Night is the best time for my kind. When I appear in the street, ordinary people have long been asleep in their warm, soft beds. Old drunks out drinking late won’t brave the city’s impenetrable darkness. No, they would rather spend an uncomfortable night in a tavern.
Night. Silence. Only the hollow echo of the municipal guard patrol’s footsteps bounce off the walls of the old houses and ripple on along Avendoom’s dark streets, dead and empty until morning.
The soldiers hurry along, walking quickly. In the darkest alleyways they break into a run. I can easily understand how these valiant servants of the law feel: no, it’s not people they’re afraid of—any madcaps who might summon up the impudence to attack the guardians of public order will be given short shrift with their heavy battle-axes. What makes them afraid is something else. There are other creatures lurking in the shadows of the stone buildings. Creatures that creep out into the open at this uneasy hour for their nocturnal hunt. And may Sagot help the men of the watch if those vile beasts are feeling hungry.
The shades of night are a refuge for all: for the good townsfolk, fearfully hiding themselves away from dangerous men; for the petty thieves whose one wish is to clean out the respectable citizens’ purses as quickly as possible; for the robbers just waiting for a chance to make use of their knives. And, of course, for the demons living in those dark shades, who are only too happy to prey on good citizens, petty thieves, and robbers alike.
Fortunately, I have yet to run into the demons who have appeared in the city since the Nameless One began stirring in the Desolate Lands after centuries of calm. And that’s why I’m still alive.
Shortly after they pass me, the watchmen’s footsteps fade into silence on the next street.
On the orders of Baron Frago Lanten, the head of Avendoom’s municipal guard, all patrols have been tripled in strength. The rumor is that the artifact that has until now held the Nameless One in the Desolate Lands is weakening, and soon he will burst through into our world from that icy desert covered with eternal snow. War is approaching, no matter how hard the Order of Magicians and the multitudes of priests try to put it off. It’s simply a matter of time. Six months, or perhaps a year—and then all those things they used to frighten us with when we were children will be upon us. The Nameless One will gather together an army and come to us from behind the Needles of Ice, and the horror will begin. Even here, in the capital, you sometimes come across devotees of the Nameless One. And I’m far from certain that the Wild Hearts of the Lonely Giant Fortress will be able to hold back the hordes of ogres and giants. . . .
Once again I have gone unnoticed. My thanks to the shadow of night. The shadow is my helpmate, my lover, my companion. I hide inside her, I live with her, and she is the only one always ready to shelter me, to save me from the arrows, from the swords that flash balefully in the moonlit night, and the bloodthirsty, golden eyes of the demons. No one else cares for Harold . . . maybe Brother For.
"Shadow is the sister of darkness," says Brother For, Sagot’s kindly priest. And where there is darkness, the Nameless One is never far away.
What absolute nonsense! The Nameless One and the shadow? Entirely different things. You might as well compare an ogre and a giant. The shadow is life, freedom, money, and reputation. Shadow Harold knows about such things firsthand. For a shadow to appear there has to be at least a scintilla of light, and to compare it with darkness is stupid, to say the least. But of course, I don’t tell my old teacher that. You don’t go teaching your grandmother to suck eggs.
It’s quiet. So quiet you can hear the moths scrabbling at the coolness of the night with their fragile little wings. It’s a long time now since the watch patrol passed me and it’s high time for me to be going about my business, but somehow I’m feeling extracautious to night. . . . Some premonition makes me remain in cover, beside the wall of the building that is submerged in gloom.
There were no suspicious sounds to be heard in that narrow little street with the old stone houses that could remember the old Quiet Times. Nothing but a painted tin sign above the baker’s shop creaking in the faint wind. The slow-stirring grayish yellow mist for which our capital is famous lay thick across the rough stone paving of the road, chipped and battered by the cart wheels. They say the mist was a trick played by some half-trained wizard back in the distant past. But ever since then not one of the kingdom’s archmagicians has been able to rid the city of the consequences of his innocent prank.
The silence alarms me. The only place that is ever this quiet is a rich man’s vault after a visit from one of the city’s bands of petty thieves.
The signboard creaks, the light wind swirls merrily, clouds drift lazily across the night sky. But I stand there, fused with the shadow of the building, trying not to move a muscle. My intuition and my experience of life compel me to listen to the night silence of the city. No street, not even the most deserted, could be as dead as this.
There should be sounds in the night. Rats rustling in the garbage. A drunk snoring away beside them, his pockets cleaned out by thieves who are already sheltering for the night in some dark, narrow hidey-hole. The sound of snoring from the windows of the gray houses. A dirty dog sneaking through the darkness. The heavy breathing of a novice thief lying in wait for his victim, clutching his knife in a palm sweaty from excitement. Sounds from the shops and workshops—even at night the laborious work continues in some of them. But there was none of this in the dark little street wreathed in its shroud of mist. There was nothing but silence, gloom, and a thickening atmosphere of danger.
