Chapter Ten: The City of Thieves
There were few people on the streets of Dagur when a hasty figure made his way toward a tavern. He was a small man, wrapped in a grey cloak. He shivered as he hastened along the cobbled streets in the misty night. A cold wind was blowing and snowflakes were spinning in the air.
He entered the tavern and, peering through the crowd, found a heavy man serving drinks at the bar. The bartender saw him and shot a glance at two men sitting in the back, hooded with swords sheathed at their sides. He nodded at the heavy man and made his way toward these two.
They were large men with stern faces. The biggest one held a thin glass of wine as he eyed the small man who approached them.
“I believe you have something for me,” the small man said, taking a seat across from them.
The larger man put down his glass and withdrew a pouch from his cloak. He dropped it on the table with a casual gesture and the small man looked at the fat pouch with surprise.
“It has been a profitable evening for you,” he said, grasping the pouch. He opened it and gold coins spilled out of its mouth. “The baron will be pleased.”
He emptied the pouch and counted the coins, stacking them on the table. There were a number of men who stared at the gold he piled. Many of them had killed for smaller fortunes and would have plotted foul measures against him if he did not collect this money for the baron.
Rows of coins covered the table as he grinned at the two thieves. “You are a skillful pair.” He divided the coins, sliding several stacks across the table toward them. “You have done well.”
The large man sipped his wine, eyeing the small man with a cold, impassive gaze as his partner gathered the coins. The small man met his fierce glance and fell silent. The thief put his glass down and paused.
“The baron takes a sizable share,” the large man said.
“More than half,” his partner agreed.
“But you must remember,” the small man replied, “there will be greater rewards once you have proven yourselves.”
“We have already proven ourselves,” the big man said.
“The baron is a very generous man,” the henchman assured. “Be patient.”
The thieves rose, plainly indignant, and went out into the misty night. The small man watched them leave, then swept his arm across the table, pushing the gold piles over the edge so that the coins fell into a leather sack. He was grinning when he heard the bartender cough. He turned to him and followed his gaze to the door where three men stood peering into the crowd. They were tall with swords sheathed beneath their cloaks. He gave the bartender a nod and the fat man sent the knights to his table.
He was tying the sack of coins as they approached him.
“Hello, brave sirs. I am honored that you would join me on this bitter night.”
They seated themselves and eyed the small man who stared back at them and grinned. “Three fine knights have come to hear what I have to say.”
“Say it quickly,” urged Labon on his left.
He glanced at the tall one in the center. His eyes were keen and he wore a brown cloak. “I have seen you before,” said the henchman.
“Perhaps,” said Colun.
“Yes, you are often riding in these parts, leading your knights against brigands in the south.”
“I am presently more concerned with other villains,” said Colun.
The man grinned. “There are many villains among us these days. I’ll wager there is not a man here who has not killed or stolen or brought some misery to countless victims. Outside this tavern, there are more of them, scoundrels everywhere, lurking in every part of this foul city, a pillaging, looting, murderous lot that seems to thrive on mayhem and suffering. I sometimes wonder if our whole society will not collapse one day, but then I remember that you fine knights stand against these villains. I take solace in your noble deeds, assured the vile citizenry of Dagur will not daunt Abernaeth and his good knights who will bring order to the wretched folk of these parts.” He paused and wiped a mock tear from his face.
“Do you have something to tell us?” asked Colun.
The man smiled. “Forgive me, I know you have little time to spare, for the king rides north on the morrow and he will need all his best knights at his side.”
The knights were plainly surprised. “How do you know the king’s movements?” asked Kaey.
“The baron knows many things,” the man replied. “His eyes and ears are everywhere.”
“You say he has spies in the king’s court?” asked Colun.
The henchman shook his head. “No, I assure you the baron would not think of compromising the king’s noble court. These tidings came to him from mercenaries his men encountered some days ago. Two men riding dark horses came into Dagur one night to gather a band of armed men for some foulness they were plotting in the hills. It seems they were intent on ambushing a party that would be traveling that way, promising lots of spoils to any who joined them, doling out gold coins as advance payment. The baron was of course appalled by the whole undertaking, deeming such an ambush well beneath accepted standards of decency, but he was curious to know who these men were plotting against, and some time later discovered the king himself was their target.”
“How did he make this discovery?” asked Colun.
