The Thief King



Available on Amazon
Paperback out Christmas 2016
Cover art Chris Taggart


Back Cover Copy:

The Line of Kings has passed...but it is not forgotten.
The last King of Sturma charges his friend, the thief Roskel Farinder, to become protector of the realm. Roskel is the last man who should be trusted with anything. But he has a quest to complete, and there is honour among thieves.
On his quest Roskel will learn not just what it means to be a thief, but what it takes to be a man...
What it takes to become The Thief King.


Sample:



Prologue

Roskel Farinder tried to get the louse in his moustache between his teeth. His beard was long enough, but the mite was just out of reach. He longed to scratch his face, or even better, shave the growth off with some hot water and lather. Better still, have a fine barber do it.
            He allowed himself one of his many fantasies. Sitting in a chair with his head tilted back, propped upon a soft head rest. His hair freshly washed and cut, his body bathed and scrubbed and sweated in a spa. The soothing sound of the barber’s blade stropping. Not so long ago he’d been able to afford the finest barbers in Naeth, the capital city of Sturma. He’d been an important man, for a time. Before that he’d been a bandit, before that a thief of no little renown.
            Unfortunately, the name he’d made for himself back then had gotten him into trouble now. The only blade he’d ever used, the one between his legs, had got him into hot water more times than he could count. If only he used his head instead of his…well…he’d certainly learned his lesson this time. No more dalliances with powerful lord’s wives. He’d even steer clear of their mistresses…oh, but that soft, pale flesh…the sweet smell…his mind wandered again. He allowed it free reign. He had done since his incarceration. It kept him sane. A man had to have dreams. A prisoner had even greater need of them.
            A man could go insane, chained in a dank dungeon, unable to scratch his own beard, unable to urinate except when the guard came and brought the bucket. It was a matter of learning control, or sleeping in your own soil.
            Roskel was a fast study. He still had some shred of dignity, even in this dark corner of the world.
            Ulbridge town. Twice damned. His bane.
            Why, oh why, had he ever thought to return? He had the whole of Sturma. A kingdom he had once run. And he’d left it all behind on a fool’s quest.
            Now he was that fool.
            The thief turned his mind once again to the matter of getting free. He had worried over the problem for the last three months. He had to get free. Too much rested on his success. And yet he could hope for no aid, for nobody knew where he was. It had been a necessity at the time. Now he wished he’d taken a companion with him. His only hope, he knew, was that someone else would break him out. A witch, perhaps, who could transform him into a stealthy cat. Then he could squeeze through the bars and creep past the guards, out into the fresh air and the cool night.
            To see the stars...he sighed.
            To stalk the rooftops once more…happen upon a lady, by chance, lonesome while her husband was away on business…perhaps a merchant’s wife…no. He shook his head - the little movement he could manage. No more lonely wives. He had learned his lesson. He had.
            He chaffed from the constant irritation of the iron shackles that bound his arms to each side. He had learned to tense and ease his muscles periodically, but when he slipped into his uneasy sleep his arms lost all feeling. Every time he woke his arms screamed as the blood rushed back where it belonged.
            In truth, the life of a prisoner was a sorry one. He tried to be thankful for his small mercies…a more inventive captor might have cut of his offending article, or had him hung…but his captor knew who he was. A public humiliation would not work. The Council would hear of it and his captor would be hung himself.
            But for all his past glories and power, it availed Roskel little. He could not imagine a more useless past in such a situation. He might be a thief but he sorely wished for some modicum of magical talent like wizards of old tales.
            The first of Rythe's two suns was rising outside. He couldn’t see it, but the first birdsong of the day drifted to him through the crack in the wall. Cracks through which blew a sadistic autumn wind.
            Be thankful for the small mercies, he chided himself. At least it carried his own stench away on the windier days.
            No breakfast was forthcoming.
            He allowed his mind to drift. Like the fool he was, he went over his mistakes in his head, as he did a thousand times each day.
            If he had just forgotten all about the crown. If he had just left and become a thief again…
            Not for the first time, his mind turned to thoughts of death. Would it be a relief? In truth, his dreams sustained him, but more and more he wondered if it wouldn’t just be better to be allowed to die.
            His eyes misted for a moment. If he hadn’t listened to Tarn, he wouldn’t be here. But then who could deny a dying man’s wish?
            And the last king, at that.