The carefree, roistering wind ruffled my hair affectionately, but I didn’t dare raise my hood. Some insistent hand seemed to hold me back.
Sagot! What is happening on this quiet little street of artisans?
In answer to my prayer the glorious god of all thieves seemed to make my hearing keener.
Footsteps. Hasty footsteps that even the creeping yellow-gray froth of the mist had failed to deaden. In a recess in the wall of the house opposite, I spotted a momentary flicker in the darkness.
Had someone else decided to hide here?
I peered hard into the ink-black night. No. I’d imagined it. I was too much on edge, anticipating non ex is tent problems. I must be getting old.
Meanwhile the footsteps grew louder and louder. The sounds came from the street into which the municipal guard patrol had turned only a few minutes earlier. I froze and tried to merge even deeper into the shadow, while the phantom of danger circled indolently above my head.
A man came round the bend at a fast walk, almost a run, and made straight for me. He had to be a fool or a brave man to be roaming through the darkness alone. Most likely a fool. Brave men don’t live long in our world. But then, neither do fools, unless they work as jesters for our glorious king.
The stranger was coming closer. Tall and well dressed, even wealthy looking, his hand resting on the hilt of a rather good sword.
Once again clouds crept across the sky, covering the stars, and the gloom that was already total became absolutely impenetrable. Even when he drew level with me, I couldn’t make out the stranger’s face, although he was so close that if I’d wanted, I could have reached out my hand and lifted the bulging purse off his belt. But I’m no small-time pickpocket, I won’t stoop to that—the impetuous years of my youth are long since over and gone, and in any case my instinct has already hinted that this is the wrong moment to twitch a single muscle, or even take a deep breath.
In the niche opposite me the darkness began swirling again, eddying chaotically and welling up into a dark flower of death, and ice-cold terror froze me to the spot. From out of the gloom, Darkness burst forth in the form of a winged demon with a horned skull for a head, and fell on its victim like an avalanche from the Mountains of the Dwarves, pinning him down with its prodigious weight.
The man let out a screech like a wounded cat and grabbed vainly at his useless sword, trying to draw it, but the Darkness crumpled up the nocturnal wayfarer, sucked him in, and devoured him, and then the creature, what ever it was, soared up into the sky, bearing away its fresh meat, and perhaps a soul as well. I slid slowly down the wall, trying to calm my breathing. My heart was pounding like a mad thing.
The demon hadn’t noticed me, although I was directly opposite it all the time. But if I had made just the slightest movement! If I had even started breathing a little more loudly. . . . Then I was the one who would have been his prey.
I had been lucky. Once again I had been very lucky. A thief’s luck is a fickle wench, she can turn her back on him at any moment, but as long as she is with me, I can carry on plying my trade.
In a dark corner of the next building a rat squeaked, followed by another. Up in the sky a bat flew past, hunting the late June moths. The danger had passed, now I could carry on along my way. I detached myself from the wall and set off, trying to stick to the darkest sections of the street.
Moving rapidly, but with my boots making no sound, I dashed from building to building, from shadow to shadow. I left the Street of the Bakers behind me, turning into the alleyway on the right. The mist was thicker here, it welcomed me into the soft embrace of its clammy paws, deadening my footsteps, concealing me from the eyes of humans and nonhumans alike.
The dark alleyway came to an end, and the dark walls of the houses that had seen so much joy and sorrow in this life suddenly parted sharply. The wind scattered the clouds and the sky was transformed into a table-cloth across which some rich man had scattered bright coins. Hundreds and thousands of stars started twinkling at me out of the cold summer night.
On Grok Square there were occasional street lamps burning. After all, it is one of the large central squares, and even if they were afraid, the lamplighters had to do their job. Encased in its glass armor, each flame cast a spot of flickering light around itself, and chaotic shadows danced in silence on the walls of the sullen buildings.
I wish the wind would drive its herd of gray, fluffy sheep back out across the sky, but for the time being I’ll have to stick to the shadow, huddling against the walls of the tall buildings. Only the shadow has turned pale and timid from all the light all around.
Grok himself stared at me mutely with his all-seeing eyes. I think he was a general who saved our kingdom from an invasion by orcs, or some royal adviser back in the hoary old days of antiquity. And there, right behind the plinth of his pedestal, is the goal of my nocturnal outing. A large house, surrounded by a wall with battlements, built out of immense blocks of stone quarried in the Mountains of the Dwarves in the times when that race was still on friendly terms with our kingdom. To my mind the building is in barbarously bad taste, but the Duke Patin who lives here would hardly be interested in my opinion. A cousin of the king who is in charge of the treasury is a very big wheel, and so people turn a blind eye to his whimsical taste in architecture.
