The sight of the ancient statue coming to life continued to haunt Kerick’s waking thoughts, making what should have been an easy recovery that much harder and more serious if he failed.
Under cover of a moonless night, Kerick scaled the walls that separated the keep from the bustling trading town that surrounded it. Torch lit outlines of patrolling sentries bobbed along its circumference. After waiting for the next patrol to pass, he dropped inside and slipped into the main building undetected.
Despite some close calls, Kerick avoided being discovered as he wound his way through a labyrinth of doors, hallways, and darkened stairs. The poorly drawn map he used to navigate by, obtained through a strange network of personal contacts, ended up being more fiction than fact. Even with its inaccuracies, it allowed him to find his way up to the upper floor and to the door of the Collector’s private office.
Approaching footsteps forced Kerick to retreat further down the unlit hallway where he pressed himself into the doorframe of a locked room. It wouldn’t obscure him completely, but he hoped the ambient darkness would do the rest. The stairwell he’d climbed only moments before filled with a flickering light. Had someone seen or heard him?
A gray-haired woman in servant garb came into view carrying a small oil lamp in the palm of her hand. She pulled the maroon shawl tighter about herself and peered into the darkened hallway while holding the lamp up as if she were trying to make something out. Kerick’s breath caught wondering if it was him that she saw.
The old woman frowned and then stepped to the Collector’s door. She gave it a gentle knock and when no response came from the other side, pushed open the door and peeked inside.
The old woman clicked her tongue. “Went to bed again without locking up.”
She placed the oil lamp on the ground beside her, pulled the door shut and locked it using a key that dangled from the small chains on her belt. Kerick grunted at the click of the lock, a sound that said the job just got harder. At his grunt, the old woman snatched up the lamp with shaking hands and held it out in his direction. Thankfully, the lamplight didn’t reach him. She stood there and squinted for a long moment before finally lowering the lamp and heading toward the stairs. The old woman muttered to herself as she went, occasionally looking behind her.
When the light of her lamp finally disappeared, Kerick let out a long-held breath and walked over to the door she had just locked. From his belt pouch, he pulled a pick set and proceeded to work on the door until it made a satisfying click. Kerick returned them to his pouch, gave the door a little push and stepped into the dark room before him. He closed the door behind him and eased across the rug covered office where he stubbed his toe against the corner of a statue he hadn’t seen until it was too late.
Kerick bit down on the yelp and stood there a moment until the pain subsided, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. The office wasn’t as pitch black as he first thought. Shards of white moonlight filtered in via two sets of embrasures that lined both sides of the room. The slits were barely the width of a handspan. They were wide enough to see outside but thin enough so that no one could step through them. The moonlight wasn’t enough to illuminate the office, but it did provide definition to the shadows that lurked inside.
Kerick contemplated using the light orb his friend had given him for the job, but it was far too bright for his comfort. Any light seen coming from the office would be a signal to the guards down below that someone was inside, someone who shouldn’t be. He’d have to use what little moonlight there was to see by. After a moment, his eyes focused on the large outline of the desk “Would you be the kind to keep it there?”
Behind the desk, Kerick slid out the pillow topped stool and cautiously took a seat. He ran his fingers along the edges of the desk, then around the drawers themselves, checking for possible trip wires. Given the stories he’d heard about the Collector, he wouldn’t have put it past him. Then again, the man had left his office unlocked.
An afterthought popped into Kerick’s head that sent tingles down the back of his neck. Had there been a tripwire on the stool? Thinking back on it, he hadn’t felt any resistance when he pulled it out, but that didn’t mean there hadn’t been one. He cursed silently to himself and shook his head. He’d made a mistake, but it was too late to worry about it now. It would just be yet another reason to make this job quick. His thoughts snapped back to the present when his fingers paused on a thin metal wire. “Ah. There you are.”
Kerick took a moment to disable it and then checked to see if there were more but found none. With a nervous smile, he slid open the drawer and felt around for the stone or the fist-sized chest that he’d seen it in earlier, but there were only tied up scrolls and loose sheets of parchment inside. He eased the drawer closed again but pondered if he should have looked through the contents, given that it had a tripwire. Kerick dismissed the thought as unprofessional, as that wasn’t the kind of thief he was raised to be. He was here for the stone and nothing more.
His inspection of the other drawers revealed them to be empty or filled with knick-knacks of no consequence. “Well, I suppose that would have been too easy. Where else would you hide it?”
Kerick eyed the outlines in the darkness while he drummed his fingers on the desk. “It would have to be close by but not obvious.”
He got to his feet and approached the bookcases behind the desk. Books were an uncommon sight, as they were expensive to make, and most people didn’t know how to read anyway. The fact the Collector had three bookcases filled with thick volumes said something about how much wealth he had amassed over the years, most likely due to thievery rather than some honest business endeavor.
