Thief’s Wager-Out of the Pan….

Chapter Fifteen Part One

Sara wandered between the market stalls, stopping at every glittering item that caught her attention. Gems found in Alexanderian’s mines caught the dazzling sun; reflecting the fractals over her elfish face.

Silks, woven by the Maidens of the Goddess monastery, hung from ornate loops. Their complex geometric patterns were unique to their weavers. The spice stands, with their pots of rich colourful grains made her sneeze and she struggled not to poke the free-standing piles.

Chris wandered behind her, sticking close to Eclipse’s side. The panther didn’t seem concerned with Moira’s absence. But he knew better. His mind tormented him with the image of her bleeding and chained in Bayliss’s basement. Another blonde on the cold metallic slab.

Except this one had a name, friends, and a story. The last part he had every intention to extract. With Moira gone, Eclipse was in charge, and with that responsibility any question regarding Allan was met with distain. He sighed assigning a pair of nickel-plated earrings, tossing them into the pile.

“How did she talk us into this?”

“Never underestimate a woman,” Eclipse muttered; watching Sara moved to another booth.

“Like Moira?”

“She is the worse kind,”

“A pretty one,”

“It saddens me that men like you exist.”

“So, what’s the relation between you and the kid?”

“She is an orphan; Moira tends to collect the downtrodden to heal broken wings. Now we are stuck with her until we can return her to another relative.”

“Do you have anyone in mind?”

“What does it matter to you?”

“Just making conversation. So, is Moira your master or something?”

“My what? You insolent pup!” He swatted at Chris’s stomach, “if anything I am her master!”

“That’s not how I see it.”

“For your information, I promised her father I will train her in the Mage Arts. Once her training is complete, I am to return her home—in one piece I might add so she can—”

“What’s wrong?” The panther froze staring at the mirror where Sara was standing seconds before.

“Sara? Where is Sara?” there was a quiver in his voice. Chris scanned the tables, the pigtails nowhere in sight.

“Eclipse! Help me!”

His growl prickled his skin; dredging a primal fear to the surface. It urged him to act and dread the person who faced it. Chris stepped onto a barrel, gripping the pole of a tent, and surveyed the crowd.

There, a hairy stranger threw Sara over his shoulder and raced through the market. Without hesitation Eclipse darted into the crowd; pointed ears twitching as they located the cries. But the afternoon was prime shopping time, meaning buyers and sellers occupied every inch of space.

He pushed his way through, in a vain attempt to follow, but swimming against the tide was more efficient than that. He got his bearings in an empty alleyway, free from the chatter and shouting, he was able to think. And a dilapidated fence was his answer.

Careful to avoid the rusty nails jutting from the planks, he hoisted himself up and tittered along the top until he reached the near by roof. From atop the crooked surface, he spied the panther chasing the kidnapper.

He raced through the streets as if he was running through a forest, avoiding people, market stalls as if they were trees. The creature was built for speed, but Chris knew the maze of Lollardum like the back of his hand. He followed alongside, leaping over narrow gaps trying to keep pace with his worthy competitor.

His nimble feet raced over the shingled rooftops. Careful not to lose his balance or suffer the burns from the scorching surface. Brick chimneys jutted into the skyline, piping grey smoke into the air.

Weaving around them and ducking under slanted clothes lines, he tried to plot their next move. The streets intersected and over lapped, making it easy to backtrack and lose the pursuer. His arms ached, for the second time that day, he scaled the uneven walls.

His chest tightened as the smell of tar and smoke entered his lungs. Wobbly slate tiles slipped under his feet, causing him to lose his balance more than once. But the kidnapper raced on, entering the narrowest streets, and leaving the market behind. When the thief turned into an abandoned alley, he knew there was only one place he was going to end up.

An arrow whizzed across his nose. His feet retreated a few steps, far enough to notice the archer in the royal livery standing on a shabby wooden platform at the edge of the building. Sweat stained the brown and yellow cloth.

Pulling another arrow from the bottom of his quiver, he primed it along the string. It sped towards him as he ducked; rolling out of the way. Taking cover behind a row of chimneys stretching the length of the building, he spied the soldier poised at his post.

But why was he posted there. He surveyed the area; nothing was worth defending. But there was the gaping hole where the Cathedral once stood. Heaps of rubble and beams piled high in the center of the crumbling towers. The aging stone splattered black from the ashes; the pristine marble now marred by fervor.

Tiles shifted to his left. Crouching, he ducked to the right, and circled the stack until he was behind the archer.

As he crept closer, he caught a whiff of sweat mixed with soot. The lithe archer paused at every corner, his bow taught and his arrow at the ready. Each turn was a possible meeting, a step closer to death.

Chris followed, step by step, the prey hunting the predator. A loose tile caught his attention, he grinned, fate was on his side. Plucking the ceramic piece, he lifted it high above him; smashing it over the soldier’s head.

He grunted and fell forward smashing against the chimney before landing on the roof. As he reached for the man’s purse the tile underneath betrayed him, shuffled out of place, sending Chris rolling backward over the roof.

He was weightless before landing on something hard and lumpy. Clutching his head, he blinked until his vision came into focus. Short planks blocked his view but the huff of an annoyed horse told him he was live.

Baskets of potatoes and gourds jabbed into his back and hips. Flakes of onion skins stuck to his sweaty palms. At his feet were bags of wool gathered in neat bundles. Missed it by that much, he muttered peeling himself from the produce.

“Chris?” Moira appeared at the end of the cart, her braid hanging over her shoulder. “What are you doing in there?”