*



Part I.
Hearth and Home


Chapter One

The King had been dead a year. Many people no longer recalled when there had been a king.
            Tarn, the dead king, had ensured that none should take the crown with his dying wish. Roskel Farinder cursed his friend for his wishes and his last and only edict. It meant he was stuck in the throne room, wrangling with a man he hated, yet shackled by duty.
            That man was the Thane of Kar. He argued with the Thane of Mardon across the great table that Roskel had ordered built in the throne room.
            Wexel, one of the three joint Stewards of the Crown, caught Roskel's eye across the crowded room and rolled his eyes. The childish move from the large man made him smile. Like him, Wexel was not born to the business of running a country. While Roskel Farinder was a born thief, Wexel was a born warrior, more at home wielding his great sword than the quill he was so often forced to wield these days.
            Roskel allowed the argument to fade into the background and let his eyes drift around the room. The adornments of battles past, some not so long ago, hung from the walls. Tapestries he had ordered, after the fashion of the south, covered the spaces in between. He was not so ensconced in his position that he could flout centuries of tradition and hide the castle’s history away, but he could at least bring some beauty to a room that remembered only death. It had been his hope that this room could in future be a place of contemplation, that the tapestries would show the fate of the last warrior king and perhaps shed some light on the follies of violence. He feared these men at the table only saw glory in the death.
            Maces and great swords, chainmail hung on carved figures, shields emblazoned with the boar’s crest of the kings, the great axe of the barbarian king the Red Slayer, scourge of the Draymar, a strangely hafted spear, the haft fashioned from some black wood unknown to any he had asked, runic symbols carved. In alcoves stood statues of past kings, each wearing their armour of state. War, reminders of war, the illusion of glamour and honour fought for and won in battle. The warrior kings were respected.
            But what had it availed any of them? Roskel had studied the Sturman Archives, housed in Naeth Castle's great library, beneath the throne room. Only three of the kings of the past had died peacefully, in a written history of the kings that was over a thousand years old. Would that he could change the habit of a lifetime. What was the life expectancy of a Steward of the Crown? Here he sat at the head of the state table, arguing lords surrounding him, some holding barely concealed malice for others of power who disagreed with them.
            The Thane of Kar would have his head were it not for open support for the new regime from the Thane of Spar. Without Redalane, the Thane of Spar, the council of Thanes would have already descended into open warfare. He was the Stewards of the Crown’s greatest ally. Grievously wounded in the battle to wrest the country from the machinations of the Thane of Naeth (a position as yet unfilled) he had been instrumental in bringing the country back from the brink of civil war to some semblance of normality and a thin sense of sanity.
            The Thane of Spar was, Roskel thought, one of the strongest men he had ever known. Redalane had endured years under the yoke under Hurth, the deposed Thane of Naeth. His son had been held captive for many years, until Tarn, Roskel’s friend and the author of Roskel's current misfortune, had rescued the boy and executed Hurth.
            It should have been a time of rejoicing. Tarn, rightful heir to the throne of Sturma, had returned. But he had died shortly afterwards from a poison of the body. A sad day. Once more, the futility of violence demonstrated in death.
            ‘Roskel? Roskel? What say you?’
            ‘What?’ said Roskel. He turned his attention back to the affairs of state, if only until he could cry off and sneak into the city for some much needed ribaldry and loving among the seedier courtesans.
            ‘Kar. Should the western legions be brought under the rule of Kar?’
