. Kenet sighed heavily and closed his eyes. When he opened them his determination was clear and sharp.
“Where is he?”
Gendo smiled broadly and rubbed his hands together. “I was hoping you would ask. I believe he is downstairs as we speak. He usually is at this time of day.”
Kenet nodded and stood. His hand grabbed the staff and walked across to Wheat. “are you ready for this Wheat?”
“lead the way Gendo. “
“Oh good. I love a good floor show. I should give a warning. He keeps his dagger poisoned in the sheath. He fights sword and axe.”
As they wandered down the steps from Gendo’s office into the tavern below Wheat tugged on Gendo’s large sleeve.
“Why does Kenet not use a sword? I thought they were better for fighting.”
“Well that is a matter of the man wielding it, but the reason he carries a staff is he is a traditionalist. Each guild started essentially in a neighborhood or town. A guild tends to have a tradition of using weapons that would not have attracted attention in the town the guild started in. Most of them have knives of course for a knife is a tool as well as a weapon.”
Wheat nodded as the lower floor came into view. A small crowd had already begun to form. And pipe smoke could be smelled in among the other less pleasant scents.
“Now the Black River guild was started in the town of Black River. This city was not even founded back then. It was founded by a woodsman so we traditionally use an axe. The Shaded Path on the other hand, was started by a man who served in the shadow of the Throne monastery. Weapons were not allowed to the peasants but a staff, well a staff is hardly a weapon after all. Now a days traditionalists like me and your uncle Kenet use those traditional weapons.”
As they walked across the floor Gendo nodded at the lean little form of Zivo. He was surrounded by a group of young men and women who were clearly attached to him. He had become the person many younger members of the guild wished to emulate.
“Besides,” Gendo continued loud enough to be overheard “A man with a sword is probably looking for a fight and only an idiot looks for a fight all the time.”
Zivo frowned as Kenet, Wheat and Gendo approached. He glared at Gendo’s grinning face. The crowd sensed a tension. The smart people backed away watchfully. The less smart leaned closer to see what would happen.
“Speaking of which, let me introduce you to Zivo.” A slight chuckle passed around the bar at the off handed jibe. “Zivo, meet my dear friend Kenet. I believe the two of you have business.”
Zivo turned his back on Kenet and drank from his bear. Disdain was evident in his demeanor. His hangers on also sneered at Kenet, but did so as they backed away. Kenet tossed the mark on the bar next to Zivo.
“I believe that is yours.”
Zivo looked it over and nodded. “Yeah that is mine. What of it?”
“I am here as Mesatta. I am here to seek recompense for those who can’t, as is our way.”
“As is your way maybe. Who is this from?”
“The tavern you robbed last night. The inn keeper you killed. I am here on his daughters behalf.”
Zivo looked over at Wheat and laughed a mirthless barking laugh. He turned back to face Kenet. He looked the older man over sizing him up. He then looked once more over at Wheat with a snarl on his lips.
“I am supposed to repay her for the loss of her worthless father. I suppose I could be her father. I could turn her into something useful.”
Wheat’s speed was surprising to everyone. She crossed the five feet in the blink of an eye and hit Zivo where it counted. She began slamming and kicking him. He growled as he kicked out at her knee bringing her down hard and then slapped her so hard as to send her spinning away. His hand grabbed for the sword hilt at his back.
Kenet’s hand closed over Zivo’s. Cold fury was in his eyes as he pushed him back to the bar hard.
“Zivo of the Black River guild, I challenge. Care to try fighting a grown up?”
Zivo smiled his nasty smile and stepped forward. The circle of people began to form around them and widen. Gendo helped Wheat to her feat and helped her limp out to the circles edge.
“When a thief steps outside the ways it is up to a thief to bring him back. If he can’t be brought back then a thief should stop him. Let the Nobles and The Red Wood Throne keep to their laws. We will keep to ours. Zivo, I accuse you of stepping outside the code. Prove me wrong if you can.”
