Thieves of Estoria
A short story of love and unlawfulness
”Their cruelty betrays them”
As I awoke the sour taste of stale beer reminded me of the miserable fact that I was still amongst the living. Finding myself in a small tavern in the Estorian heartland with my head ringing like the great bell of the Aselkopper Cathedral. I could only hope that the world would come to a stop before I had an embarrassing accident and momentarily pondered the idea that it would have been better had I not woken up at all.
There were no open windows in the room and so I had no sense of what time it was. Regardless, it felt like an ungodly hour. While rubbing the dirt from my eyes, my hands unconsciously sought out the purse on my belt. Though no great fortune, the coin represented substantial wealth relative to the poor farmers that frequented the establishment where I’d found respite. My crowns remained secure.
Too honest, these heartlanders. They wouldn’t last a day in my homeland. Perhaps my perception had just been colored by my own fears. After all, no one is more afraid of being robbed than a thief. I moaned as my body protested against even the slightest movement and felt my rough voice grind against the back of my throat.
A man was arguing with his son by the bar. The owner, judging by his greasy apron and great beer gut, vigorously shook his head.
”I won’t let you do it. Your mother and I need you here son.” He said. If he had told me his name the previous day it must have fallen out of my head during the night. I wiped the drool from my chin and rested my head against my palm, pretending not to be listening in from across the room.
”It’s not your decision father. The Duke has called on me to fight!” The son seemed unnaturally proud of what basically amounted to a standard conscription. The boy had the same beady eyes and red-brown hair as his father but lacked the upturned moustache of the older man.
In fact, hair hadn’t even begun to grow on the boy’s upper lip. He was big though and looked strong, which was probably why he’d been chosen. I guessed he’d barely entered his teens. ”If I can help stop that murderer from taking the throne then I want to do it!”
The old man put his arm around his son’s shoulders. He was trying hard to keep his voice steady. ”I know you do son. But you’re still so young.” He sighed deeply. ”Maybe there won’t be a war.” The old man added the last part wistfully.
It was all rather ironic. I’d gone to Estoria to find peace and quiet, whiling away my days in the comfortable numbness of alcoholinduced apathy. A year later there was a civil war brewing and I was on my way as far from the country as I could get. I was hoping to catch a ship to Alvarre from Ragamunde. The only thing standing in my way was Valdemar’s pass, beyond that I’d be free as a bird. But listening to these two, it sounded like the war was already a lot closer than I would have liked.
I scratched the back of my head and yawned before I rose. The chair creaked as I stood and they turned their heads in my direction.
”Mornin’ sir.” The boy said. Shaking off his father’s arm, suddenly embarrassed in the company of a stranger.
”You sleep well?” His father asked.
I crossed the room on unsteady legs. I admit that I was still a bit drunk and had to lean one hand against the sturdy oak table. ”I think I slept as well as can be expected, considering what I paid for it.” My voice was still coarse but I smiled to show my appreciation.
They gave me a blank look.
”Well, if you’re going to stay any more nights you might want to spend a few coppers for a room instead.” The old man moved behind the bar. ”Unless you’re trying to drink the town dry that is.”
I noticed the boy curiously eyeing my gear while his father spoke. ”Maybe I could start with the water then?” I asked, rubbing my sore throat. ”And see how far I get.”
He smiled and poured me a mug from a barrel underneath the counter. ”So stranger, what do you think about the war?”
I eagerly drained the mug, feeling the lukewarm water restoring some semblance of normality to my voice. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand before answering.
”What I think is that it’s time to get out of Estoria for a while.”
The old man pensively scratched his chin.
”That might prove difficult. The Duke reopened the old castle in the pass and then closed the gates. I’ve heard they’re not letting anyone through.”
I smiled. ”I don’t think it’ll be so impossible to get to the other side. After all, I’m leaving the country, not entering it.”
”You think it’ll be that bad then?” He stole a glance at his son. ”Perhaps…”
”You don’t have a weapon.” The boy interrupted. We looked at him. ”You have all this stuff but no weapon, how come?”
I gave the boy a smile. One that I believed looked kind and patronising in equal measure. ”I find that people are a lot less likely to hurt an unarmed man.”
”But if you get robbed on the road they can just take your money can’t they?”
