I made a promise that I’d put up the opening to this story. It will be a novella or a standalone novel one day, a couple of years from now. I wrote the opening as a project for my Creative Writing class, and turned out pretty happy with it. Let me know what you think!
(Be warned: This is a rough draft.)
“Who won last night?” Vashfored asked, lighting his pipe with a burning sliver from the fireplace. His tone said he already knew.
Marden puffed on his own pipe, sitting back in his chair as Vashfored tossed the sliver into the low-burning fire. “Tomad won. He won half the games we played. But he still tried to deny that he’d brought his Shoe! The old goat-kisser!”
Vashfored joined Marden in his laughter. “I guess you win, then,” he sighed, loosening the string of his coinpurse. “You always seem to know who will win.” Despite his words, his mustaches twitched at a smile while he handed Marden the handful of coins they’d agreed upon.
“On the days I don’t win myself, mind you,” Marden said with a nod. In a practiced motion, he slipped the coins into his own pouch.
“There is that,” said Vashfored.
For a moment, Marden enjoyed both the warmth of the crackling fire and the cool of the springtime breeze blowing in from the unshuttered window; the evening was one in which he could appreciate both. He’d sat on softer cushions than the worn bottom of the chair, but after hours on his feet, just about any chair was welcome. The fire cast back the purple shadow in a show of yellow and orange, dancing most brightly on the open iron grille of the fireplace. The mortared stone floor and the rugs that covered it—rugs that might have looked too fine for the serving quarters were they not worn almost to rags.
Marden took a long, slow pull of his pipe, full of contentment as quiet and still as the low hum of crickets out in the night and the slow curl of smoke in the air. He remembered the look on Tomad’s face as he continued to win roll after roll. Surprise had grown to incredulity, and finally to anxiousness. He’d sworn that he hadn’t brought his Horseshoe before anyone else could accuse him, even though everyone at the table knew he had one.
No one had believed Tomad had just happened to win so often, by such a wide margin. But the man had escaped buying everyone at the table a round—the agreed-upon fee for bringing a Shoe to the table. Nine out of ten times, every man and woman bought their own drinks. But one time in ten, often when someone was on hard times, they would win the night, and buy the drinks. No hard feelings from anyone; no one brought more than they were prepared to lose.
No, no one had believed Tomad’s declarations of innocence. They’d said as much in good natured jibes. No one had believed him. But Marden had.
Vashfored took one last draw from his pipe. Then, with another of his great sighs, he snuffed it out.
“That time, eh?” Marden asked. He made a show of enjoying his pipe as Vashfored stood.
“That time,” Vashfored nodded. “Same hour tomorrow, Marden.” He patted Marden on the back, then walked through the doorway, leaving Marden alone in the light of the fire.
“Same hour tomorrow,” Marden said, chuckling. His hand moved to the pouch at his chest, double-stitched for strength and support. His fingers traced the shape beneath, the graceful curve of his Shoe.
Luck wasn’t always what it seemed. Anyone with sense knew that. Winning at dice was all well and good, but winning every roll was suicide. It was best to win just a bit more than you lost, to lose four small bets and win one large. That’s what he had thought when he was in his twentieth summer. But even then, you often bought the drinks.
No, it was better to lose a small bit more than you won. To make a wager on who would win that night’s games—a wager worth more than you’d lost—and win that bet instead. Keep enough gambits with enough men, and you could always walk away the victor in the end, without anyone ever raising an eyebrow.
Not to mention, playing that way let you keep the Shoe on you at all times.
Before the fire had burned much lower, it was his time to return to duty. After snuffing his pipe and placing it safely back in a hip pocket of his coat, Marden stood, stretching his back. He closed the grille to the fireplace—though the next few men would be along shortly—and stepped out of the room.
The halls were lit by wall-hung lanterns whose glass was lined in thin, colored paper. Pastel pink ad green and pristine white flickered along the halls. Here and there were simple travel lanterns, where the old ones had broken and could not be replaced, in the same way that the new tapestries hung on the walls were not nearly as intricate or brightly-colored as the old had been.
Ten years ago, the man in Marden’s position would never have been set on night patrol. But ten years ago, their house had been large and prestigious, rich with trade, powerful both politically and militarily. All that was left of what had once been the great strength of the house was the three dozen Horseshoes that they had not yet been forced to sell.
Marden scratched his nose; the cool of the night encouraged those in the manor to use the last of the wood they’d kept back for winter, and the castle air was thick with the smell of it. He’d always loved the smell of a burning hearth. It reminded him of nights on the rugs by his parents’ feet, playing with the toys his father had brought home from abroad. There had been a special warmth to those nights, when his father was home after weeks away, only equaled by the cold of the nights when he again had to leave.