Zivo threw off his black coat and drew his short thin bladed sword and his axe. Kenet spun his staff in a display of skill and grace. It windmilled about him in a dance as the two men circled. The crowd cheered and yelled out. Bets began changing hands almost immediately.
The two men walked in a circle about each other. Kenet stepped forward and brought his staff down at Zivo’s head. The smaller man bent backwards and rotated to his left stabbing at Kenet. Kenet blocked it with the staff then stepped back swinging the shaft wide.
The two men danced in and out with attacks, blocks and counter attacks. Both men were confident in their skills and gave no quarter. Finally blow from Kenet landed with enough force to crack even a knights armor, but it bounced off Zivo with a flash. The man had obviously worked with a wizard at some point.
Zivo tried to take advantage of the moment of shock his protective spell had bought him by sliding the blade of his sword under the guard of Kenet. Kenet barely escaped the thrust to his gut but the blade slide across his hip, a deep cut lit his leg on fire. In that moment though, his staff caught the sword at the hilt and pulled it from Zivo’s grip. It went spinning behind Kenet.
Zivo lost no momentum though. His axe came back up and dropped in a blow towards Kenet’s head. The staff came up to block it and caught the axe blade in the middle with a sharp thunk noise. Kenet pushed the axe back and brought the staff across again only to meet air as the smaller more lithe man leaped over the stroke.
Zivo brought down the axe once more and this time the staff shattered from the blow. The crowd grew wild as Zivo now almost breathless stepped back a moment to smile at his impending victim. Kenet, also breathing hard, dropped the now raggedly broken halves of his staff beside him He gulped for breath as he looked at Zivo. His leg now almost use less had brought him to his knees. Blood streamed from the gash.
“That all you have old man?”
“Zivo, you can surrender to my mercy at any time.”
Zivo chuckled at the older man’s bravado. He stepped forward swinging the axe in a wide arch. The dagger in Kenet’s hand came too quick. As the axe came down Kenet angled his body to roll sideways. His own knife bit deep into Zivo’s hand in a sweeping stroke. The axe fell from his grip. And bit into the floor.
Kenet completed his roll and tried to stand but was forced back to his knees by the screaming pain in his leg.. Zivo was howling in pain. He turned and stepped towards Kenet who had his knife point towards Zivo already. He smiled evilly at Kenet as he reached for his knife, a knife which was no longer there.
He looked down at his empty sheath in shock then looked up up suddenly as he spotted the distinctive blade in Wheat’s hand. Her bloodied face was almost blank in expression, but her blue eyes glared hate at him. Zivo stared open-mouthed at her, until the point of Kenet’s knife cut into his leg. He howled and fell on his side to avoid the pain. Kenet, on his knees, shifted closer and brought his knife down.
Zivo kept repeating “No! No! No!” as the knife bounced off his arms, held up in defense. The blade bit to the bone, rendering even that last bit of defense useless.
“MERCY!” came Zivo’s cry which broke into a gurgle as the blade slid to its hilt in his throat.
“No mercy to be found here, boy.”
Kenet fell back to the floor, exhausted. He was spent and he had very little left. Wheat limped over and knelt beside him. For the first time she cried. Tears came from her eyes and she sniffed. Kenet pulled Zivo’s coin purse from his belt and put it in Wheat’s hand.
“That is for your family.”
“I know, sir.”
“I need a nap.”
“So do I, sir.”
Kenet laughed a little as Gendo got people to help them up to his office. The excitement done, the people in the bar returned to their drinks, stories, and laughing. Kenet and Wheat had their wounds tended to, and rested.
“What now?” Wheat asked simply.
Kenet looked at her and smiled.
“Now we go home and begin teaching you how to be a proper thief.”
“Is it always like this, Uncle?”
“No, but it is not always easy either. It is life in the guild. All the trouble included, though, I would not give it up. We get to live a good life, and if we are lucky, maybe get a story or two told about us.”
“Will we have a story now?”
“Maybe, Wheat. Maybe. Now let’s go home”