Kara dashed around one corner and another, mentally cursing her terrible luck. The boy behind her was not losing ground. His nice clothes were quite dust covered and his hair was coming loose, but he was not giving up. Kara was beginning to suspect he knew these alleyways. She didn’t, not yet. This place was still new. But no bespectacled little pretty-boy was going to catch or find her when she wanted to disappear. She found a set of uneven steps around another corner, and dashed up them to the roof tops. The boy followed. Kara ran along above the narrow streets, upsetting birds, and hopping up and down levels as they changed. The boy stayed right behind her.
Kara growled. Time to shake him up a bit. She leapt a narrow alleyway across to another network of roofing. He made the jump. She took a riskier one. He did too. She looked back. He was grinning. That was it. Kara jumped headlong off the next rooftop, rolled down an awning and landed just right, with her knees bent, in a crowded street below. She began to weave through the crowd, looking back. No sign of him on the rooftop. She grinned and hefted the handbag. It had a good weight. She wondered what the pretty little girl had in it. There was a nice jingle of coins somewhere in the depths. A small and dirty urchin lifted a hand beseechingly, hearing the coins. Kara frowned. “Steal your own,” she told the child.
Everyone wanted something for nothing. Kara looked for landmarks, scanning the colored shop signs and searching for the wells that marked certain squares. There was one ahead, and there was the annoying little boy with spectacles. He had taken them off and was scanning the crowd with sharp green eyes. He looked a little the worse for wear. His long hair was loose and tangled and he now had a skinned knee, but he seemed quite cheerful. To Kara’s surprise and horror, he spotted her. He moved to one corner of the square, and she darted off to the other. The chase started again, this time through busy streets. Kara wove in and about the crowd, shoving people out of the way when necessary. To her great annoyance, the boy did not lose ground. He dodged people rather well. It was time for a different tactic. Kara took to the less crowded alleyways again.
Sometimes you had to convince people to stop following you the hard way. Kara crouched down behind a rain barrel after rounding a corner into a convenient alley. The boy dashed by but began to slow, not seeing her. She put her foot out as he was passing her hiding place and tripped him. He went sprawling, but intelligently, rolling with his fall. Kara sprang at him before he could regain his feet. She got in a good blow that bloodied his nose, but then he set her off balance and they went rolling in the dust, fists flying. Kara got the upper hand by kicking him in the shin. She grabbed about as they careened past a rubbish heap and found something solid to hit with. After a scuffle for it, which was dangerously close, Kara came out on top. She sat on the boy, holding her weapon, a large empty glass bottle.
“If you don’t stop following me, I’m going to break both your glasses and your face,” she informed the boy.
He looked up at her, wide-eyed. “I believe you.” Then he grinned. Kara was taken aback. Then someone grabbed her arms from behind, taking the bottle from her grasp and pulling her up bodily into the air.
“Mind his feet, Tam! He kicks hard!” the boy on the ground called.
Kara found herself hauled around by the collar and held up against the alley wall helpless and kicking, by none other than the lout boy. The two girls in their pretty frocks and the little bug-eyed boy were looking on. From somewhere nearby Kara could smell the aroma of tea. She swore. She’d been tricked. The smug little boy in spectacles had driven her right into a trap. She swore at him explosively, feet dangling.
He was picking himself up off the ground, and touching his bloody nose gingerly. He looked up at her in surprise. “You know Kardu?”
The older girl, the new one in lace and blue ribbons, ran to the injured boy’s side with a worried cry. Kara hated her immediately.
“Djaren, you look terrible! Did he hurt you badly?”
“I’m all right, Anna, thank you. There’s your bag.” Djaren pointed proudly.
Kara swore at him some more.
Djaren looked at her, amazed. “And Alendi? We have to talk.”
The big boy had some trouble restraining Kara as the pretty girl retrieved her bag from where it had fallen and brushed it off officiously. The girl looked inside, and the other one, tiny princess hair ribbons, came over to look too.
“Look here, you’re a bad sort,” the lout informed her. “But now you’re fair caught, and we want some answers.”
“I don’t speak idiot,” she told him.
The lout’s face reddened several shades, and a vein appeared on his neck.
“Don’t let him rattle you, Tam,” Djaren advised, taking the handkerchief the older girl offered, and clamping it to his bleeding nose.