A man must do his duty. His father had taught him that through action. A man must do his duty–even if that meant taking the shift in the dead hours of morning and walking until his back ached and his feet throbbed. Marden only wished he’d have time for a nap before joining Lady Rytria in the audience chamber. Compared to advising the young head of house, the patrol took little effort. He knew every corner of this manor like he knew the shape of the Shoe above his breast.
The design of the typical manor had the audience chamber buried deep in the bowels of the building, with the Shoes in a vault behind the high seat of the house. This design allowed the Shoes to remain secure while still allowing the luck to affect the meetings that mattered. Sure enough, their own manor still had the vault behind the audience chamber.
What the other houses couldn’t guess, however, was that the vault behind their own audience chamber had been empty for five years.
Marden stopped short. Smoke rolled along the ceiling. The smell. Of course! Cursing himself for a fool, Marden took off at a run.
The smoke thickened as he neared the guest wing, until he had to hunch under it to breathe. He held his arm in front of his face, hoping the fabric would keep some of the smoke out of his chest. He still tasted it with each breath. Acrid, stinging. Not the sweet scent of woodsmoke. This might have started as a hearthfire, but it had long since grown out of control.
Marden’s eyes stung with the grit of the black veil of smoke, as he pushed closer to the source. Even bent close to the floor as he was, the smoke blinded him. He could feel the heat of the fire. Squinting until his lashes made a screen over his eyes, he let the growing heat guide him closer.
“Anyone in there?” a voice called somewhere ahead. “Call out if you can hear me!”
Marden recognized the voice. “Vashfored?”
A hacking cough. “Marden! Shoe’s luck you’re here!”
Marden followed Vashfored’s voice, one hand outstretched to keep him from stumbling face-first into the fire. Heat grew until sweat sprouted on Marden’s forehead, dripped down his brow. His hand scraped along the wall, found empty air, and then the fabric of his friend’s tunic. Even this close, Vashfored was a vague silhouette in the smoke.
The silhouette gave a movement that might have been a nod or a shake; Marden couldn’t tell. “As far as I can tell, this part of the wing was empty. Nobody’s answered my calls, so I hope that’s true. I’ve sent pages for more men and water.”
“Should we rouse the Lady?”
Vashfored coughed again, into his tunic. “We’ve caught it in time. It seems confined to one room. Though we’ll lose the room, likely.” The last of his words were lost to another fit of coughing. Wordlessly, Marden pulled at Vashfored’s arm, leading him out of the thickest of the smoke.
The heat of a furnace slowly faded, until Marden could see his friend. Soot and smoke streaked and dusted Vashfored. The man continued to hack.
“You’ve breathed in smoke,” Marden said. Vashfored waved it away.
“What I don’t understand…” he said in between coughs, “is how a fire started in an empty room, in a nearly-empty wing, with no one around.”
Marden’s eyes widened. He felt his grip tighten on Vashfored’s arm. “Are you sure?”
Vashfored nodded slowly. “Do you think–”
“Do you have this under control?” Marden waved vaguely at the smoke still creeping outward.
Vashfored hesitated, then gave a nod. “I have it under control.”
“Don’t run back in there,” Marden growled. “You’ve breathed too much smoke already. Just give orders from out here.”
“I know what I’m doing,” Vashfored said flatly. “Now go! Once the fire’s done, I’ll be sure to head that way.”
Marden nodded grimly, hoping they were wrong. “Be careful, Vash.”
“You too, Mar. Hurry!”
Bent low to keep clear of the smoke, Marden took a deep breath of relatively clear air, and ran.
The vault behind the audience chamber was empty. Years ago, they’d been forced to sell most of the Shoes that had filled the vault. Lady Rytria had wanted to move what few Horseshoes remained from a display into the vault. But Marden had advised against it. When you’re weak, the last thing that you should do is announce to your enemies that you’re weak. When you’re weak, you have to project strength. Marden had suggested that they instead not only keep the display as it was–a dozen of the best Shoes, polished and set on stands behind glass–but add in a secret compartment the other two dozen that they owned. Hiding them in plain sight.
For years, the strategy had worked. When Rytria held meetings in the audience chamber, the other party assumed that they were at the disadvantage, within range of the Shoes. But Rytria held the truly vital meetings informally, walking the halls with the guests. She often walked past the display case–a show of power obvious enough that the guests must sneer inwardly. They couldn’t know that it was in those moments of conceit and surety that they were feet away from the entirety of the house’s Shoes, and well within their influence.