Kerick didn’t have enough light to make out the titles on the spines, but it didn’t stop him from taking a moment to ogle them. After checking for boobytraps, he shifted the books around looking for hidden panels behind them. No such luck. His search of the other two bookcases ended the same way. Kerick’s earlier smile slumped into a frown. “It has to be here. Has to be.”
His eyes went to the gold and red tapestries that hung heavy on either side of the bookcases. He went over and lifted each one, expecting there to be a hidden space but only found a solid wall. Annoyance flared on his cheeks. Kerick went as far as to check behind the paintings that dotted the room with the same disappointing result. The amount of time he’d already wasted within the office made him uneasy. The longer he remained there, the more likely it was that he’d be discovered.
Having not found what he was looking for, Kerick began to second guess himself about the whole job. Was the stone really there in the office? He wiped a hand down his face and collected himself. Two circuits around the room revealed nothing but a menagerie of statues and artifacts, likely impressive looking in the daytime. With no success in finding the stone, he returned to the desk convinced that he must have missed something. His double check of the desk only rewarded him with the same finds as before. The annoyance of it all made his foot tap against the carpet. After a couple of hollow sounding thumps, he paused and looked down. A grin split his face as he jumped to his feet, moved the stool, and peeled back the carpet. Inset in the floor was a rectangular trap door with a wooden handle that laid flush with the door itself. Kerick paused only long enough to look for anything that might trip an alarm and then pulled up on the handle. Purplish red light flooded the office, all emanating from the seams of a fist-sized wooden chest. Next to the chest that shined before him, were folded up maps and cinched up fist-sized bags of what looked like coins or jewels.
The knowledge that he’d spent too long in the office mixed with the fear of someone seeing the light. He needed to hurry. Kerick reached down for the chest but stopped when his eyes caught sight of an almost invisible flicker floating above it. He blinked his eyes to dispel what he thought was his imagination playing tricks on him, but the flickers remained, albeit faintly. His best friend had warned him of possible magical traps and true to her warning, it appeared that he’d found one. Her insistence was the only reason he’d agreed to take the silver coin that she had made for him. She had promised that if he encountered one, the coin could disable it, but he wasn’t so sure.
Kerick removed the coin that hung from his neck on a leather cord, closed his eyes and pressed it into the flickering barrier. No bells rang out. Nothing exploded. The only indication that something had happened was the sound of a small pop. Kerick opened one eye and then the other. He let go of the breath he’d been holding and relaxed. “Well, that wasn’t so bad.”
Kerick regretted saying it as soon as the words left his mouth. He returned the coin to his neck and reached for what he’d come for. The small chest had no lock and opened without a sound. He caught a glimpse of the polished red rock before he had to look away. Its shape was a flat, misshapen oval, like a river stone. The stone’s purplish-red light made him see spots as if he’d been looking at the sun too long. It seemed to be vibrating in the chest, though it could have been a trick of the light. Alarmed by the brilliance of the light, Kerick snatched the stone out of the chest and slipped it into a black cinch pouch. The pouch wasn’t enough to suppress all the light. He had to bury the enclosed stone inside his larger belt pouch before the room became dark again, more so now that his eyes had to readjust.
Kerick cursed to himself as he waited for his night vision to return and the white spots to fade. When he could see well enough, he hurried to return the room to what it looked like before. No sooner had the corner of the carpet flopped back to the floor, he heard the unmistakable clatter of armed guards coming up the stairs.
They had seen the light. More curses flew from his lips as his mind went into a million directions. Escape wouldn’t be possible as the only way out was the same door the guards would soon be at. Given the stories he’d heard about the Collector’s anger, getting caught with the stone in his possession would spell certain death. He needed a different outcome.
The guards’ approach forced Kerick to make a quick decision. He would have to hide the stone if there was any hope of getting out of the situation alive but where posed a problem.
Kerick took in the room as much as the darkness allowed. Wherever he hid the stone, it would have to be accessible for later but not easily discoverable. His mind churned just as fast as his heart raced. A recollection of the keep’s exterior came to mind, specifically around the embrasures. Kerick darted to the nearest one and shoved his hand through it, feeling for one of the wooden roof beams that perforated the structure every so many feet. His fingertips brushed the bottom edge of a beam, but even on his tiptoes, he could reach above it. The clatter of guards was getting louder. They’d be there at any moment.
Kerick dashed to the desk, retrieved the stool, and tried the embrasure again. That gave him the reach he needed. He yanked his belt pouch off and slapped it on top of the outside beam. There was no guarantee if it would remain there, especially with the strong desert winds that sometimes invaded the walls of the town, but he didn’t have a better option. Kerick dropped down and returned the stool to the desk just as the door burst open.
