Authors: Jonathan Moeller
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Epic, #Historical, #90 Minutes (44-64 Pages), #Literature & Fiction, #Arthurian
THE THIEF'S TALE
Jager wants to become the perfect halfling servant, as his father and grandfather and ancestors were for generations beyond count.
But Jager's masters are not the noble and honorable knights he believes them to be.
And when blood, deceit, and murder descend upon his quiet life, Jager must make a decision that might cost him everything...
Frostborn: The Master Thief
Copyright 2014 by Jonathan Moeller.
Published by Azure Flame Media, LLC.
Cover image copyright Katerina Koroleva | Dreamstime.com & Andrey Kiselev | Dreamstime.com.
Ebook edition published May 2014.
All Rights Reserved.
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the author or publisher, except where permitted by law.
The Thief's Tale
Jager wanted to be like his father Hilder when he grew up.
As soon as Jager was old enough to walk, he accompanied Hilder on his rounds. Hilder was the chief servant in the domus of Sir Alan Tallmane, and the old knight’s halfling and human servants both reported to him. Jager always thought his father looked impressive as he strode along in his black coat of office, his boots polished to a mirror shine, his curly gray hair like a dusty mop atop his head. Humans were too tall, their eyes too small and their features too narrow, but at four feet and four inches tall, Hilder was exactly the right height to command respect.
“It is an honor to serve, Jager,” said Hilder one day as Jager helped him polish Sir Alan’s silver. The household only used the silver plates and goblets on high festival days, the Festivals of the Nativity and the Resurrection, or when Sir Alan and his sons entertained important guests. “A great honor.”
“Why?” said Jager. He never tired of asking that question, and fortunately his father never wearied of answering it.
“Because Sir Alan is a great man,” said Hilder, “and he is a vassal to even greater men. He holds his lands and the village of Caudea as a benefice from the Comes of Westhold, who in turn holds them from the Dux Samothus Carhaine of Caerdracon, who is himself a vassal of the great and noble High King Utharan Pendragon.”
“But why is it an honor to serve human lords?” said Jager. “We are halflings. Shouldn’t we have our own lords and kings?”
“Because without the High King,” said Hilder, “without his Swordbearers and his Magistri, we would still be slaves.”
“Slaves?” said Jager with a laugh. “I’ve never been a slave.” He passed a polished goblet to his father, who looked at it, nodded in approval, and handed Jager another one. The humans’ drinking goblets were all too large. Maybe that was why old Sir Alan was drunk almost all the time.
“And you have never been a slave,” said Hilder, “because the High King freed us. Long ago our kindred came to this world, Jager, summoned here by sorcery. The dark elves and the orcs kept us as slaves, and the urdmordar raised us as cattle to slake their appetites. Then the High King and his armies overthrew the orcish kings, defeated the dark elven princes, and threw down the urdmordar. In the Year of Our Lord 700, the High King Calegraine Pendragon freed our ancestors, and in gratitude, they swore loyalty and service to the High King's knights and nobles until the end of time. Seven and a half centuries have passed since that day, and it is our honor, our privilege, to continue that service.” He grunted. “Polish the base of the goblet like…that. Yes, just so.”
Hilder taught Jager how to conduct the affairs of a noble knight’s household, speaking of their history and traditions as they did. Hilder knew the name of his father, and his father, and his father before him, all the way back to their distant ancestor who had sworn to serve the first Tallmane to settle in the village of Caudea. Once these lands had been ruled by a tribe of pagan orcs, but Sir Alan’s ancestor had driven them into the forests of Mhorluusk, and in exchange for their freedom the halflings had sworn themselves to Sir Alan and his heirs.
“We continue their noble work to this day,” said Hilder.
Jager nodded. His father had been so melancholy after the sickness had taken his mother four years past. But listening to him speak of his work, his devotion to their traditions of service, Hilder seemed like a different man, transformed from a sorrowing widower to a man of high purpose.
Jager soaked it up like a sponge. Someday, Jager vowed, he would be as trusted and as respected as his father. He would continue the noble traditions of his people, and serve the human lords and knights who had liberated them from the urdmordar.
He learned everything his father taught, from how to polish silver to how to prepare a perfect feast for a visiting Dux. He learned how to haggle with merchants for supplies, since merchants were dishonest cheaters who would ever try to fleece Sir Alan of his money, and how to gauge the proper price for goods.
Hilder taught him to read in Latin, and sometimes Jager sneaked into the chapel’s library, reading the chronicles of the High King and the realm of Andomhaim, of battles against the dark elves and the pagan orcs and the urdmordar. Sometimes he dreamed of fighting in those battles, of following the Dragon Knight against the Frostborn and the dark horrors of the north. Yet Jager knew Sir Alan had nightmares, screaming about the High King’s campaign against the dark elven prince of Nightmane Forest five years past, and Jager suspected a war might not be as glorious as his imagination claimed.
Still, he dreamed about the places he read about in the books, the High King’s citadel of Tarlion, the great cities of Cintarra and Coldinium, the strong castras of Durandis and the broad, manetaur-hunted plains of Caertigris. He wondered what it would be like to pack a bag and see those places with his own eyes, to walk the roads of the High King’s realm with his own feet.
But that was a foolish daydream. He was a halfling of Caudea, and he would follow in his father’s footsteps and serve the Tallmanes, just as Hilder’s father had done before him, and his father and his father for seven centuries.
Yet sometimes his restlessness surfaced, such as when he raced his older sister Dagma up and down the walls of the Tallmanes’ domus.
Humans were stronger than halflings, but halflings were more agile and quick. A halfling woman of a century could bend over and touch her toes, or bend backwards and touch her heels, a feat that most humans in their prime found impossible. Because of that, many domi of Andomhaim had been built with handholds along the walls, allowing halfling servants to come and go unseen by their human masters. In bad weather the halflings kept to the inner hallways, but when the sun shone they scaled the walls with ease.