            ‘I say no. Kar has more than enough men at arms to hold the northern pass, should the Draymar arise from their slumber. The western legion stands ready to march on a moment's notice and could be in place in no more than four days time, cavalry in half that if riding hard. No. There is no need.’
            ‘Then the Stewards are united, the Council of Thanes is split. Precedent is clear,’ said Durmont, who had taken to running the Castle since the last Councillor, Merelith, an alien being who had twisted Hurth’s ambition for its own unfathomable means, had been killed. ‘In the event that the council of Thanes is split, the Stewards vote decides, and the Stewards stand united against the proposal. I have Steward Rohir’s declaration before me,’ he showed the scroll to the council. Let there be no dissent from this day forward.’
            Muttering from the northern lords, Roskel’s bane, were silenced by Durmont’s rapping of the gavel.
            ‘The Council of Ten is adjourned for the next two months. The festival of Telling begins in three days time. The lords' suggestions have been passed. From this year forth, minor crimes may be pardoned at the lords' discretion. I declare this meeting over. Gentlemen, until next we meet.’
            Durmont was a true godsend. It was he who had reasoned out this new method of mutual governance, and so far it was working.
            Roskel rose, turning to glance at the empty throne left behind him. He had left it as a reminder for those present at the table. Roskel, Wexel and Rohir were stewards and nothing more. At some point there would be a king again. In a year’s time, in ten or a hundred, Sturma would be united under a monarch once more. When one came who could wear the crown.
            He shook hands with the Thane of Mardon, made vague assurances that he would visit the western Thanedom in the next month, and came next to Wexel.
            ‘Wexel, what is wrong with Rohir?’
            ‘I had a message from his squire after the noon break. He has taken to his bed...well, his garderobe, mainly. He had something bad to eat.'
            ‘I hope his day has been a more fruitful experience than ours. I doubt the stench could be worse.’
            The Thanes left, talking amongst themselves. Durmont approached the two stewards as they laughed over Rohir’s discomfort.
            ‘My lords, I will have the notices of the moot posted throughout the city. There is one urgent matter which I did not feel appropriate for general discussion in the council. Hurth's old spy master is still at large, and your, ah, contacts…have failed to find the man. He still has friends in the city, which is troubling, though I have heard rumours of a meeting between Lord Kar and a man of ill repute that fits his description...have a care, my Lord.’
            ‘There is little we can do that we are not already doing. If the Thieves’ Covenant cannot find the man, then there is no hope.’
            ‘As you say, my lord,’ Durmont replied. ‘I will post warrant posters again, but I doubt it will do any good.’
            'Me, either,’ said Roskel. ‘Please excuse me, Durmont, I think I’d better go and tell Rohir to 'ware the Thane of Kar, he is looking to cause trouble yet again, and peace is fragile at best. I wish Tarn were here. He’d make sense of all this nonsense.’
            ‘Unfortunately governance is a tricky business, my lord, if I may be so bold as to suggest?'
            ‘What is it, Durmont?’
            ‘I would have your allies watch the Thane of Kar’s movements. I do not think him content. I believe the Thieves' Covenant has contacts in other guilds, in other cities?’
            ‘They do, and I have already requested such assistance, but I thought it best to keep it to myself.’
            ‘You could have told me,' said Wexel.
            ‘I could, but you worry more than a mother hen over a chick.’
            A discreet grin surfaced on Durmont’s face, but he hid it well beneath his usual guarded demeanour.
            ‘If you will excuse me, I will perform my duties.’
            ‘As you see fit,’ said Wexel.
            Durmont left, and Roskel said to Wexel, 'I’m going to see Rohir. Can I leave the country in your capable hands?'
            ‘If you don’t mind me raiding the coffers for money for a whore.'
            ‘Courtesans, now, my friend. We have to think like one befitting our station.'
            Wexel grunted. 'Give Rohir my regards.'
            'If I can get past the stink.'

