Fantasy Fiction

By Any Other Name
The Towers of Zolyniak
A Diamond Is A Girl’s Worst Enemy
Marion the Unmagical
The Road to Udupi
The Thief of Cardinal Falls (Part 1)
The Treasure of Totowa Hills (Part 2)
Seeress (Part 3)

The Thief of Cardinal Falls (Part 1)

© 2000 Melissa K. Michael
4700 words

The Thief of Cardinal Falls
by Melissa Katherine Michael

Once upon a time far to the south in the human city of Cardinal Falls near to, but above ground of, the dwarven capitol of Hollow Hill Hold, there was a very bad summer followed by a horribly severe winter. Terrible rains poured down from the South Mountains in buckets washing out the farming fields and tearing down the young sprouts, to be followed by a hot drought that scorched the life out of what little plants remained. Then the winter came cold and harsh, snow and ice for months and months. Everyone thought High Wizard Narexia had sent down a curse from her keep atop Mount Mother so cold and icy it was.
Disaster heaped upon tragedy for the people of Cardinal Falls and as often happens, the young, the old, the weak, and especially the female were neglected. There simply wasn’t enough food. All who could had fled to Unionford, picking up stragglers from Wellspring and Snowmelt Falls along the way, to beg the mercy of the human High King (see Arlin). Some even dared the depths of King Goldenlight’s halls beneath the earth in Hollow Hill Hold.
It was after deciding to cross the snows to Hollow Hold’s tunnel entrance that Old Okeene espied a tiny waif shivering in the snow by Talpert’s Inn. She was fairly blue with cold and couldn’t have been more than eight years old. Suddenly, Okeene was struck by a wonderful idea. The whores up at Rosalynda’s were getting younger and younger each month for a crust of bread and a warm bed. But not this young and scrawny. And there were endless possibilities to what one could accomplish with the power of a grateful virgin at one’s command.
Jasper shook his head at the memory. Ill omens abounded but nothing had happened like the winter ten years gone. That was when he would worry, when hard snows fell and summer grains dried in the field. A few crows where they shouldn’t be, a flaming sword, and the dwarf King’s daughter off on an escapade; these were nothing to worry his old bones about. He sighed as he trudged into his bath chamber. Being the High Wizard of Hollow Hill Hold had its comforts. Jasper pulled his heavy black robe over his head and reached into otherwhere to find the hot bath spell. Ah, how he looked forward to a long soak. The meetings at Greenwood had gone well, but the weeks of travel had left him filthy and saddle-sore.
Yes, darkness threatened, when did it not? Each day passed into darkness before a new sun came up. But he wasn’t worried. The Flaming Sword had a true heir of the blood wielding it, elven scouts were everywhere, dwarves had great storerooms full of swords, shields, and battle axes; armor, spears, and arrowheads; man-size as well as dwarvish.
Where was that confounded spell? Jasper reached around his shelf in otherwhere. The dryclean was there, the sweet scent was there, cold water, fresh water, even the scented-oil massage, but where was the hot bath?
“Oh bother,” Jasper grumbled and pulled a flask of red berry wine from his otherwhere cellar and flopped on the stuffed feather chair before his chamber’s only fireplace, too tired to hunt up a new copy of the spell in his books. With a snap the flames rose.
“Oh Donaphin! It’s, it’s wonderful!” Nicollet, Governor Flint’s only daughter and heir, gushed at the apprentice wizard. “I can’t wait to try it!”
They stood before a huge copper tub filled with steaming, floral-scented water. Nicollet favored him with a smile that melted into a girlish giggle. “But you can’t watch!” she blushed and pushed him away from her chamber door.
Donaphin allowed himself a seraphic sigh before leaving the maiden’s door. Quick and purposeful, he strode down the great stone hall and descended the steps past guards at the bottom who spared him not the slightest notice. Donaphin was well-known in the Governor’s Manor, and as well, at the Governor’s daughter’s door.