Jager could climb faster than any other halfling in Caudea. Dagma claimed otherwise, but Jager meant to prove her wrong.
“Go!” shouted Dagma. She was three years Jager’s senior, just shy of her twentieth birthday, with wide amber-colored eyes and blond hair that hung loose to her shoulders. Most halflings, men and women alike, had curly hair, but Dagma’s was unfailingly straight. When taunted with it, she replied that God had promised to make straight the crooked ways, which was just proof that God loved her more.
She was charming enough to pull off the argument.
Jager raced for the wall of the domus. The Tallmanes’ domus had been built two centuries ago, after the Frostborn had been driven from Caerdracon, and it had three stories of rooms surrounding a broad atrium, the tilted roof covered in tiles of fired red clay. Today the domus was deserted save for the servants. Sir Alan had gone to the village to hear disputes, and all his sons were away, serving as squires in the courts of other nobles. Traditionally Hilder permitted the servants to enjoy a few liberties when the family was away, and today was no different.
Jager reached the wall a heartbeat before Dagma and scrambled up. There were handholds and footholds in the white stone of the wall, too small for grown humans but large enough for an adult halfling. Dagma whooped and started to climb, but Jager was already several feet off the ground. He passed the windows to Sir Alan’s dining room, the windows of the library on the second floor, and then the guest rooms on the third.
He grabbed the gutter at the edge of the roof and heaved himself up, and a moment later Dagma followed suit.
“I win,” Jager announced, striking a dramatic pose.
Dagma laughed and brushed blond hair out of her face. “When did you get so fast, boy? Last I remember you were still fouling your diapers and playing in the mud.”
“You should pay better attention,” said Jager.
He took a moment to catch his breath, admiring the view. In all directions he saw cleared fields alternating with patches of forest and pasture. The village of Caudea filled the shallow valley below the domus, smoke rising from its chimneys. Beyond, far to the north, Jager saw the vast blue-gray mass of the Lake of Mourning itself. The Northerland touched the lake’s northern shore, as did the orcish kingdom of Mhorluusk and the vast uncharted reaches of the Qazaluuskan Forest.
Suddenly he wanted to see those places so badly it felt like a thirst.
“Do you ever think about leaving?” he heard himself say.
“What?” said Dagma with a frown. “To do what?”
Jager shrugged, uncomfortable. “To see the realm, I suppose. The great cities and the High King’s court. Do you ever want to see them?”
“No,” said Dagma. “It is a dangerous world out there. The dark elves and the pagan orcs would make us slaves again, and the urdmordar and the kobolds would just eat us. Sir Alan protects us. And why would we want to leave? We have everything we need in the domus and the village.”
“I suppose you are right,” said Jager. And yet…
“Oh, you’ve got that look again, all those silly ideas from those silly books,” said Dagma, tugging a loose thread from the sleeve of her dress. “When we race again and I thump you soundly, that will give you something proper to worry about it.”
“Oh, will it?” said Jager. “Then let’s make it interesting! We’re on the western side of the house. I’ll run to the northern face of the domus, and you’ll run to the southern face. Whoever climbs down and makes it to the fountain in the atrium first wins.”
“You’re on!” said Dagma, and she started running toward the southern edge of the roof, keeping her balance perfectly. Jager shouted and ran for the northern edge, rolling over the lip and getting a grip on the handholds. The handholds would take him past Sir Alan’s quarters and then to the kitchen. From the kitchen, he could cut through into the atrium and reach the fountain long before Dagma ever…
A low, grunting moan came from the window to Sir Alan’s rooms.
Jager froze in alarm. It sounded like someone was in pain. Sir Alan was old and not in the best of health. What if he had fallen and injured himself? Or if he had been overcome by some sickness? He might need help.
The race forgotten, Jager moved to the windows and pulled open the shutters. Within he saw Sir Alan’s bedroom, dominated by the massive bed. Sir Alan lay facedown and nude upon it, his weight supported on his arms as he grunted and heaved. Beneath him sprawled a naked human woman, her hair pooling beneath her head, her eyes closed as she moaned. She was the unwed oldest daughter of the miller in the village, and sometimes Jager saw her when he went with Hilder to buy flour for the domus.
The sight was so bizarre that Jager could not look away.
Then the miller’s daughter turned her head and saw him. Her heavy-lidded eyes popped wide, and she let out a shriek and tried to scramble away, but Sir Alan’s bulk held her fast. The old knight scowled, his face red and sweaty behind his bristling mustache, and turned his head.
He glared at Jager.
“Hilder!” he roared, pounding the bed with a meaty fist. “Get in here!”
“But they are not married!” said Jager.
He sat in his father’s room, the chamber dominated by a huge desk where Hilder kept the household accounts. A pair of stools sat before the desk, and Jager occupied one. Hilder stood next to the other, his expression pained. He looked angry, and Jager felt guilty over that.
Yet his father also looked…ashamed? But that made no sense. Hilder had done nothing wrong.
“Yes, I am aware of that,” said Hilder.
“Are they getting married, then?” said Jager, stunned. Why would Sir Alan marry a miller’s daughter? Perhaps he had been carried away by her beauty, as King David had been carried away by the loveliness of Bathsheba.
Though Jager thought her too tall and stout.
“They are not,” said Hilder, staring at the cabinet that held the silver.
“But…but what if she gets with child?” said Jager.
“Then Sir Alan will provide for her and the child,” said Hilder, “and send them to live somewhere out of the way. Probably at the Comes’s court in Westhold.” His voice grew quiet. “It is not the first time.”