The throbbing coming from the back of Kerick’s head meant he was still alive, though for how long was still in question. Sunlight stung his eyes when he finally pried them open. He was on his back, laying on something cool but quite uncomfortable. Above him, he could see a mudbrick ceiling with hairline cracks and spider webs. Turning his head proved to be a mistake because as soon as he did so, the throbbing hammered his skull. Even laying down, he felt dizzy.
That head turn rewarded him with the sight of metal bars, mudbrick walls, and a stone floor, the same he apparently laid on. Kerick’s thoughts were sluggish as he tried to piece together how he’d gotten in the cell. The last thing he remembered was the guards rushing him. Had they hit him over the head?
With effort and another fresh wave of pain, Kerick managed to sit up and prop himself against the wall. He remained there long enough for the stabbing pain to ease and then hoisted himself to his feet. Had it not been for the cell bars that he continued to clutch, his attempt at being vertical would have failed. He rested his head against the blissfully cold bars and waited for the pain to ease again. After a few minutes, he pulled himself away from the bars and remained precariously upright.
The cell around him was barren, save for the dirty clay pot in the corner. The stench of it threatened to make him wretch, even being on the opposite side of the cell. The source of the sunlight came from a single barred window on the back wall. Kerick’s thoughts coalesced, and he realized for the first time that daylight meant that he’d missed the rendezvous with his best friend. She’d probably be worried sick.
The sound of heavy footsteps echoed down the poorly lit hall beyond his cell. “Where is he? Where’s that bastard?” The questions bellowed down the hall, angry and bitter.
“He’s down here, sir.”
The Collector’s slicked back hair was out of place when he stomped his way into sight. He wore a maroon tunic and a matching wraparound skirt. It was the same color as the old woman’s shawl and the flags he’d seen flying over the keep. It held significance of some sort, though what Kerick didn’t know. The gold chain he used as an ornamental belt clanked as he came forward. The larger of the two guards that flanked him hooked a thumb in Kerick’s direction. “This is the guy.” Their leather armor had been dyed a similar color, but the shade didn’t quite match. The guard that had pointed him out wore a single silver hoop earring in his right ear, and it made Kerick wonder why he wore such a thing as a guard, as it could be ripped out in a struggle.
The Collector’s cheeks reddened as he stalked closer. Kerick took a step back out of instinct as the man stopped in front of his cell. His fists were balled at his sides and his eyes danced with rage. “Where is it? What did you do with it?”
When Kerick didn’t answer him, the man tried to reach through the bars and grab at his throat. Kerick stepped back again, letting the man’s hand strain midair for a moment. “Damn you! Where’s my stone?”
Kerick remained silent. The Collector, incensed, smacked the other guard on the arm and pointed at the cell door. “Get in there and loosen his tongue.”
The guard, a string bean of a man, gave Kerick a barely noticeable frown and then fumbled for his keys. In seconds, the door swung open, and both guards entered the cell. They surrounded Kerick and forced him against the wall. He tried to block the string bean’s fist, but the bigger one with the silver hoop landed a hit before Kerick could kick at him. They pummeled his stomach and sides, engulfing him in waves of pain. “Enough!” The Collector barked, as Kerick dropped to the floor wheezing and coughing. “Where is my stone? I know you took it.”
He looked up at the Collector and lied. “What are you talking about? I don’t have anything. Search me.”
The Collector nodded his head, and the guards began to kick and punch him all over again. All Kerick could do was just lay there and take the blows, gritting his teeth at the pain. After a couple of minutes of further abuse, the Collector called them off. “Where is it? Tell me.”
Kerick curled in on himself. The throbbing in his head lessened but the pain elsewhere bloomed. “I told you. I don’t have anything.”
The Collector squeezed the bars as if choking them but never entered the open cell. With another nod, the guards resumed their assault. Kerick tried not to cry out but couldn’t help it. The punches and kicks only seemed to get stronger the longer they went on. “I don’t have any stone!”
A guttural growl came from the Collector, but he raised a hand to stop the red-faced guards. “And why should I believe anything a thief says?”
Kerick groaned. “Did you find anything on me?” He waited for the Collector to answer him, but the man only stood there angry. “I must be the worst thief ever. Not only did I not steal anything, but I got caught doing it.”
The Collector’s eyes narrowed. “You’re playing an extremely dangerous game, thief. I’m not one to be trifled with. Tell me what you did with the stone.”
Kerick sighed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He winced, expecting another series of attacks but none came.