The beautiful marble of the manor’s walls and floors was a gift ages ago of the dwarf king of Hollow Hill Hold. Though ancient, the manor was kept neat and clean. Donaphin hurried past the hand-dyed and woven tapestries, the display of armor and weapons of wars gone by, and out into the courtyard glowing crimson in the light of a setting autumn sun.
A small thin shadow detached itself from a tree and stepped forward to meet him. Its features resolved into those of a wraith-thin waif, hair cut short, dressed in trews, shirt, and cap like a boy, but the face was undeniably feminine, albeit dirty and sharp.
“The . . . device,” Donaphin began, addressing his audience of one, “worked superbly. I am not only deliriously happy with the result, but I highly commend you on your stealth and resourcefulness.”
The waif, Honeysuckle, only nodded. Not even a smile. Was she simply hungry? Anyone who could steal a bath water spell from a Master Wizard ought to be able to feed herself. Obviously, she was anxious for the agreed-upon payment. Not everyone could command a gold spell. Donaphin fished around his trewsfront and pulled out a small cloth bag which he untied from his waist string.
Honeysuckle saw the new bath spell placed among the others in Donaphin’s personal cache. It glowed in bright blue waves with steam curls rising from it at the end of the bottom row. Donaphin had only about thirty spells in all, not like the many hundreds of his predecessor, Master Wizard Zachary, or the myriad thousands of Mater Wizard Jasper. The spells glowed in two straight rows to either side of Donaphin’s head, clear as day to her vision, but invisible to all else.
“Good as my word,” he stated with a conspirative grin. “Worth a bag of gold to me.”
Honeysuckle held her breath while the apprentice wizard held the bag to his mouth and whispered on it. She watched as the gold spell, the pile of coins closest to his head, glowed in the otherwhere and the bag appeared to swell. When he handed it to her Honeysuckle let out her breath. If she could work that spell she wouldn’t need him or anyone else for anything.
“Tell me,” he said as she untied the knot and spilled gold coins onto her palm. “What other spells can you get for me?”
“What would you want?” she asked eyeing him suspiciously while refilling the bag and secreting it within her shirt.
“Oh, nothing in particular. I’m curious as to what’s available.”
“Nothing’s available,” she snorted. “It’s got to be got. Tell me what you want and I’ll see if it can be got.” She ended with a shrug.
Donaphin looked toward the sunset’s final glow. “Jasper’s dying breath,” he murmured.
“Whaaat?” Honeysuckle asked in a horrified whisper.
Donaphin laughed at her expression. “Don’t misunderstand. I do not wish him ill. I’d just like to be there when he goes. If he ever does. It’s every apprentice’s wish to catch the dying breath of a great wizard. You see, we get all the knowledge, all the spells, powers, and illusions,” he paused dramatically, “without a bit of study. A waste to let such a thing be thrown to the wind, eh?”
Honeysuckle cocked her head at him curiously, reminding him of Nicollet’s cat watching Nicollet practice the flute.
“Old Okeene, I’m back!” Honeysuckle called cheerily as she burst through the door to the hovel they shared since after the Bad Time ten years gone when the owner left it and never returned.
“So you are,” Okeene called from his seat by the dead peat fire. “So you are.”
“Look what I got you,” Honeysuckle said with breathless excitement as she set all her purchases down in the middle of the floor and carefully unwrapped the stuffed pastries. One’s potato and one’s curd! I pulled off my biggest bestest caper ever, and look!”
She pulled out the still-full bag of gold and opened it to show him. One gold coin had bought all she could carry and left her with a half-bag of coppers.
Okeene gummed at the pastry and smiled at her. “I’m proud of you, Honey.”
She beamed back at him and pulled out the new blankets and sets of clothes. “Now we can leave this hut and get a real room with real furniture!”
“Honey,” Okeene said.
She stopped dancing around to meet his eyes. “You okay?”
“Yeah I’m all right, Honey. But the time has come for me to move into the hostel.”
“We’ve been through this before,” she interrupted, a hard edge to her voice. She hated when he started talking like he was going to die tomorrow. Sure, he was old, but nobody was more full of life, of piss and fire, than Old Okeene.