“The baron is a very wise man,” the man replied. “Aware that few travel the path through the hills and that Abernaeth has been visiting the kingdoms of the north as he tries to unite the lands, it was a simple matter for him to conclude the king was in jeopardy.”
“And I will guess he is expecting some payment for his service,” said Colun.
The man shrugged. “My employer is a wealthy man; he expects no reward for his dutiful service. The king is a noble and good man and the baron is pleased that he has played a role in his defense.” The man paused a moment. “There is, however, a small matter of concern regarding a number of aberrant knights who often mistake the baron’s men for petty thieves. He hoped we might resolve this problem now that he has proven his loyalty to the crown.”
“The king will not bargain with thieves,” said Labon.
“Thieves?” the man winced. “I hardly think a man as refined and scrupulous as the baron can be called a thief.”
“The baron steals more from this land in a single day than any raiders could manage in weeks,” said Colun.
“You are mistaken, sir, the baron steals nothing from this land. He is a nobleman.”
“There are more than a few merchants who disagree,” said Kaey.
The man feigned surprise. “There is no merchant who has not benefited in his dealings with the baron.”
“Only the baron has benefited from these dealings,” said Kaey. “Extorting payments from innocent villagers.”
“You offend me, sir! The baron has been more than generous, providing invaluable protection against ruthless brigands who would otherwise loot and kill the poor merchants who seek his aid.”
Colun eyed the man firmly. “The baron is a foul criminal who will be dealt with.”
The man stared surprised. “A criminal indeed! You forget he has saved your king. You owe him something for this at least.”
“The king owes nothing. The baron is foolish to think a band of mercenaries could assail Abernaeth. The king does not ride north as you have been told. He will not be traveling abroad for some time.”
The man stuttered. “But these men gathered many around them with gold, certain the king would ride north on the morrow.”
“Then they are fools,” said Colun. “They will not threaten the king and the baron will not extort favors from him. You must go to your master and tell him that Abernaeth and his knights will deal with him shortly and that all his kind will be routed from these lands.”
The man eyed the knight.
“Go now, tell the baron of our meeting, and be careful on your way, lest one of my knights should follow you and discover where the baron hides himself. I doubt he would thank you for it.”
The man was still for a moment, afraid to move. He glanced quickly around him and then hurried out of the tavern, shooting another glance behind him as he fled into the night.
The knights watched him leave and paused a moment, sipping their wine.
“These are dire times,” said Labon.
“Indeed,” Colun agreed.
“We have traitors among us, then,” said Kaey.
“I suspected this,” said Colun.
“But who would betray the king?”
“I do not know,” said Colun. “It could be anyone.”
“We must be careful,” said Labon. “Even among ourselves.”
“Indeed,” Colun agreed, “I fear even knights are not immune to the foulness that spreads over the world in these days.”
“Abernaeth is wise,” Kaey grinned. “He knew word of his movements would ferret out any traitors among his knights. Our enemies have won their way into our very midst and he daunts them still!” The knight laughed.
“At least we know it is not one of the king’s most trusted knights who know his true movements,” said Labon. “If these traitors are knights, they are beneath our ranks.”
“Possibly,” said Colun. “But I fear some knights in our circle may have fallen or soon will.”
The knights paused.
“Who has fallen?” asked Kaey.
“I cannot say, but there are many strange deeds in these days, and I fear stranger things come. We must keep a wary eye on those around us, even those we have trusted. If our enemy is among us, he will reveal himself in time. We must be watching or else be fooled by his cunning and guile.”
“Can none be trusted?” asked Labon.
Colun paused a moment.
“I trust you, Colun,” said Kaey. “Shall I watch you?”
“And what of me?” said Labon. “Are there none to watch me?”
Colun smiled. “I will watch you both.” He drank his wine. “But we must be careful, lest we are taken unawares.”
The three sat quietly for some moments, oblivious of the noisome lot around them. Some glanced at them with suspicion, aware of three knights in their midst. A few others hid in the crowd, afraid these three might arrest them for crimes they had committed.
At the other end of the tavern, a heavy man was tending the bar, sliding drinks and lending his ear to patrons, peering into the crowd occasionally to spy thieves and mercenaries plotting some treachery, whores dancing with drunken men, and three quiet knights sitting at a table. He stared at these three a moment, but turned away when he met Colun’s steel gaze, still pouring drinks and conversing with patrons, feigning a casual indifference as he spied those around him.