The Collector just stared at him, sizing him up. “Being stubborn, I see.” The man shrugged and motioned for the guards to come out. “Perhaps a nice long stay will loosen your tongue.” He turned to the guards. “See that the thief gets no food or water. If he falls asleep, wake him up. There’s no need to be gentle about it either.” The Collector then turned to peer down at Kerick once more. “If you decide you happen to remember where the stone is, just let one of the guards know. Until then, enjoy your stay, thief.”
The cell door slammed shut as the Collector stalked back down the hallway. The two guards scrambled after him a moment later. Kerick remained curled up in the floor, letting the pain slowly dissipate. Despite the beating, he was strangely pleased with himself. His plan to stay alive had worked, at least for the moment.
After a while, Kerick pulled himself to his feet. Everything hurt. He tried the cell door on the off chance it hadn’t locked but it held firmly in place. He sighed and leaned back against the cell door, eyeing the barred window on the back wall. “I wonder.” Kerick peeled himself from the door and stumbled over to the back window, his body protesting every step. The guards had done a real number on him. He tested the bars in the window to see how firm they were inset into the mudbrick. None moved. He tried again, this time putting all his weight on the bars as he shook them. No effect. He let go and rested his head against the wall with a sigh. The stench of the clay pot wafted up and made him gag almost instantly. “Well, this is a problem.”
“Kerick? Is that you?” A familiar voice said from the barred window above him.
His head shot up, and he winced at the pain that followed. “Jocelyn?” With her not being in mage robes, he almost didn’t recognize her. She wore a simple patchwork top of faded blues and greens with a brown ankle-length ruffled skirt. Her braided nut-brown ponytail hung over her shoulder and down into the bars, as if it were rope Kerick could use to escape.
“I was worried sick! I can’t believe you got yourself thrown in jail.” Her eyes flared as she said it, her way of putting emphasis on the statement.
“I know. Sorry.”
Her tone softened. “Are you okay?”
Kerick grimaced. “I’ve been better, but you’re a welcomed sight for sore eyes.”
A dimpled smile replaced her gruffness. “So are you.” Her face turned serious again. “Now, let’s get you out of there before you get yourself into more trouble.”
Jocelyn inspected the bars and tapped her finger to her chin in thought. “This window is a little smaller than I would have liked, but there’s nothing to be done about that now.”
“I already tried the bars. They don’t move.”
Jocelyn shook her head. “Oh, ye of little faith.” From around her neck, she produced a dark vial that had been dangling out of sight beneath her top on a silver chain.
With a quick twist, she opened the vial and then drizzled its viscous dark green contents over the bars. At first, nothing happened, but then a few wisps of white smoke floated up from the bars, followed by a crackling sound.
Kerick watched with curiosity as small cracks began to spider the bars. Sounds of approaching footsteps tore his eyes away from the bars. “We might have company coming. So, whatever you’re doing, you might want to hurry.”
“Don’t rush me.” She said with a smile but then stood up. “Now stand back.”
Kerick complied just as his friend kicked the bars with her sandaled feet. The bars broke into pieces and clattered to the ground, some shattering on impact as if they were made of glass. Before shock could set in, a whistle blew down the hallway and the sound of guards right after. “I think they heard that!”
“You think?” Jocelyn used a rag she had pulled from somewhere on her person and wiped down the area where the bars had been. “What are you waiting for? Come on!”
Kerick eyed the guards coming into view and then climbed up into the window. From behind him, he heard the guards yelling. He got halfway through the window when he heard the jangling of keys. Panic surged up through him when he couldn’t go any further through the window. Had they caught him? He kicked out with his feet, but reason returned to him in a series of racing heartbeats. There wasn’t anyone holding him yet. He was merely stuck. “I need a little help here!”
Jocelyn surveyed the empty alley and then offered her hands. Warning bells started tolling as she gave him a hearty pull. Guards would likely swarm the area at any moment. Despite the firm pull, Kerick remained stuck. She pulled again, and the only change was the cry that Kerick let out. “You should be able to fit through here.” A frown formed on her face and continued to deepen the longer she looked at him. “It’s all those sweets you’ve been eating! I told you to lay off them. But did you listen to me? No!”
Kerick sighed. “Do you think now is the best time to be lecturing me on my eating habits?”
Jocelyn let go of him and put her hands on her hips. “Now is the perfect time. Your gut is going to get you killed.”
The sounds of running guards were all around them, but none had entered the alley yet. Jocelyn planted her foot against the windowsill just as Kerick’s cell door banged open, grabbed him by the wrists and pulled with everything she had. Both she and Kerick cried out in unison. The windowsill and what remained of the bars scrapped his torso as she pulled him through. Jocelyn landed on her backside with a bounce and Kerick went face first into the sandy alley. Whistles blew around them, forcing them both to their feet.