“Hey Moira, what’s new? Giving a little prayer to the cathedral I see.”

“More like condolences than prayer. Why are you on top of the vegetables?”

“Oh, you know, just making sure the produce isn’t bruised.” He climbed from the baskets and onto his feet. “Hey you look good, less… wrathful.”

“Where’s Eclipse and Sara?”

“Oh, the grumpy cat and the kid, well…” he glanced around the street, trying to get his bearings.

“Chris, where are my companions?”

“Don’t you go worrying your pretty head, we got this under control. It’s fine,” he flashed another award-winning smile before racing towards the alleyway.

“I am far from reassured” she bit back, running beside him.

The cramped alley reeked of garbage and vomit. He brushed past the grimy walls with Moira close behind. She was silent, stepping where he stepped, at times he felt her breath on his neck. A man didn’t need a second shadow, and her approached reminded him of being hunted.

He didn’t know whether she would kill him if they failed to reclaim Sara. And the longer he was close to her staff the more dangerous it became. He remembered the bishop wielding fire from thin air, if Bayliss wasn’t wearing the damn ring the blue blood would’ve burned to a crisp.

The sunshine bounced off the walls at obscure angles, making it difficult to see. Crates and suspended clothes lines created monsters at the corner of his eyes. A growl seeped from the darkness ahead of them. Her thin fingers squeezed his shoulder. A fragment of light glowed at the edge of the passage.

Turning the corner, he spotted the man standing in the small space barely big enough for the group. He brought his finger to his lips, instructing her to remain as he went ahead. But she followed, pressing against him as they crouched behind a stack of crates.

The kidnapper struggled to control the inconsolable child slung over his shoulder. He fought to balance himself against the kicking, rolling, and squirming under his thick arms.

Blocking his escape was Eclipse, a slinky black form in the shadows. His golden eyes caught the pocket of light peering over the slanted roof. Glistening piercing teeth flashed in the sunlight.

The situation teetered, ready to go sideways at any moment. He motioned for her to stay back; he never worked with a Mage before, either it’ll be a fun escape from the usual or go terribly wrong.

“He won’t bite unless he’s told too,” Chris lied, stepping into the cramped courtyard. The kidnapper was trapped. His choice, a sliding range from pain to lethal, was either through Eclipse or Moira. The thief faced him, placing Sara on the ground. When she called for Eclipse, the thief shook her until she stopped. A frown tugged at his lips; the high forehead and dumb expression belonged to someone he went out of his way to avoid; a man Flann hired for the less reputable work. “Alright Artie, return the girl; she isn’t worth it.”

“Are ya nuts? She’s ten gold pieces easy,” Artie wiped the sweat from his oily face with the back of his filthy sleeve. “If ya help me get her to Flann, I’ll split it sixty forty.”

“I know this is just business, and you do owe me the coins, but I’m telling you, you want no part of this.”

“Is the great Chris O’Connell afraid of a witty bitty girl?”

“I’m not a little girl!”

“Shut up!” Artie gave her a shake. Moira’s foot shuffled in the shadows.

 “Nah, nothing like that. It’s just I know for a fact this kid, in particular, has friends in high places.”

“How high?”

“A Mage,”

“Bullshit,” Artie spat on the ground, “they know their place, I ain’t afraid of them.”

“Would I lie to you? Seriously man. Let the girl go and we will both get out of this alive.”

“Nah, no way. You gotta give me some proof before I go n’ do anythin.” As if on cue, Moira emerged from the shadows. Chris grinned as she approached Artie with the imposing majesty he expected from someone as feared as she was. Artie’s eyes glanced at Opal shimmering in the beams of sunshine. “You the Mage?”

“I am, now give her to me.”

He straightened his back making himself look taller, but Moira wasn’t intimidated; she moved forward, eyeing Eclipse who sat patiently for a command. Artie tightened his grip on Sara’s collar, pulling out a small knife with his free hand. Glistening from a thick oily finger was a ring with a vibrant violet stone.

“Take your best shot Mage!”

“You’ll regret this,” she responded, shifting her staff to a battle stance. The scene in the basement flashed before his eyes, the bright light, the screams, and the smell of the antiseptic. She raised her staff over her head, arm’s length from Artie who smiled manically.

“Don’t use magic!” Chris shouted.

But an elfish smirk crossed her face before smashing her staff on Artie’s shoulder; a cracking sound mixed with Artie’s scream echoed off the buildings. He fell to the ground writhing in pain. Sara escaped, crying uncontrollably, and clung to Moira’s waist. She scooped the girl arms and held her tight.

“Effective,” Eclipse remarked as he stepped over Artie’s sniveling form.

“He got what he wanted,” she answered, then turned to Chris, “I hope you two weren’t close.”

“Not anymore,” he mumbled. Any potential business was lost. But there were other thieves to make deals with. Probably ones who paid him back on time.

“I would ask what happened, but I don’t think I want to know,” she motioned to Sara who hung her head. “Thanks for going after her, most people wouldn’t have bothered.”

“I’m not like most people,” he whispered.

“I will determine that.” Eclipse tugged on her cloak, pulling her towards the alley entrance.

“Have dinner with me,” he called after her, “at the cliffs, outside Lollardum.” Eclipse dropped the cloak, unable to find the words to protest. But Moira smiled.

“No.”

“No?” he was taken aback, but not defeated, “I don’t take no for an answer.”

“I know what kind of girls you are used to in a place like this. And I’m not like most people,” she smirked. “Goodbye Chris, it was nice meeting you.”

Revisit Chapter Fourteen: A Meddler and a Mage