“You have minions, good for you,” Kara told Djaren, trying to kick Tam the lout boy. He tightened his grip on her collar. “Five to one is sporting, isn’t it? You must be nobility.” She gave the word an acid edge.
“There’s no nobles in Shandor,” Tam said, angry. “And you weren’t fighting fair.”
“You like playing the man when the girls are watching, don’t you?” Kara hissed at Tam. “They don’t much notice you otherwise, do they?”
His face turned redder. Kara grinned at him. Get him mad enough and he would let go with one hand to hit her. That was all she’d need to escape. She’d kick him in the–
A new voice interrupted the proceedings. A woman’s voice. “And just what are you all doing? Can’t I leave you safe for half an hour? Put the little girl down at once!”
“Mother, he stole,” Djaren began.
“Girl?” Tam asked, blanching.
“Lady Blackfeather, this is the pick pocket!” the bug-eyed boy sang out.
The tall and finely dressed lady with amazing copper hair advanced on them and took charge of the situation at once. “That’s a little girl, yes, Tam. Don’t let her go, but please don’t shake her so. She may have an awful mouth, but she’s half starved and in a bad state.”
“Ma’am, I never meant–” Tam’s grip weakened, and he looked with horror from the lady to the pretty girl in blue ribbons. Kara took the opportunity to try and kick him, but Djaren intervened, and grabbed her legs. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “But Tam, be careful. Girl or not, she’s mean.”
The tiny girl stepped up to glare at Kara. “I am not princess hair ribbons,” she declared. Kara frowned. She did not remember speaking those words.
The little girl sniffed, and went to go hold the lady’s hand.
Kara struggled uselessly, held by the two boys. She swore at them with the worst words she knew. They did not appear to comprehend them. The lady, however, did.
“Interesting,” she said. “I think we’d better take her back with us. She could use a good meal. Are you from Corestemar, dear?”
Kara spat at her.
“Yes, I thought so.” The lady smiled. “Djaren, dear, you look a mess. I don’t even want to know how you captured her. Is your nose all right?”
“Then if you have quite finished getting into trouble here, I suggest we go home.”
“Yes, Mother.” Djaren grinned around the handkerchief.
“You can’t kidnap me. You’ll be sorry. I have friends,” Kara snapped at them.
The lady looked at Kara with a very insulting look of sympathy. “You don’t lie very well yet, dear. You do better with threats. We don’t mean you harm, but I think you should have a talk with Doctor Blackfeather.”
“You can’t make me talk,” Kara growled.
Kara attempted to kick him.
“We may need a second carriage,” the lady said. “Anna, can you see to that?”
“Certainly, Lady Blackfeather.” The pretty girl nodded.
Kara found herself stuffed, not un-gently, into a carriage with the lady and Djaren. She had been bound carefully, with belts and hair ribbons. She mocked her captors throughout the process, but accepted the mint water the lady gave her before they tied her hands. The others were in the next carriage and out of kicking range. Kara found Djaren and the lady a bit harder to anger. The boy kept asking her questions like “Can you pick locks?” and “Can you teach me?” and the lady didn’t ask her anything at all, which was more unnerving. Kara had thought of a hundred escape plans by the time they reached the dig site, but decided not to try them just yet. She was determined not to come away from this empty handed. If they were going to drag her home, she was going to take a bit of that home back with her. Archeologists had valuable things. And then she would go get that bracelet back.
Lady Blackfeather had workmen assist in installing Kara in a small shed with a cot, a basin of wash water, and an impressively huge meal. Lady Blackfeather did not let any of the other children in, but sat herself with Kara for a little while. Kara had the strong feeling that she should not try anything with Lady Blackfeather. There was something about her that said she had strength beyond the obvious six workmen outside.
“Did you drug the food? You seem to really want me to eat it,” Kara said, sniffing at the dinner items. She glared at Lady Blackfeather.
“You’ve had a bad life, I take it,” Lady Blackfeather said, looking regretful. “I promise we have not altered the food. I know that’s not enough, but do believe that we want you conscious and answering some questions later this evening. And perhaps cleaner than you are now.”
Lady Blackfeather brought out a bundle of clean clothing. “Djaren outgrew these last year. You could use some things in your own size. I also noted that when you were kicking, your boot soles were coming off. If you will refrain from using these on my children, I give them to you.” The lady held out a pair of sturdy black work boots.