“Thanks,” Kerick said, lifting his tunic to inspect his throbbing midsection. To his horror, it was ringed with red gashes and scrapes that stung at the lightest of touches. He gingerly let his tunic down as Jocelyn brushed herself off.
Through the cell window, the same guard with the silver hoop roared up at Kerick. “Come back here you bastard!” The man’s face burned with rage. Foam and spittle flew from his mouth as he yelled. “You won’t escape me! You hear? We’ll find you, and when we do, you’ll pay for this. Mark my words!”
Kerick looked the man in the eyes. “Thanks for the hospitality.” He might have said more, but Jocelyn threw something through the window that caused the cell to fill with smoke and pulled him away.
Jocelyn and Kerick were chased through the network of alleys and streets. After countless loopbacks and weaving through the crowded street bazaar, they found an alley with aging crates, crates that Kerick began to stack. “Time to go up.” Jocelyn hesitated but climbed at Kerick’s further urging. The crates creaked and splintered as she climbed. As soon as she was on the roof, he followed behind her. Once up top, he lifted the top crate onto the roof so that no one could follow them up. Safe on the roof, they both laid down on their backs to catch their breath. Neither said anything until the sounds of the whistles and yelling guards were out of earshot.
Jocelyn turned her head toward Kerick and blew out a breath. “Well, that was close.”
“You’re telling me.”
Jocelyn sat up, looked around at the barren mudbrick roof and out onto the surrounding town. “We probably should head for the gates even though they’ll likely have someone watching for us.”
Kerick nodded. “They probably have more than just someone. But I agree, getting out of here is paramount. Before we do though, I need to get that stone.”
Jocelyn gave him a look he didn’t quite recognize. It was something between curiosity and concern. “You got caught the last time you tried, or don’t you remember? The mission is compromised, Kerick.”
The sight of the golem coming to life replayed in Kerick’s head. If he abandoned the stone just to keep his skin intact, there would be nothing to stop the Collector should he recover the stone. “I saw it, Jocelyn. The golem. They brought it to life, just for a second. I don’t know if they were just testing it or what, but it came to life.”
Concern showed on her face. “The golem is here?”
He nodded. “Inside the keep.” Jocelyn blew out a long breath but said nothing. “That’s why I need to try, compromised or not. Otherwise, all those stories we were told might actually happen.”
Her head dropped. “You’re right. This is probably the only chance we’re going to get at this.” Kerick saw her frown and sympathized. He didn’t like it any more than she did.
He tried to give a comforting smile. “I’ve got the stone hidden right up there.” Kerick pointed to the top of the keep. “It shouldn’t be that hard to retrieve. All I need to do is scale the building, grab the stone, and get back here. Then we can get the heck out of this place.”
“You make it sound simple.” Her frown was still firm.
Kerick smiled. “Isn’t it?” His portrayed confidence didn’t match how he really felt. Any number of things could go wrong, but he didn’t want to think about that.
Jocelyn tapped her chin in thought. “While you’re doing that, I’ll go scout out our exits and see about doing a little shopping. I have a feeling we might have to fight our way out, and we can’t do that with what we have, not to mention survive out in the desert.”
It made sense to Kerick, as there was no telling what they’d face in making a run for it. He eyed his friend. “Be careful, okay?” He worried that Jocelyn might get caught, but he also knew she was capable. She’d found him and broken him out of prison after all.
“You too. Let’s meet back here when we’re done.”
The two friends embraced each other and went their separate ways hoping for the best.
The daytime made sneaking back into the keep grounds difficult. Kerick felt exposed no matter which way he went, and it unnerved him. He might have been able to wait until dark, but he didn’t want to risk the chance of the Collector finding the stone before he could recover it. The sooner he got the stone, the better. His first couple of tries failed because someone happened to be on the other side. He dared not wait up top of the keep’s walls because he could be easily seen from other guard positions. Three attempts later and with tiring arms, he dropped inside and darted across the open courtyard when the guards weren’t looking.
With no time to waste, he shook out his limbs and took to scaling the main building. It too turned out to be more difficult than he was expecting. The stones in the mudbrick exterior provided him some rudimentary foot and handholds. Their narrowness made his fingers ache. Had it not been for the wooden beams that protruded from every floor, his finger strength might have failed him. The beams were a welcomed respite that allowed him to pause and shake out his hands. The grueling climb tested Kerick, but after what seemed like forever, he made it to the top.
To his relief, even with the desert winds, his pouch remained exactly where he’d left it. “Bless you.” Kerick tied the pouch back onto his belt, all the while hearing his heart in his ears. There was no time to rejoice or relax. He still had to make it down and smuggle it out of the town. The climb down taxed his nerves more than the climb up had. The narrow footholds meant he couldn’t see his next step down and it caused his footing to slip several times.