The knights were finishing their drinks when they heard a loud crash above the din. Near the doorway, the crowd pushed forward suddenly and some women screamed. The frightened mass surged inward, and over their heads, a great sword sliced the air.
At once, the knights sprang out of their chairs with swords drawn and made their way through the crowd toward the swinging swordsman. Some others took up their swords and tried to hold the man back, but he pressed past them, swinging his blade with a ferocity none could match.
Colun was upon him now, meeting the man’s furious blows with his calm steel. He could feel the man’s great strength with each swipe, but he stood fast, skillfully countering his attacks. Kaey and Labon jumped in with their swords. They slashed the man, trying to weaken him, but the crazed swordsman would not relent, swinging his blade faster, as if possessed by some wicked force. Colun deflected another blow. The man lunged at him. With the flat of his sword, Colun struck the man on his head and the mad swordsman fell onto the cobbled street.
Slowly, the crowd came out into the street. They stared at the unconscious swordsman, keeping a wary distance, lest he should rise and assail them once more.
“He was mad!” someone said. “I saw him walking down the street just a moment ago. He stumbled about like a drunken fool, speaking strange words. Then he drew his sword and shouted something. He attacked us without cause.”
“Aye, he was a fierce one,” a man agreed.
“Who is he?” someone asked.
“He is a merchant,” said another. “I have seen him at the pier with others, carrying large crates off their ships.”
“He trades in the south,” said a third. “He finds all kinds of things in those lands and sells them here.”
Colun looked at the wounded merchant and noticed his sword where it had fallen on the street. In the fading light of dusk, he glimpsed a faint glow at the sword’s hilt. It might have been a beam of sun that glinted off the blade, but he was not sure. He stepped toward the sword and grasped it. He looked at the hilt closely and found a small jewel set in its pommel, a crimson gem that seemed to glimmer with a faint and strange light.
“What is it?” asked Kaey.
Colun stared at the glowing stone a moment. “I do not know,” he said. “But I fear this merchant has brought something foul into our lands.”
At the pier, the light was fading as the sun touched the horizon. Some lanterns were already lit and a few people were still at the harbor mopping decks before they headed to their homes to eat and rest after a long day of labors.
A ship came into the harbor and a boy at the pier saw two crossed swords on a billowing sail and thrilled at the sight of the king’s standard.
Then he saw another ship and his eyes were wide with wonder, for it was unlike any ship he had ever seen. Its masts touched the sky and its sails billowed like clouds. The bright ship emerged from the curling mists like a ray of dawn.
Some figures were moving on the decks, but he could not discern their features in the fog. He saw one who wore a scarlet cloak. He stared at this one for a moment, noticing his slender frame and coppery hair.
“Hail to the harbor!” the scarlet one called to the boy in a voice that was almost musical.
The boy waved at him with excitement. He held his gaze on the coppery sailor as the ship came closer. He saw his bright eyes that seemed at once whimsical and wise and the fine features of his face. Then he glimpsed his pointed ears and gasped, aware of the being he beheld.
He stood still a moment, too stunned to move or speak, for he knew this ship was crewed by mystical beings who were coming into the lands of men.
The scarlet one hailed him again and he was so excited he turned away from the ship and ran down the street.
“The elves are coming!” he shouted.
He dashed down the avenue, running homeward as he cried, and those who heard him were at once surprised, for none of these harbor workers had known the elves were coming. Most of them had never seen elves, but they had heard stories of the mystical folk that lived across the sea.
The boy was shouting like a herald, waking those that slept, announcing the coming of the elves with a cheer that spread over the people. They turned toward the harbor to see the ships approaching, and suddenly their tired forms were livened as they hastened back to the pier to glimpse the glorious elves.
Three knights were astride their horses as the boy ran past them. “The elves are coming!” he shouted at them, then he shot into his home to tell his parents of the wondrous being who hailed him at the harbor.
The knights paused a moment.
“The elves have come,” said Labon.
“I hear they are a strange folk,” said Kaey.
“Aye, with great powers stronger than the sorceries of men,” said Labon.
“Perhaps they will tell us something of this jeweled sword and its origin,” said Colun.
The knights turned their horses toward a castle where in a great hall of stone the king awaited their tidings and the coming of the elves.