The king tolerates his relative’s other caprices; rich aristocrats can get away with almost anything. But rumor has it that just recently he discovered a certain sum of money missing from the treasury. And that means that heads are bound to roll, since His Majesty is not very well disposed to individuals who expend the state’s money too liberally. Fine by me; one less fat cat.
The high wall of the house was buttressed at each end by a tower with a truncated pinnacle. In the left tower there was a gateway seven yards wide with heavy wooden gates clad in iron sheeting. Four horse-men could easily enter it riding abreast. But that grand formal entrance was only for the invited, and it would be best for me to forget about it.
I ran quickly across the illuminated square and took cover in the shadow of the columns of the Royal Library—a place of pilgrimage for magicians of the Order and for historians. Sometimes even nobles came here to improve their store of wisdom, although more often the so-called gentlemen preferred to go straight to Ranneng—the city of learning—for their studies.
From my shelter I have a clear view of the duke’s residence. It is as if the house has died. I can’t see any guards at the gates or on the walls. They must be huddling in the watch house with their teeth chattering. I can understand them; I would be hidden away in my den myself, if not for the Commission. A certain individual made me a generous offer—he was interested in a rare little item in the duke’s collection. The fee offered was excellent, and all I had to do was get into the house, take the trinket, and leave. Not too difficult, especially if you bore in mind the fact that His Lordship and his retinue had gone off hunting deer in the forests around the city and there would only be a very small number of menials left in the house.
Of course, the risk of stirring up a hornets’ nest was considerable. But by the time the hornets realized what was what, I would be long gone.
I ran my hands carefully over my equipment and clothing, checking for the hundredth time that night to make sure I had brought everything I needed to carry out my plan. A dark gray jerkin with a hood, gray gloves, black trousers and boots. A large double-edged knife, firmly secured to my thigh by two leather straps so that it would not hinder my movements. That knife had cost me a whole stack of gold coins. It was a little less than a cubit in length, almost a short sword, and the mounting of the blade was covered with a strip of silver, so if you wished you could even risk a fight with someone who had risen from the dead. I could quite easily be lucky enough to walk away from such a skirmish, even if my arm had been torn off. And with the same knife, or rather, its heavy handle, I could easily knock out any idiot who couldn’t sleep at night and happened to get under my feet. The master thief is not the one who slits the throat of the watchman roused by the alarm, but the one who enters silently, takes what he wants, and makes a quiet exit, leaving behind the smallest possible number of clues, including dead bodies.
Hanging behind my shoulder I had a miniature crossbow that fitted comfortably into one hand without hindering my movements. It fired short, thick bolts with heads that had four barbs, and with the necessary skill this little toy could hit a man’s eye at seventy paces.
The small calfskin bag hanging on my belt contained several phials for use in extreme circumstances. For them a certain dwarf merchant of my acquaintance had stripped me of all my earnings from a robbery at a reception in the home of one of the city’s notorious rakes. But the effectiveness of those magic baubles more than justified the price I had paid for them.
That was all. No more time for delay. I went dashing toward the duke’s house, all the time keeping as close as possible to wall of the library. If anyone had taken it into his head to look down, he would have seen nothing but the gray stones and the wind-shredded mist playing tag with the shadows in the square. I ran fast, close to the right side of the house, with the gray crenellated wall flashing past my eyes in a blur. There it was, almost invisible to people passing by on the street: the small wicket gate for servants that led into His Lordship’s inner sanctum.
As ill luck would have it, there was a street lamp burning opposite the gate and there was no cover—I might have been standing on Sagot’s palm. The light fell directly on the wall, and there was not a trace of shadow. Fortunately, the narrow street was empty and the patrol was not due to pass by there for another two minutes or so. I had enough time.
Reaching inside my belt, I took out a set of lock picks made by dwarves to my own specifications. Only ignorant philistines think that being a master thief is easy and cheap. That’s rubbish. If you want to steal anything worth stealing, the most important thing is your equipment (I maintain a modest silence on the subject of experience and talent—you can’t steal much without them).
Completely absorbed in scrabbling with my pick, I felt for the spring of the lock. Aha! A quiet click. The first line of defense had been overcome.
But just at that moment there was the sound of hoofbeats at the end of the narrow street and I started working faster.
A click. The second secret solved. I spun my pick in desperation, feeling for that final spring. That’s it! No more time left!
I jerked the pick out of the lock—all the springs were already free—and dashed across to the other side of the winding street. Into the refuge of the shadow.
Just in time.
A group of horse men appeared from round the bend. Two, three, five, seven. Oho! Thirteen of them! A lucky number. They were riding tall horses of the Doralissian breed. Dark silhouettes against the gray background of the night. I squatted down, pulled the hood over my face, and screwed up my eyes, hoping that they hadn’t glinted in the light from the stars.