*



Chapter Two

Roskel left Wexel and headed down the hall alone. He was greeted by a barrage of servants and minor functionaries all wishing him a good afternoon. When he first accepted Tarn’s duties he had revelled in the attentions of the castle’s denizens, enjoyed being a man of sudden power, and his sway over the many cute serving girls and cleaners of the castle. Now he wished for the freedom of the cities rooftops, the freedom to break into a house and steal a gem or bauble and the rush of running from the guard. Now his treasury outweighed the value of any thousand necklaces he could steal, and the guard would not chase him because he was their boss.
            He swore, then apologised to a serving maid, who in turn apologised to him for intruding.
            Bloody hell, he thought to himself. I can’t even swear without getting told what’s what. He longed for a conquest, some anonymity, and a pair of stealthy boots instead of these ridiculous sequined boots he wore after the latest fashions. He did look the dandy in his frilled shirt, but he’d still swap it all for a jig and a chase across the rooftops and down the back alleys.
            He took his time over the stairs, and for fun snuck past a maid and hid in the shadows of a stairwell as a scribe passed, unaware of the Steward of the country playing the thief as he walked about his duties, no doubt wishing he was in the guard and could attract the ladies.
            It was good to keep in practice. He melded with the shadows and drew his dagger, as if waiting for the next mark to come past.
            Durmont came up the stairs. Roskel stilled his breath.
            Durmont looked straight at him.
            'Really, Lord Farinder, I would have thought such games beneath one of your station.’
            Roskel put his blade away with a sheepish grin and a shake of the head. 'Every time, Durmont. How do you do it?'
            'That would be telling, my Lord.’ Durmont walked off, the picture of deportment, although Roskel thought he might be hiding a smile behind his hand.
            ‘Bloody man, spoils my fun every time.’
            Good job he’d never tried stealing from Durmont back in his thieving days, or he’d have been in some untidy dungeon whiling the hours away.
            He finished climbing the stairs and walked for a minute along cold hallways. He wished for summer, but autumn was just beginning and there was no hope of respite from the unrelenting cold of the castle. At least his own rooms were warm with hangings and fur.
            Roskel came before Rohir’s apartments.
            He knocked.
            ‘Come in,’ called the gruff warrior.
            Roskel pushed open the door.
            ‘I heard you were indisposed.’
            ‘Come a little closer.’
            The shades were pulled. Something seemed ajar to Roskel.
            As he approached Rohir leapt from the bed and the man’s ever present sword was in his hands. His own jewelled dagger was in his hand in a blink of an eye. It was a ridiculous thing, far too heavy in the hilt for dirty work, but the blade was sharp.
            'Rohir, what are you doing?!'
            Rohir’s reply was a frightening growl.
            'Stop this madness at once!'
            The big warrior’s sword did Rohir’s talking for him. Roskel nimbly jumped aside. He wasn’t so jaded a thief that he couldn’t see murder in a man’s eyes. If he had any doubt that his friend had gone insane it was soon dispelled. The heavy blade sliced the front of his shirt.
            Roskel feinted to the left and slashed to the right, his own dagger slicing deep. Rohir stumbled for a moment, blood flowing freely.
            Rohir’s face began to change, his features becoming longer, his hair growing, and his shoulders shrinking.
            ‘What sorcery is this?’ Roskel whispered. ‘What are you, creature?’
            The creature snarled and attacked once more, but there was no more hesitation in Roskel’s mind. He had held back while he thought his attacker was his friend, somehow gone insane, but no longer. As the impostor threw itself toward him he dropped to one knee, below a clumsy slash, and drove his dagger into the thing’s heart.
            The glamour that had surrounded the creature faded completely.
            The thing’s body grew in stature, thinning until nearly gaunt, but underneath the jerkin it wore there was strength in the long muscles. It was creature Roskel knew only too well. He had fought them before, and despised everything they stood for.
            'Brindle's horn!' he swore. The creature was hierarch, and no man.
            They were back, and they were in the castle.
            He dashed to the door, fear lending him urgency he had felt until this moment. If there was one there could be others, and they could be wearing any face they chose.
            ‘Guards!’ he called, and as soon as he heard footsteps pounding along the corridor he ducked back into the apartment.
            ‘Rohir!’ He called. He had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. If the thing had taken Rohir’s countenance, surely it would also have taken his life.
            He searched in the garderobe and found Rohir bleeding but alive, sprawled before his toilet.
            Roskel wasted no time. He swiftly cut the shirt from his friend with his dagger, which he still had drawn, just as a soldier barged through, sword held at the ready.
            ‘Oh... My lord Steward, what has happened?’
            Roskel pushed his hands against the wound in his friend's chest. Rohir groaned but otherwise did not stir.
            ‘Alert the guard, Drake, there may be more of those things in the bedrooms. They could look like anybody. They have powers of sorcery unheard of in all but tall tales. Tell the men to watch for anything suspicious.’
            ‘What is it?’
            ‘They are called Hierarchs. I do not know where they come from, but they are a deadly enemy. Capture one if you can, but do not risk yourselves. And call a priest.’
            ‘At once.’
            ‘And Drake?’
            ‘Yes?’
            ‘Breath a word of where you found him and I’ll post you in Pulhuth watching for Feewar ships.’
            ‘Yes, my lord.’
            Drake was had a good head on his shoulders. It was a good job, because Roskel couldn’t take his hand from the grievous wound in his friend's chest. The blood was covering the floor now, and his hands were slick with it.
            Rohir coughed and opened his eyes.
            ‘Stay still, my friend. You bleed badly.’
            Rohir just nodded and sunk his head back to the flagstones.
            ‘Bloody creatures,' groaned Rohir. 'I thought we’d seen the last of them.’
            ‘Not by a long shot,’ said Roskel. ‘Now shut up and stay still.’
            He felt like crying. The blood was slowing. He didn’t think the bleeding was slowing because of anything he was doing. It was more that most of it was already out.
            ‘Priest! I need you!’
            A man dressed in robes dashed into the bedroom and barged through into the toilet.
            ‘Come, move aside. Let me work.’
            In an instant a soft glow encased the priest’s hand – Roskel saw he was no older than himself – and the priest laid his hand over the wound.
            ‘Will he live?’ asked Roskel.
            But the priest was silent.

*