I laughed, a bit too condescendingly. ”If ’they’ want my money a rusty sword’s not going to stop anyone. Robbers rarely work alone you know, and an armed man looks like he has more to protect.”
The old man laughed nervously. ”Don’t bother the customer son…”
The kid still didn’t seem able to wrap his head around the idea.
”What if someone tries to hurt you then? Or your family?”
”I try my best to avoid people like that. And if I can’t… Then I can always use these.” I knocked my knuckles against each other. ”That way I won’t be burdened with another person’s death on my conscience.”
The boy looked at me with big eyes. ”You’re weird.” He said. ”Weird but clever. Who do you think is going to win the war? The Prince or the Duke?”
”It doesn’t matter. Whatever happens everyone else loses.”
I turned on my heels and left while taking a last look at the old inn. Well, it was called an inn, but it was more of a tavern with a room or two for rent. The meaningless old hunting trophies and empty chairs, the big old tables were scratched by knives, mugs and hands decades old. The whole place whispered to me about times past, both good and bad. I hoped the old man and his wife would be alright without their son. I reminded myself that if I’d ever come through Wyldhofen again I’d take a look. I instinctively tapped the prayer to Callis carved above the door as I stepped out of The Fortunate Hunt. The devotion to the god of travellers was covered in greasy dust that stuck to my fingers.
The light outside was blinding. I quickly covered my eyes against the noon sun as I stumbled out on the dirt road. Perhaps it was the sudden shift in the light or perhaps it was because my head was still throbbing that I failed to notice the approaching danger.
As I rounded the first corner I suddenly found myself faced with a dozen soldiers. They wore thick chainmails under their green tabards and conical metal helmets. Each one had a pike and a sword. These were Duke Ganelon’s men, and they were rounding up conscripts. I turned as slowly as I could manage and started to walk down the road I came from.
”You there!” A rough voice called after me. ”Stop!”
I cursed silently under my breath. If I was going to run, it would have to be now. Then I heard a horse neighing nearby. Since Wyldhofen was surrounded by open fields it would likely only be a matter of moments before they caught me. I turned around and prepared myself to try and talk my way out.
Their commanding officer approached me, a potbellied man with greasy hair and a short nose that reminded me of a snout.
”Who are you? Do you live here?” He demanded. His tone was a clear indication that he was used to being answered immediately.
”No, sir. My name is Felix, I am just a traveller passing through on my way to the pass.”
The officer grunted. He was sweating a little in his thick armor and probably eager to be done with his task, which boded ill for me.
”The pass is closed. Why did you turn just now? You trying to hide something?” My head was still pounding, making it hard to think so I said the first thing I could think of.
”No, I just realised that I forgot to thank my host for his hospitality and the water he gave me.”
It was not entirely a lie yet the officer grimaced like he was sucking on a lemon.
”You’re telling me, that a man dressed in black, with tools and a dozen pockets, who sticks out like a sore thumb is without any evil intent whatsoever?”
I tried my best to look innocent. ”I sweep chimneys for a living, amongst other things. Black covers the soot.” I realised as soon as I said it how weak of a lie it was.
”Do you think I’m an idiot?” The man was starting to turn a color in line with his upturned nose.
”I think that you are precisely as intelligent as you think that I think that you are.” I answered while putting on a straight face and trying my damnedest not to laugh. He blinked twice while trying to figure out if I was mocking him.
”If you would sir, I’d like you to state your own name and what it is that you’re doing here.”
”My name is Sir Galmund Hogvin and I am a knight in service of Duke Ganelon. I am leading this expedition to find conscripts for his army.”
In that moment I had turned the conversation around and suddenly I was the one leading it. ”That sounds like a very important task.” I said, leaning in a little. As if we were old friends, having a pleasant chat.
”Well, of course it is. The army needs recruits after all.”
I nodded while he spoke as if admiring his position.
”Tell me, who is it that the Duke intends to fight?” I asked, knowing full well the answer.
Sir Galmund suddenly puffed up like a blowfish. ”Why that murdering little bastard of a Prince of course!”
”Why didn’t you say so in the first place man!” I smiled and punched him lightly on the shoulder ”I would gladly have signed up to give that little shit what for!”