“Healer Mugwort said it was a good idea.”
Moments fled past and hid away in the hovel’s thatched roof. If Mugwort was letting him in the healer’s hostel, that meant his time had come. Honeysuckle wasn’t prepared for this.
“But I’ll take care of you, Okeene. You don’t have to go to no hostel. I want to take care of you.”
“But I don’t want you to, Honey. I want you to go to Snowmelt Falls, or even all the way to Unionford. Make a new name for yourself. Give up the capers and find a nice man. Name your first brat for me. You need to start on your own life. You’ve given me some of the best years of mine. Now you have the gold to do it. Seize the chance, imp. It may be your last.” He smiled a toothless grin.
Honeysuckle frowned. “I don’t want to leave here. I don’t want to leave you and find some man to cook for. You know I can’t cook. Anyway, I’m starved and then I’m going to curl up in these new blankets and sleep for days. By then you’ll have forgotten your silly notions. You were just lonely while I was gone and got the hots for ole lady Mugwort. Now I’m back. And I’m not going anywhere.”
Okeene smiled and gummed his pastry.
Honeysuckle forgot the anxiety Okeene seemed to be trying to force on her and slept wonderfully in the new wool blankets and new cotton underclothes.
In the morning as the sun rose, she stretched then snuggled back down into the blankets. She had no reason to rise if she didn’t want to. No job, no husband, no children. No Guild to answer to. Cardinal Falls was too small for such a thing. Okeene had left the Thieves Guild in Unionford long, long ago. Maybe one day she might go investigate. But not today. Winter was coming soon and she had enough gold to see them warm, dry, and well-fed all the way through it. With a contented sigh, Honeysuckle snuggled down deep into her woolen nest.
“Ah, there you are.”
That was not Okeene’s nasal whine. Honey remained motionless not sure if the voice had sounded in her room or only within the confines of her own head.
“I commend you on your subtlety. It’s taken me years to even notice you were stealing my spells. When Zachary complained that someone was stealing his spells and selling them to the hedge witches, I didn’t believe.”
Looking into otherwhere Honeysuckle saw Master Wizard Jasper, the wizened old dwarf, sitting before her. She gasped and bolted upright.
“But did it never occur to you, young thief, that the reason you can see, what to speak of take a wizard’s spell is that you have the magic to make and cast them yourself? That clod Donaphin has cheated you of your birthright. Why steal the magic of other’s when you can command your own?”
Honeysuckle cautiously moved her arm. Nothing was holding her. Jasper didn’t seem angry, only amused.
“If you are too afraid of retribution to come to me,” he continued as though hearing her thoughts clearly, “which you need not be. But if you are, then find someone else somewhere. I don’t care if you go to the top of Mount Mother, apprentice yourself to someone. Any master will recognize your power.”
Then Jasper was gone. Honeysuckle realized she was breathing hard and sweating as though running from the night watch at Governor’s Manor.
Okeene was right. She had to leave Cardinal Falls. She looked over to his pallet and saw a small bump under the bright new blankets. No longer the tall father that had saved her from freezing and starvation so many years ago he was now so thin, so small. He had eaten only half of one pastry while she’d eaten four. Honeysuckle dressed in her new cloak and made a bundle of two blankets, a set of clothes, and all the food she could carry. She divided the gold into two bags, tucked one into her shirt, and left one by Okeene’s hand, under his blanket. She kissed his forehead and left.
Taking Jasper’s advice, she headed straight up Mother Trail, the last place any sane person would go with fall leaving and winter nipping at its tail.
After two weeks climbing, and chilled to the bone, Honeysuckle spent the last three days climbing without food or rest. Her cloak and blankets were warm enough, or would have been had she fire or food to fuel her body’s own furnace. The air was thinner, crisp and clear. Were she not so numb and hungry, she would have been astonished by the mountaintop view. Looking back over her shoulder she could see the Plains stretch south for hundreds of long lonely miles.