Ten of the soldiers were wearing the gray and blue uniform of the royal guard. The eleventh turned out to be a woman with her face concealed by a dense veil. But even beneath that veil, I could see the sparkle of her eyes. Hmmm, I thought, isn’t that something, sparkling eyes. The two men riding on either side of her had their faces hidden under the hoods of their cloaks.
I wonder what the king’s guardsmen and a mysterious lady are doing out in the street at night? I think it’s none of my business.
Only three minutes after the strange cavalcade, another detachment of horse men came galloping by. They were dressed in ordinary uniforms, not gray and blue, but I spotted a purple stripe on the sleeve of the last man.
Oho! Wild Hearts! Just how do they happen to be so far away from the Lonely Giant?
I waited until the riders disappeared into the next street, loitered for a few more minutes, and went back to the wicket gate.
The courtyard was quiet, dark, and deserted. In the whole of the duke’s grand nest, only two windows were lit up: one in the kitchen and one under the roof. The grass that was shrinking from the chill of the June night completely muffled my steps. It was too cold for the crickets, and the heavy hand of silence hung over the inner yard.
There was the door into the kitchen. The timid, trembling flame of a torch was blackening the wall beside the door. I turned the bronze handle, and I was inside.
The stoves and fireplaces in the kitchen were long since cold. The tables were stacked with dirty dishes and there was a young scullion sleeping on the floor. I stopped in a corner and began checking everything against the plan that I was carrying in the most reliable place of all—my head. That door over there will take me into a dining hall with a high marble staircase leading to the second floor. But I don’t need to risk the hall, there’s another way round. The oak door on the right leads into the servants’ wing, and from there I can get to the second floor, avoiding the guard. Of course the hour is late and the guardsmen, if I know anything about their kind, have been asleep for a long time, but even so, there’s no point in asking for trouble.
I set off, treading carefully (the dry floorboards creaked under my feet). In the dark corridor only every second torch was lit. From behind a door on the left I heard the snoring of someone in good health and clearly well satisfied with life. That was definitely a guard—no one else could be so recklessly carefree.
Chuckling to myself, I moved on.
Forward! And quietly! The most important thing is not to hurry.
I walked to the staircase leading from the servants’ wing to the ducal apartments. Climbing the steps took no time at all, and there in front of me were the heavy double doors of oak. Locked, of course, but we can deal with that.
The corridor was as gloomy and deserted as the rest of the building. But I could see that from that point on the floor was cunningly paved with slabs of Isilian marble, which makes footsteps sound unnaturally loud and clear. A deaf man at the other side of the city could hear them. And I had to walk the full length of the corridor to the bedchamber at the far end.
Curses! If only I could fly!
But I can’t. And so I shall have to use every ounce of the skill that Sagot has granted me in order not to make any noise.
Suddenly I heard a menacing growl behind me. I shuddered and froze, with my foot suspended above the black-and-white marble slabs. I turned my head gingerly, and there was a garrinch, devouring me with the insane glare of its white eyes.
A shudder ran right through me. That swindler Gozmo—when he gave me the Commission there wasn’t a word about the duke having one of these brutes in the house.
Garrinches live far away in the south, in the Steppes of Ungava, almost on the borders of the hot Sultanate. The creatures are magnificent watchdogs, especially useful against lads like me. Getting hold of a live garrinch cub is incredibly difficult, almost impossible, because the price is simply sky-high. They say the king’s treasure house is guarded by two of the beasts.
What a garrinch resembles most of all is a huge rat, the size of a well-fattened calf, covered with snake’s scales instead of fur, with a magnificent set of teeth that can saw straight through a knight in armor, and two white gimlets for eyes. Killing one is extremely difficult—unless, of course, you happen to be a magician.
The creature snorted and stared alertly, probing the shadow where I had thought it best to hide. There was nothing I could do but pray to Sagot to protect his humble servant. I was drenched in cold sweat. After thinking for about a minute, it began growling again. It sensed a trick, but it couldn’t understand where I could have gone, so it was trying to flush me out.
Eventually the beast abandoned its thoughts of an easy supper and set off at a slow, pigeon-toed waddle toward the open door leading into the servants’ wing. I realized that one reason the door was usually locked was so that the brute that was let out to guard the second floor wouldn’t eat anyone. But I had nonchalantly left the door wide open. What fun and games there would be in the morning when someone discovered a couple of servants were missing!
I caught my breath and took my finger off the trigger of the crossbow. The danger had passed. But I had to be on the alert; the creature could come back at any time.
Excerpted from Shadow Prowler by Aleksey Pehov.
Copyright © 2002 by Aleksey Pehov.
Published in February 2010 by A Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.