Galmund seemed both confused and glad at the same time. ”Then…”
”Unfortunately I’m not an Estorian and this really does sound like a fight that should be settled by Estorians. Good day.” I said everything in a single breath and walked away before he could answer, hoping to turn the corner before he realised what I’d just done.
”No, wait. Stop!” Sir Galmund called after me but I just quickened my pace. A step away from the corner I felt a gloved hand grab onto my shoulder. I acted instinctively and grabbed it, spun the arm around and applied pressure. Sir Galmund cried out in pain as I dislocated his shoulder in full view of his soldiers.
”Sorry.” I mumbled. It didn’t matter if he heard me or not. He reached for his sword with his left hand so I let him have a taste of my knuckle, leaving him uncounscious on the ground. The astounded soldiers came after me with their weapons drawn as I ran towards the wall of the building across the street. Fortunately the houses of Wyldhofen are not very tall and built out of thick round logs, three steps up and I could drag myself onto the thatched roof.
I ran along the rooftop and leapt across a narrow street to the next building. If I could take one of those horses I might stand a chance of making a very narrow escape. I made a leap over to a third house. The roof shuddered slightly as I landed, it had probably not been mended for a long time. When I found the horses I drew a weary sigh.
Sir Galmund had been very busy in making the rounds to every village in the area. There were at least twenty more soldiers watching over a hundred or more recruits. And the horses?
They were attached to the heavy metal wagon that held the more ’obstinate’ recruits. They way things were looking that was where I’d end up. If I even survived, I thought as an arrow whistled by over my head. Either their warning shots were unnervingly accurate or Sir Galmund’s men were actually trying to kill me. I threw myself down onto the roof while the soldiers began to shout out warnings to each other. If they surrounded me all hope would be gone. I was about to stand when the old roof suddenly gave way and my foot went through. Before I could pull it loose a mounted soldier came riding up thrusting his twelve foot lance at me. I just barely avoided the sharp metal tip and yanked the extended weapon out of his hand. I returned the favor by knocking him in the back of the head with the shaft. Stealing his horse was immediately out of the question as more soldiers poured into the street.
A sudden idea came to me. After freeing my foot I ran across the ridge with the lance still in my hands, using my momentum I pointed the weapon down and used it as a vaulting pole to cross the street. I landed across the ridge of the next roof and slid down the eave on my back. I tucked in my legs as I hit the ground on the empty street. With a quick roll I was back on my feet. I paused and caught my breath, looking for a place to hide. That was when I realised I’d just travelled in a circle around the village and was back at the inn. I spotted an open window on the second floor and with voices closing in around the corner I ran up the wall of the building opposite and launched off of it just before I was about to fall. Twisting myself around in the air I managed to catch the window frame and pull myself inside.
The inside was quiet as I silently crawled into the room and closed the window behind me.
”Who’s there?” A woman asked.
I froze. The room was dark and my eyes had not completely adjusted yet. I saw her move in the bed right next to me. As soon as I saw her face I realised why she was asking. The woman was blind. Her eyes, though completely open, were completely glossed over like her irises were missing.
”Meow-” I said, making my best imitation of a cat and lightly tapped across the floor.
”Nice try.” She said. ”But cats don’t usually smell quite as ripe.”
I cursed under my breath. My run-in with Sir Galmund had forced me to miss my chance at a beggar’s bath in the public well. ”I’m just someone trying to avoid being conscripted into a war that has nothing to do with me.”
She turned her head in my direction. ”Is that the dialect of Aselkopper I hear?” She smiled. ”Not many from Fogtown here.”
I returned her smile. ”Era do Asel.” I whispered. ’The river says hello’, an old greeting among people from Aselkopper, one of the free cities to the south, my home.
”Era do Asel.” She said. ”The blinding sickness might have taken my eyes but not my ears. Speaking of…” There was a noise as someone walked up the stairs. I laid flat against the floor and rolled under her bed. Moments later the door creaked open.
”Mother, you won’t believe what happened.” I watched a pair of legs walk up to the bed. I recognised the voice as the boy from downstairs. ”You know that stranger who slept downstairs in the common room? He beat up the Duke’s men.” It was hard to know if it was awe or just excitement in the boy’s voice.