Her belly a dry, hard knot, Honeysuckle crept round another ice-covered stand of trees bordering Mother Trail, but this time a large stone cottage greeted her weary eyes. Smoke curled skyward from the chimney. Wood was stacked on the side, and animal smells came from the small barn. The trail ended at its door. She knocked. After a moment it opened and a large old crone greeted her with a fierce frown.
“Hold on Ella, I’ve got company. Can you call back?” the woman said over her shoulder. She had a large frame that had been beaten down, curved, and wizened by Father Time. Honeysuckle was spellbound by the amount of spells glittering around the woman. More than even Jasper, many more. Glowing brightest were the red lips of farspeech and the bright pink eye of farsight.
“Okay Ella, next week then.”
The spells blinked off and reduced their glow to the same intensity of the rest of the multitude.
“So. You hiding from the law, looking for work, are you?” the woman asked while looking Honeysuckle up, down, and all around. “Or do you fancy yourself my apprentice? Is that it?”
Honeysuckle saw the red cross of truthspeak and the blue left-looking eye of pastsight blink on and glow brighter. She nodded, the cabin’s warmth starting her to shiver.
“Come in, come in,” High Wizard Narexia said. “Warm up, eat. Then tell me what backsheesh you’ve brought your new master.”
Honeysuckle blinked then looked to the floor. “What do you require?” she asked calmly, her attention apparently occupied by a close inspection of her nails. Her pulse thudded for a beat into the hall’s silence before the old witch burst into laughter.
“Jasper told me to come to you,” Honeysuckle said defensively.
“Oh he did, did he?” disbelief plain on her face.
‘If you can’t win them with words, baffle them with boldness,’ Okeene used to say. Full in the High Wizard’s sight, Honeysuckle reached into otherwhere and took the gold pile of coins that was the gold spell and tucked it away under her armpit rendering it invisible.
“How on earth and heaven did you do that?” Narexia cried in sincere amazement.
“Okeene said it was because I’m a virgin. But Jasper said it means I can learn magic myself.”
Narexia cocked her head in calculation. “Come. Eat up,” she said and Honeysuckle fell to, though she was not at all reassured.
“Eat plenty, get rested, and we’ll start on your training,” Narexia said, the cold calculation never leaving her eyes.
A tone sounded, crystal clear like a silver bell, out of place in the dark sooty interior of Narexia’s cottage.
“That’s my call box. Damn Council never gives me a moment’s peace. When I’ll find the time for an apprentice, I never know.”
The woman shuffled out to another room leaving Honeysuckle to contemplate the filthy walls. She was no cook, but cleaning she could do. As payment for her lessons, Honeysuckle wasted no time, scrubbing down ceilings, walls, floors; cleaning out the hearths and even improvising a chimney sweep.
Months later even the barn was repaired and sparkling clean. But Honeysuckle had barely mastered her letters and had yet to be taught one spell.
“Why do I have to learn to write?” she thundered at Narexia who was eating strawberries with sugar and cream bespelled from someplace far from the peak of Mount Mother. “I don’t need to read. If you’d just tell me the spell I can remember it. You have to remember it anyway, don’t you? You’re not looking in the books every time you cast a spell. I appreciate you taking the time to teach me my letters, but why on earth must I learn to write?”
Disgust and anger clear on her face, along with a small dollop of sugared cream, Narexia growled, “You try my patience, girl. You put me in mind of my old rival, Sheba. All piss and fire, but no brains or steadiness. Ah!” The old woman looked as though struck by lightning. “That’s what you do. Let her break you in. You go get my longlife spell back from Sheba and I’ll teach you everything I know without making you learn to read or write!”
Honeysuckle frowned suspiciously, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
But Narexia’s eyes were far away. “She didn’t just steal a copy of it like what you do. Else I could have whipped up another youthspell for myself. No, she ripped it out of me by main force and left me old, old, old as these mountains. And me the High Wizard. I can’t ever do it again, so much of me went into making it, but if you could get it back for me, steal it from her, why I’d be young again and most grateful.”
Honeysuckle tried to answer the woman’s smile but hers was no more successful than Narexia’s.