He’d thought that they couldn’t know, anyway. Someone, somehow, must have figured it out.
Marden drew up short before he reached the display. Quietly, he drew his belt knife, and started forward more slowly.
How many men would there be? Two or three, at least. Marden didn’t know which house had done this, had taken a step closer to open conflict, but whoever it was would have come prepared. It would be half an hour before Vashfored would be able to send men this way, after the fire was out, and by then, the thieves would have gotten away. It was up to Marden to stop them.
If there were only two, and if he was early enough, he could take them. If there were three or more, if he couldn’t catch them by surprise… Silently, Marden turned the corner.
Moonlight poured in from the window in the large antechamber, casting everything in shades of silver and inky purple. The glass of the display leaned drunkenly on the floor against the mahogany base. The Shoes that had sat behind the glass were gone, leaving skeletal stands like tree limbs in winter. The false bottom in the side was opened. A single, slender, cloaked form wrapped a Shoe in a cloth–to quiet it should it strike the others as the thief fled, Marden was sure–and bent to slip it into a burlap sack.
One form. The shadows spilled on the floor by the light of the almost-full moon weren’t enough to hide any accomplices. Perhaps the only accomplice was the one who set the fire. Or perhaps, this thief had been foolish enough to come alone. Marden grinned darkly. Either way, he might be able to take this thief alive. Hours in the city’s dungeons, and the threat of the hangman’s noose, would convince him to reveal who he was working for.
The thief slung the bag over his shoulder, three dozen Horseshoes making smothered, barely-audible clunks at the movement. The air thickened to jelly and then just as quickly returned to normal. Something in Marden’s stomach churned. He had to stop this!
He took a careful step–and the floor creaked loudly under his boot.
With a curse, Marden pushed himself out of his crouch and into a sprint, but the thief was already moving. Marden stretched back his arm and threw without stopping his pursuit. The knife glinted in the air, and struck the bag hilt-first, falling dully to the floor. The thief darted around the corner, and, leaving the knife where it had fallen, Marden followed.
The thief darted through empty halls and vacant corridors, many of which had hardly seen more than a dusting in the last few years. Marden huffed as he tried to keep up. Whoever this was, he was not some fool who had decided to take up burglary on a whim.
They raced through an open door into empty servants’ rooms. The thief knocked over a chair as he passed, and Marden stumbled over it, losing precious seconds. By the time he followed into a back bedroom, the thief had already climbed through the window and was out of sight. Panting, and kicking his leg free of the ache the chair leg had left, Marden jumped out the window after the thief.
Clouds hid the moon as Marden stood, covering the yard between the manor and the outer walls in shadow. Marden’s eyes strained, but he could barely see more than the most vague of shadows. His ears strained, but he couldn’t hear anything but his own puffing breaths. He was a fool for leaping out blindly. He was lucky the thief hadn’t knocked him over the head the second he’d poked it through. Regardless, the thief was out here somewhere.
No. Not somewhere. He couldn’t look blindly and hope to see the thief in the shadows. Particularly while the thief had almost forty Shoes to help him. Marden had to think!
The thief had been clever so far. He wouldn’t run blindly for the wall now and hope he could get away. He’d assume that Marden would expect that. Instead…
Marden spun, his eyes tracing the walls of the Manor, piercing as deep into the shadows as he could. For a long moment, he saw nothing. Slowly, his eyes adjusted, and a shape huddling in the deepest nighttime blackness drew his eye. The thief had moved a good bit along the wall, unnoticed. Had Marden continued to look blindly, he might have slipped away in the darkness.
The clouds drifted out from in front of the moon, and the world brightened. That quickly, the thief took off toward the wall, and the chase was back on.
The thief threw the sack over the shoulder-high wall and climbed over in a fluid motion. Marden groaned as he plled himself over. He wasn’t as young as he once had been. But thankfully, he didn’t lose more than a couple of seconds. He pursued the thief through the city streets.
In the early morning, the streets were almost empty. The thief stuck to darkened alleyways far from guard patrol, and Marden couldn’t divert to call them without risk of losing the thief. And he doubted that he’d happen upon a guard by chance. If the thief was going to be stopped, Marden would have to be the one to do it.
Dodging a makeshift beggar tent in the corner of the alley and following the thief around a bend, Marden silently wished that he was a handful of years younger and a few holiday meals lighter. His chest already screamed for more air, and his sides felt the familiar stitch of being pushed too far. He pressed harder, hoping he could bring this to a close before his body gave out.