”Oh, really?” She said in a cooing voice. I hoped she wouldn’t give me away. ”Why’d he do that?”
”Sir Galmund tried to conscript him and he broke the knight’s arm. He is downstairs right now drinking while his men are looking for the stranger.”
I grimaced under the bed. This was getting too complicated.
”What are they going to do when they catch this man?” The woman sounded concerned.
The boy sat down on the bed. ”He said that if they didn’t find the man in an hour they would start burning down houses. The soldiers are tearing the village apart right now looking. Actually, I’m supposed to be helping, since I’m going to be a soldier.” The boy stood back up. ”I have to go mother. I don’t know if Sir Galmund will kill the stranger but… If he isn’t found we’ll be the ones paying the price.”
As soon as the door closed I rolled back out and stood. She was turned in my direction, waiting to hear what I’d say.
”Thank you.” I whispered. ”I know what I have to do.” I opened the wooden boards that covered the window.
She smiled as she stared off into space. ”Good luck, man of Aselkopper.” She muttered as I slipped out of the window. I hit the ground without making a noise and walked around the corner and stepped into the inn through the front door.
For the second time in a row I woke up wishing that I was dead. My entire body felt like it was covered in bruises and I could taste the copper tang of dried blood on my face. My right eye would barely open because of the massive black eye but I knew where I was. Every time there was a bump in the road the back of my head bounced against the thick metal bars. I was locked in a metal cage like an animal.
I spat out a gob of blood. It landed on my shirt and settled there. My vest was gone and all the things it held, they had even taken my belt and purse. But I still had my hidden purse strapped to my chest underneath my clothes.
”Hello little brother.” A gruff voice spoke to me. ”You finally woke up.” Across from me there was a big bearded man. He looked a lot like a bull and had the neck of one too. He was grinning broadly. ”It’s been lonely in here. No one to talk to.”
”How long?” I asked, spitting out another gob of blood. This one hit the straw covering the wooden boards we sat on.
”Since they put you in here?” I could see him scratch his hairy chin while he thought. ”About three days I’d imagine.” I sat up despite the pain that coursed through my body when I moved. Mercifully, all of my limbs were intact thanks to the innkeeper. He had spoken up when Sir Galmund had grown weary of beating me and decided that to cut my arm off would be an appropriate end to the punishment. Before I lost consciousness the man had stuck a paper and quill in my hand and told me to sign it.
If I ever went back to Wyldhofen I was determined to buy him the whole damned town and name him mayor. But first I’d have to get out of my current situation.
”Three days… Then we are almost at Grimwold.” I should probably have figured it out from the stony mountain path that we were on and the incline of the road, but I was too exhausted to turn my head. I could hear the hundreds of feet and hooves well enough and the clanking of armor and the creaking of this wagon and others, laden with supplies and weapons.
”From what I understand it’s just around the next bend.” The man said and reached out his hand. ”My name is Albert.”
As he moved closer I could take in his face for the first time. He was clearly a Hedmarkan. His bald head was covered in the traditional swirling blue patterns that the men and women of Hedmark marked themselves with.
”Felix.” I said and took his hand. His knuckles were bruised but the hand was warm and firm. I guessed that he was a spearfisher.
“So, brother Felix, you made quite a showing of yourself back there.” He sat back down and winked. ”I guess you are about as eager to go to war as I am.”
”I think you’re right.” I said, returning his smile. I had never visited Hedmark but I had heard that they were without a doubt the friendliest people in Estoria. By the time the wagon train rolled into sight of the fortress I already knew half of Albert’s life’s story. He was indeed a spearfisher from Hedmark who had beaten half a dozen men to avoid being conscripted. When Sir Galmund had threatened his wife and children Albert had surrendered and ended up in the wagon.
Castle Grimwold was not a pretty fortress. Wall upon wall of grey stone blocked the narrow pass. One from the northern entrance and three from the south protected the mighty keep. It was clear that the fortress had been built to keep out invaders from the south. When I saw the banners fluttering over the ramparts I was suddenly filled with dread. One I guessed was Duke Ganelon’s standard because of the green color, but the other one, the other one was the white spear. The blue standard swayed in the wind as if mocking me, taunting me. I felt like a rat caught in a trap as the wagon rolled in through the open gatehouse.