The view of the town was breathtaking, but he didn’t take time to admire it. He only focused on getting down and hoping his friend made it back safely. Fear of being spotted caused his hands to shake, that and the continued strain on his fingertips. That fear made him move faster than he should have. Near the bottom, he missed his footholds completely and fell hard to the ground below. Painful tingles ran along Kerick’s body as if his limbs had gone to sleep.
He forced down the fear that someone had heard his fall and scurried off toward the wall, thankful nothing had been broken. His heart thumped in his ears as he crested the wall and jumped down onto the other side. He disappeared into the crowd as fast as he could, fleeing would-be pursuers that had yet to materialize except in his imagination.
Back at the rendezvous point, Kerick climbed up onto the roof and froze. The Collector stood before him; arms crossed. Next to him, the burly guard with the silver hoop earring held Jocelyn with a knife pressed to her throat.
The Collector sneered at Kerick. “There you are. I was beginning to wonder if you were going to make it back. Do you have my stone?” When Kerick shifted his footing, the guard applied pressure to Jocelyn’s neck. She whimpered as a trickle of red ran down the knife blade. “Now don’t do anything stupid, thief, or your friend dies.”
“Let her go.”
The Collector unfurled his arms. “I’d love to.” He then pointed at Kerick. “But you have something of mine, something I want back.”
Without making any sudden moves, Kerick reached into his belt pouch and pulled out the smaller one with the stone. Its purplish-red light gleamed in the Collector’s eyes as a crooked smiled formed on his face. “You have it. Excellent. Give it to me, and I’ll let her go.”
Kerick sized the Collector up and thought back to some of the things he’d heard said about him, foremost that he wasn’t a man to be trusted. “Alive and unharmed?”
The Collector chuckled. “Attention to detail. I like that. Fine. She’ll be released alive and unharmed in exchange for the stone. Do we have a deal?”
“Can you guarantee safe passage out of the town for the both of us?”
A look of surprise flashed on the Collector’s face. He stared at Kerick for a long moment, his expression unreadable. “I don’t normally let thieves get away with stealing from me.”
Kerick jiggled the pouch. “Maybe not but I’m sure you can make an exception.”
The man chuckled and shook his head. “Oddly, I find myself liking you. Fine. Hand over the stone, and we’ll have a deal.”
Despite the verbal agreement, Kerick knew the Collector would likely double-cross him, but he didn’t a choice. Jocelyn mouthed to him not to do it, but he couldn’t obey. Sacrificing Jocelyn’s life to keep others safe wasn’t something he could live with. “As a sign of good faith, let her walk to the center.”
The Collector nodded to his guard, who then released her. With a hand covering the cut at her neck, Jocelyn hurried to the center of the roof. “Now the stone.” Kerick weighed the bag in his hand and tossed it over to the Collector. After a quick check of the contents, the Collector showed his crooked smile again. “A pleasure doing business with you, thief. You’re free to leave. But if I ever catch you in my town again, I’ll have your head on my office wall. Are we clear?”
Jocelyn hurried over to join Kerick as the guard, and the Collector climbed down the crates. “Why did you do that?”
Kerick hung his head, shamed faced. “I had to. I couldn’t let you die.”
She placed her unbloodied hand on his cheek and then touched her forehead to his. “I know.” Jocelyn lifted his chin, so she could look him in the eyes. “But it can’t end like this. We have to stop him.”
“And how do we do that?” Kerick asked, his voice sounding downtrodden.
Jocelyn stepped away and went to an oddly shaped burlap sack that Kerick hadn’t seen before that moment. “I went shopping, remember? Unfortunately, they saw me and followed me back here. I’m sorry. This is all my fault.”
Kerick frowned at his friend. “It’s not your fault, and you know it.”
Jocelyn rummaged inside the sack for a second and then pulled out two L-shaped wooden throwing sticks, each with carvings down either side. “These are yours.”
Kerick’s frown deepened. “Those are for hunting birds.”
She tossed them over to him. “Don’t complain. It’s better than nothing.” That’s when she pulled out two knives that didn’t match in shape or color and then placed them on the ground beside her.
“So, you get knives, and I get sticks?”
“My shopping trip. My knives. Get over it.” She looped the bag across her shoulders and then picked up the knives. “If we hurry, we can catch them before they get back to the keep and get the stone back.” Using one of the knives, she cut a strip of cloth off her dress and used it to bandage her neck. She then looped the back across her shoulders and collected the other knife. “Let’s get going.”