Marden burst out of the alley after the thief, onto a main road. He stumbled briefly on deep ruts in the mud where carts had passed after yesterday’s rain, while the thief passed over them seemingly without thought. With another growled curse, Marden pushed on, following the thief around the side of an inn, past the serving door and stables.
A cart sat in the back, its bed stacked so high with casks of rum that they were tied down, its horse tethered but still hitched. The thief ran past the cart, dodging the horse, who snorted and kicked out. Marden haesitated. With the luck that he’d had tonight, he’d get kicked if he went anywhere near the horse. Shaking his head, he ran around the other side, behind the cart.
The horse squealed, and tried to rear, but the tether held it in place. The cart jostled with the horse’s struggles, rattled, groaned. The rope snapped.
Marden turned to see the barels start to roll off the back. His grandfather had once described a moment when he’d stumbled in the midst of a battle, just as the enemy attacked. Marden had never really understood what the man had meant. But as the barrels slid down off the cart and toward him, marden understood. Time ran thick like tree sap in winter. He could see the rust on the iron bands, could see the scuffing of the wood where the journey had been hard on them. One of them had a small leak, the bronze liquid dripping out behind the falling barrel. He turned to run.
A barrel slammed into his shoulder with a loud pop. Before he could cry out, the impact knocked him forward, face-first. The brick wall of a nearby building leapt forward to meet him, and the world dissolved in white sparks.
Marden sucked in a pained breath. His eyes rolled open, but the world was made of indestinct smudges. After a moment, his vision started to clear, and he realized that someone stood over him. He groaned weakly.
“I’m sorry,” the form said, the voice low and soft and female. For a moment, he could almost see a face. Then the form receded.
The thief. A woman. Marden managed another pained breath, and tried to turn over. One of his arms hung limp, useless. Clenching his teeth, he willed it to move. Agony shot down to his fingers and up his neck. Moaning in pain, he used his good arm to turn over. His hand found the wall, and he pushed himself to his knees, to his feet. His stomach rolled, threatened to rise. He blinked new stars out of his eyes, and turned to see the retreating form turn a corner.
The thief. He had to–
He took a step, and his world spun. Darkness swept over him in a wave.
* * *
Sometime later, Marden downed what was left of his glass of rum, thanked the innkeeper and the marchant, and let the innkeeper’s tough help him outside.
The merchant had been angry at first to lose three casks of rum, but he’d been understanding enough once Marden explained the situation, and that the casks would be paid for. This was after they’d helped him inside, bandaged his head. After the tough had helped to put his arm back in. Kind men, all.
As he left the inn, the noonday sun glaring at him with unnatural brightness, his hand again found the Shoe at his chest. Slowly, he pulled it free of the pouch, to feel its shape directly. Without the Shoe, he’d likely be more than half-dead under the barrels. Blinking in the sunlight, he started toward the manor.
He’d never been on the wrong side of that many Horseshoes at once. He despised the bumbling helplessness of it. The rope snapping had been something else, something more. He was lucky to be alive.
Marden held in a growl. Lucky to be alive! He’d been made a fool of, and failed to protect the only thing that mattered to him. How far had he fallen, to consider only suffering a crippling defeat to be lucky!
He took a breath, let it out. Luck wasn’t always what it seemed. It was a platitude. He hated platitudes. Any fool could choose between suffering defeat and earning victory. But what if that victory crippled? What if that defeat opened the path to ultimate triumph? A platitude. But he let it comfort him.
His finger traced a small nick on the corner of the Shoe, one of the few deformations to the sleek curve. His grandfather had told him the story so many times. In a battle in defense of the kingdom. Face to face with a skilled enemy soldier. Blades locked in battle. It was an even fight, one either man could have won.
But then his grandfather had stumbled, his foot catching an upturned stone. Time had slowed. The enemy had sneered, and struck. The slip should have killed him. But the Shoe, shifted in its pouch from the force of his stumble, had caught the enemy sword, turned it away. His grandfather had barely been grazed where he sould have been run through, and had dispatched the enemy a moment later. The stumble should have cost him his life, but had instead saved it.
Yes, it was a platitude. But there was a seed of truth in it.
Slipping the Shoe back into its pouch, Marden touched the makeshift bandage to make certain that it was not seeping through, as he walked past the guards and onto the manor grounds. Dread swelled in his chest at the thought of Rytria’s expression. But a man had to do his duty. Even if that meant telling his Lady that he had failed to stop the thief, and that his failure left the house defenseless.