She set out the next day and followed the Mother Trail south until it met Westridge Trail. Winter was dripping away into spring and though the nights were quite cold, birds awakened Honeysuckle and she had flint to spark a fire with.
Descending the mountains was much easier than climbing them had been. The air warmed by ten degrees each day it seemed, until she found herself in a festive spring wonderland. Daffodils towered over tiny crocus. Squirrels chased each other up and down massive tree trunks and through a lattice of green-leafed branches overhead. Melting snow made fresh streams for drinking every few hundred feet.
At last Honeysuckle saw what had to be the Silvermine River flowing far away south to her left. She turned north to follow it to its source and within two days came to a deep ravine that fairly hummed with magic. Great, odd, but beautiful trees towered over flowering bushes. Bees hummed filling the air with music and heavenly aromas nearly stunned her. She plucked fruits and devoured them by the score, walking in a daze to the water. Curiously, she saw steam rising from a pool that fed into the stream that became Silvermine River farther south. It smelled good, so she took off her travel-stained clothes and slipped in for a hot bath. Soothed and satisfied, Honeysuckle had only the strength to pull on her clothes before falling asleep in the warm spring sunshine. Her final thoughts were that she’d stay here and apprentice with Sheba rather than steal again and climb back up those fearsome mountains to slave for that witch Narexia.
A none to gentle kick to the gut woke Honeysuckle. She scuttled away but was brought up hard to her feet by an iron grip on her upper arms.
“Who? What?” she stuttered but the two men were silent as they led her through the gardens.
She couldn’t think of the beauteous greenery as anything else. Within a couple hundred feet the tangle of flowers and fruit trees indeed gave way to formally manicured gardens with gravel pathways and a fountain or two. Honeysuckle was dazed by her captors’ rough treatment in this soft lush paradise. They took her toward a rough-cut stone castle, unlike the smooth marble of the Governor’s Manor. At least, one of the men had brought her pack along. Swiftly they led her into the castle and through a twist of halls and rooms until she found herself standing before a beautiful woman in a deep purple gown who reclined on a divan.
“You must be Sheba,” Honeysuckle began with a smile. “I must say-”
“Silence!!” the woman screamed.
The two men had dropped to their knees upon entering the sunlit chamber.
“You will speak when asked. Now, who sent you?”
“I wish to stay here and--”
At a nod from Sheba the man to Honeysuckle’s left drew his hand up and slapped her viciously, sending her spinning to the floor with stars spinning in front of her eyes.
“I don’t care what you wish. Someone sent you here with directions and what specific instructions? Answer me!”
Honeysuckle saw the flicker of the truthtell’s red T and pastsight’s blue eye. Suddenly she realized what a trap Narexia had thrown her into: Narexia had meant to get her killed rather than have to deal with training an uneducated apprentice. Rather than impart a few simple spells like the gold one, she’d sent Honeysuckle here to her avowed enemy, completely unprotected and hopelessly unprepared. Anger at the betrayal soared in Honeysuckle’s heart like a phoenix from the flame.
“Narexia’s apprentice,” Sheba said slowly in a menacing tone. “Sent to recover her longevity spell. As if you could.” Sheba relaxed again on the divan. “Narexia must be going senile in her old age. The only way to take a longevity spell is to rip it out, along with everything I’ve built since gaining it. Ha!” Sheba was anything but amused. She watched as Honeysuckle gathered herself for flight.
“All right. I’ll do Narexia’s dirty work for her. Just like the old bag to dump her trash on me. Stuart.”
The man who’d struck her twitched his head.
“Cut her throat.”
Honeysuckle was thunderstruck. What of the Council of Light? Did they know of these monsters? Of course they did, Narexia was one of them! The High Wizard of the Council of Light! Rumors from the north were true. Darkness was creeping throughout the land so slowly and subtly that no one seemed to notice.
Stuart drew his short sword while the other man held her firm. Honeysuckle’s eyes blazed defiance into Sheba’s. Why didn’t the wizard kill her with a spell? Honeysuckle looked deeply through the shiny spells of otherwhere. Sheba had many more than Jasper but perhaps not as many as Narexia.