The two friends darted through the alleys and streets, avoiding the main thoroughfare as much as possible. The Collector might have guaranteed their safety, but the town guards wouldn’t know that, meaning they were still fugitives. Kerick guided Jocelyn on the most direct path back to the keep until they spotted the Collector with his guard just behind him. There weren’t many more streets between them and the keep so they’d only get one or two chances to pull this off. After a quick huddle, they split up.
Jocelyn crossed the main street, within sight of their targets, and went on to the adjacent alley. Kerick, on the other hand, circled around to the next and pressed himself against the building. A moment later Jocelyn appeared on the other side. Once the Collector and his guard came into view, the two friends rushed them. Jocelyn slammed into the guard, but he didn’t go down as she had imagined. He instead stumbled off balance but quickly regained his footing.
“Sir, we’re under attack!” The guard unsheathed his side sword and pointed it at Jocelyn. The Collector spun around just in time to duck the throwing stick Kerick had launched at his head. Before Kerick could make another throw, the Collector took off running toward the keep.
“After him!” Jocelyn yelled. “I’ll take care of this one. I owe him anyway.”
The guard was twice Jocelyn’s size. Kerick felt certain the guard could flatten Jocelyn if he tried, even with her magic. It caused him to hesitate, but Jocelyn yelled at him again. “Go!” Against his better judgment, Kerick tore after the Collector in a dead run. Halfway to catching up to the Collector, Kerick realized he hadn’t collected the other throwing stick before going after him. He’d only get one chance. Up ahead, the walls of the keep came into view, and the Collector was dead set on reaching it by the way he was running. Kerick couldn’t allow him to get there.
He gave everything he had to speed up and then catapulted the throwing stick at his target. It whirled through the air, and everything seemed to slow, all but his heartbeats. The stick spun and then connected with the Collector’s head. The man crumpled to the ground face first. Kerick slid to a stop next to him and snatched up the pouch that had tumbled to the ground. A cursory inspection of the Collector said he was still alive but would have a nice bump on the back of his head for the next few days. Kerick stood up as two guards positioned at the keep’s entrance came running. “That would be my cue.”
Kerick collected the throwing stick and tore off in the opposite direction. When he found Jocelyn, she was sitting on top of the unconscious guard breathing heavy. She was flexing her hand and shaking it out. A laugh of surprise bubbled up as he came to a stop. “You okay?”
“Of course.” She stood up and collected her knives, all of which were scattered around them. “Did you get the stone?”
Kerick jiggled the black pouch in front of her. “Sure did. But we need to hurry. More guards should be headed our way at any moment.” He returned it to his belt pouch and collected the other throwing stick he had left behind.
“I know just where to go. Come on.”
Jocelyn led Kerick down a series of streets that he knew was the opposite direction of the main gate. His earlier scouting had determined those gates were the only way in and out of the town. “I take it we’re not leaving just yet?”
Her only reply was a finger to her mouth. He could tell by the way she was moving that she had a plan but what, he had no idea. The towering southern wall of the town came into view as a putrid stench mixed with smoke filled the air. Before Kerick could comment on it, Jocelyn pulled him into a building where the smell intensified. The grime covered room was lined with overgrown piles of trash, and the floor was slippery with slimy gunk he couldn’t identify. At the center of the room was a giant firepit with a barrel of pitch beside it. A shovel stood erect in the nearest pile. His hand went to his nose, but he could still smell the place. Jocelyn pulled him into the far corner of the room where the piles of trash hid them from the view of its entrance. “We can hide in here while we change.”
Jocelyn nodded. “They know what we look like. We need to blend in a little better. Then we can see about getting out of here.”
His friend had a good point. “What did you have in mind?” Jocelyn smiled and proceeded to dress him in a brown patchwork merchant robe that looked to be well worn around the edges. When she pulled out a handful of wet clay, Kerick took a step back.
“No. No. None of that.” She said as she pulled him back toward her. With an all too happy laugh, she squished the clumps into his hair and massaged it in, turning his dark brown hair into a pale mud color. Jocelyn seemed pleased with herself as she turned Kerick’s head left and right to inspect it. “That’ll work.”
The clay made it feel like he had a wet blanket on his head. Between that and the trash around him, Kerick felt dirty, a feeling he didn’t like. “Do I get to do that to you too?” His words were followed by a yawn. The lack of sleep was catching up to him.
“Not in a million years.” Jocelyn slipped on a similar type of robe, pulled her hair up into a bun and donned an earth-toned face wrap. “How do I look?”
Jocelyn smacked him on the arm but smiled. “Let’s try those gates, shall we?”