“Are you trying to bribe me?” Kara asked.
“No, dear, to mother you. It’s a bad habit, I know, but I can’t help it.” Lady Blackfeather smiled. “I have a soft spot for tortured and lonely souls. And plucky children. You deserve better than this.”
She brushed an old bruise on Kara’s face and Kara flinched back, ready to lash out.
“You don’t have to go back to them,” Lady Blackfeather said.
“Don’t waste your pity. I’m not impressed,” Kara growled. “Go feed a kitten or something and leave me alone.”
Lady Blackfeather sighed. “The offer still stands. Make what you will of it. Doctor Blackfeather will see you later, when he returns.”
Kara did not like the sound of that. She distrusted doctors immensely. As soon as Lady Blackfeather had left she sniffed at the food, and finding no suspicious odors she devoured as much of it as she could. The rest she stuffed into the pillow case. She splashed a little of the wash water on her face and neck to keep cool, and drank some more of it. She did get into the new clothes and boots, and found them to her liking. They were in dark colors, good and sturdy, with a little repair work here and there. Both knees of the trousers had carefully sewn patches. She kept her big coat and filled the pockets with leftovers and some of the nicer looking dinner dishes. There was no silver, unfortunately, only wooden utensils. Kara took them anyway, and began using them to dig at the rear corner of the shed.
Through cracks between boards, she noted where the workmen were watching. She waited patiently and kept digging, and was rewarded by seeing them move a little further off into the shade as the sun progressed across the sky. One of them at last dozed off, and it was time. Kara wriggled through the hole she’d made in the corner, and emerged silent and dirt covered behind the shed, near the sleeping workman. She dragged the pillow case of food out after her and crept through the camp to where the carriage horses were picketed. She untethered one and climbed up onto its back. She would come back to steal something later, but now she was already late. Her contacts would be meeting their employers tonight and handing over the rock they had stolen. Kara raced off on horseback, into gathering twilight.
It was fully night when she reached the meeting place. Torchlight flickered in the darkness ahead. She climbed off the horse, sent it on its way with a slap, and crept up to the rendezvous, a hollow amid old ruins, silent and listening. There were voices. She recognized Negal’s voice and that of the old man Himar. They sounded nervous. A bad smell hung in the air, strange and acrid and rotting. Kara moved closer, still silent. She peered out between two stones and saw a group of figures in the firelight. A tall, robed man with an unfamiliar voice spoke. The voice was hoarse, wet, and rasping. The accents and enunciation reminded Kara of the place she’d come from, of slums in the shadows of great crumbling temples, of crowds and crying children, and people with nothing left to steal living beside palaces. That accent belonged to past and nightmares, not here.
“You have brought it here?”
“Yes, lord,” Negal said, “and we want our payment.” Negal stood with his band of a dozen thieves, facing a group of twenty men in dark, hooded robes. The stolen stone sat upon the ground between them.
“And what,” the large man with the terrible voice asked, “do you think the worth of a rock is?”
“You promised, lord, to reward us well. You asked for this stone.”
“I did.” His voice cut off, followed by a sniffing sound. His hooded head moved from side to side and turned in Kara’s direction. “Something watches,” the voice said. “Someone is here.”
“We were unfollowed,” old Himar said. “We never betray a bargain. We are honest thieves.”
“What a term.” The horrible voice made a wheezing sound Kara realized was laughter. The smell grew stronger as the hooded figure began to move toward Kara’s hiding place. She froze, staring. One hand emerged from the figure’s robe, visible in the torchlight. It was the arm of a rotting corpse.
“Lord!” Negal gasped.
Kara was about to run, but was interrupted by a sudden rush of wind, as something huge swooped down low overhead. The thieves did not seem to notice, but the robed stranger did. He hissed in fury. “The sky! He is here! Fire!”
All the robed figures brought out things from under their robes–rifles. The thieves fled as the robed men began firing wildly into the black sky. It was deafening. The corpse man brought out a rifle as well and used it with a more studied aim. Kara caught a glimpse of one milky white eye. She clapped both hands over her ears and ran, along with the other thieves, for cover, for safety. A muffled gasp came from above, and something wet fell on her hand. She squinted at it and saw black droplets. She ran faster, losing herself in the night.
Text and illustrations by Ruth Lampi. Originally serialized on World of Shandor.