Then she knew. They were almost all connected to her longlife spell by a thin, barely visible strand of white. And she didn’t dare cast a spell on Honeysuckle because she feared the untutored girl’s demonstrated power to wrest it from her.
Stuart lifted his shining blade, edge sharpened by many strokes of the whetstone. Honeysuckle reached into otherwhere. She gripped with all her might even though her hands were held behind her by the slave. Sheba screamed. Honeysuckle groped and pulled, she ripped the longlife spell out by its roots and tucked it and all the hundreds of attached spells under her armpit. Sheba shrieked again and fell to the floor jerking and writhing in pain even as her body withered, her beauty along with it.
The two men scuttled backwards toward the room’s exit. Honeysuckle watched horrified as Sheba drew her last horrible-sounding gasp. Without thought she dove forward and squirmed to touch her lips to those of the wizard Sheba. She drew in the filthy taste of the woman’s dying breath and felt it fly through her soul burning and clearing away everything Honeysuckle ever knew about herself.
She saw the greed behind why Okeene kept her alive in her childhood. The lust behind Donaphin’s generous gold. The worm of petty rivalry biting its way through the Council of Light by burrowing into the hearts of its members.
She saw herself for what she was, an unschooled ragamuffin, a naive street urchin, a bastard of the powerful wizard Zachary who couldn’t be bothered with raising his own daughter left on the doorstep of an innkeeper who already had nine children of his own.
“My goodness,” she heard a voice give a hearty chuckle, “The young thief has struck again.”
She saw Jasper, his purity of motive, his selfless love of all living beings, the heavy burdens of loneliness, separation, and austerity that he joyfully bore to enhance his powers and service to others.
“I’m sorry, Master Wizard Jasper, sir,” Honeysuckle whispered.
“No harm done, girl. But tell me, what are you going to do now?”
With all this power, went unspoken though Honeysuckle heard it clearly enough.
“I’m going to learn what’s best to do,” she answered feeling herself very small and Master Jasper very great.
Honeysuckle lay some time staring at the universe opened wide inside her. She perused many books of wisdom and spells, history and literature. At the forefront were spells of binding the will of others, causing fear spells, working to extremes, killing or crippling spells; and juxtaposed, garden growing spells, warm air, fertile ground, and hardiness spells. Honeysuckle nudged all these aside and found the gold spell. There were several; a vicious one that merely cloaked stone in a temporary illusion meant not only to cheat the unwary, but to let them know they’d been cheated at a specified time. Then there was the location spell that pulled existing gold from a mine or storeroom, and finally the spell that transmuted the elements of stone into real gold, at the cost of a significant expense of vital energy.
Satisfied, Honeysuckle rose from the vast legacy of knowledge Sheba had bequeathed her and turned to find Stuart and the other, ah, Josh was his name, cowering at her feet. The castle stretched out before and behind her. Miles of gardens, even a pool for swimming. Hundreds of servants, slaves rather. Closets of fine silks, linens, woolens, and cottons.
“Your command, Master?” Josh asked in a fear-choked whisper.
Sheba was a pile of dust at Honeysuckle’s feet. She stooped to pick up her pack, then rose and brushed it off.
“I don’t give a shite what you do,” she said addressing Josh. “I got what I came for.” She didn’t even want food from the dead woman’s stores, so full of envy and greed was everything Sheba touched.
Honeysuckle drew her pack over her shoulder and headed out into the sun. Already the fruit trees were sagging and the air was much cooler. Tomorrow or the next day would see her in Silvermine. Another few days would see her at Clearfont. She’d always daydreamed as a little girl of riding a ferry down the Cardinal Falls River to the Ice. Maybe she’d catch a ferry at Clearfont and go down the Silvermine. All the rivers coming out of the South Mountains fed into the Ice. Maybe she’d ride it all the way to the Sea, find some girls her own age, do something new and strange, like learn to wear a dress.
“That sounds like an excellent idea,” a kindly voice whispered on the rising breeze.


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