They avoided the rooftops since the Collector would be looking for them there, but the streets weren’t much better. Kerick felt their makeshift disguises wouldn’t be enough to hide their identities, but to his surprise, he was proven wrong. Jocelyn had taken him into the bazaar, past guards who were on the lookout for them. To blend in better, they took it slow and interacted with all the merchants that approached them. Though it took longer than they were comfortable with, they navigated the crowds and strolled up to the building nearest the gate.
Jocelyn bobbed her head in the direction of the gates. Six armed guards were positioned there, only seeming to care about what and who was trying to leave. “Think they’re looking for us?”
“I’d say that’s a safe bet. At least there’s only six.”
Jocelyn shot Kerick a sideways glance. “Are you crazy?”
“What? They’re skinny. I’ve seen you take on that many before.”
“Not dressed like this. Besides, did you forget we only have knives and sticks?” She smacked him on the arm.
They continued to watch as a horse-drawn wagon pulled up to the gate to leave. One of the guards said something to the driver while two more circled around it. They inspected the bottom of the wagon, presumably looking for someone hiding beneath. They then pulled back a sun-bleached tarp that had been covering small wine barrels and sacks of what was likely grains. One even climbed in the back to move things around, just to make sure there weren’t castaways hidden around or beneath anything.
When they finally let the wagon leave, another group behind them stepped up to the gate with both hooded cloaks and face wraps to stave off the desert sands outside. The guards made them remove their hoods and face wraps before letting them leave.
Kerick grunted his displeasure. “They’re a little too thorough.”
“So, I noticed. I don’t think we’re going to be able to sneak through there, even with a distraction or our disguises.”
He let out a sigh knowing his friend’s assessment was right. “Well, that leaves the wall then.”
Feeling they might be noticed for standing there too long, they took their conversation another street over. “You do know that’s guarded too, right?”
“Do you always have to be so negative?” Kerick cracked a grin at his friend.
“Negative? Pfft.” Jocelyn gave him a hard poke in the ribs and then guided him down another side street until they ended up next to the eastern wall. “We’re about to walk by the staircase that leads up to the upper wall. As far as I know, this is the only way up there.”
Kerick did his best to take in the two men with spears that guarded the narrow staircase as they casually passed. At the next street, they turned the corner and pressed themselves against the building. They wore the same off shade maroon leather amour all the other guards wore, but there wasn’t much else remarkable about them. Even their cropped hair seemed to be the same shade of dark brown.
Kerick rubbed his chin. “Two is better than six any day. Any ideas about how many might be up top?”
His friend shook her head. “There’s a least a few up there that I’ve been able to spot from the ground, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more.”
Kerick grunted. “That’s not ideal, but it’s still better than the front gates.”
Jocelyn nodded her agreement. “You ready for this?” She didn’t wait for his answer and started back toward the staircase.
To Kerick’s surprise, Jocelyn walked right up to the first guard and asked for directions. While he tried to help her, the other guard stood mute staring straight ahead. Not knowing what else to do, Kerick brandished a throwing stick and hurled it at the nearest guard.
The man who’d been giving Jocelyn directions crumpled to the ground, and the other fumbled his spear in surprise. Before the startled guard could recover, Kerick’s second stick connected with his face with a crack. The man stumbled back against the wall and slid down.
“Nice throwing,” Jocelyn said while retrieving the sticks.
Kerick gave the area a once over to make sure no one had seen the attack and took the sticks back from his friend. “Thanks.” His friend left him to drag the bodies up into the stairs while she went ahead to scope out the wall-walk. They had expected there to be an increased presence up top, given the number out in the town, but there was only a handful of guards pacing the wall-walk just as Jocelyn had seen earlier.
The two of them hid in the stairwell and waited for the closest guard to pass by. When he did, Jocelyn popped up behind him and knocked him out with the hilt of her knife. The guard’s side sword clattered to the wall-walk making them freeze. To their relief, the remaining two guards continued their patrols in the distance as if nothing had happened. The winds had swallowed the sound of the sword fall.
Still nervous, they dragged the fallen guard down into the staircase with the others. They didn’t know how long the guards would be out, but they knew they needed to move faster. Jocelyn and Kerick hurried over to the nearest section of the parapet, staying down low. She pulled a coiled rope out of the burlap bag and knotted a loop large enough to go around the merlon that jutted up in front of them. Kerick kept an eye on the patrolling guards that still hadn’t noticed them as she fastened it to the sandstone.
When she was done, Jocelyn gave her knot a solid tug and then stepped up onto the flat crenel between the two merlons in front of her. “Time to go.” Not waiting for his reply, she slipped over the edge and down the wall. Kerick gave the guards another glance and then followed quickly behind. With the stone safely in their custody, they fled into the endless sand dunes that surrounded the town and raced to return it to its true owner, far away from the Collector’s grasp.