Sulat and Alois stopped at the Blue Stag Inn for a rest. Their adventures abroad had not paid well, so they ordered watered down beer and kitchen scraps for supper. They settled themselves in their usual seats in the corner, from which most of the tavern was visible. Sulat had barely crossed her ankles on the table before a wide-brimmed hat waded through the crowd of smoking men toward them.
‘Soby, we only got back today,’ Sulat muttered into her pewter cup. I haven’t even put the sigils on the wall yet.
From a distance, Andra could have been a girl in her late teens, only a little younger than Sulat. Slim-built, she had round amber eyes, full cheeks, soft brown hair, and full lips that never seemed to close around her front teeth. But up close, there were faint lines around her eyes and mouth. The fence’s real age was anyone’s guess, and she used the innocence of her face with the cunning of experience to swindle customers better than anyone Sulat had ever known.
‘All right, Andra?’ Alois asked as their occasional employer sat at their table. His voice was low, gravelly, and slow as though he was perpetually half asleep.
‘Could be better, my love,’ Andra said conversationally. ‘I have a job that I think would be perfect for you two, seeing as now you’re back.’
Sulat picked at her dry cheese and gamy beef trimmings, watching a couple of men arguing over cards and chewing long white pipes. She let Alois take the lead, tapping her foot irritably. People always preferred negotiating with him over her; it must have been the sincerity of his face. She had learnt to stop fighting it and listen in, while keeping keen on everything else. Alois never had the knack for doing two things at once.
Andra set her basket on the table. It was full of mushrooms, but there was likely some rare treasure bundled at the bottom. She often used legitimate businesses, like making deliveries for bakers and farmers, as a cover for her real work.
‘What do you need?’ Alois asked.
‘Away to the south, but still within the forest, there’s a wizard living in a tower.’ Andra lowered her voice unnecessarily. The tavern was raucous, deafening with bawdy songs and enthusiastic conversation. ‘All kinds of things are up there, I’ve heard, but I need you to get something called, “snakebite stones.” Ever heard of them?’ Sulat and Alois shook their heads. ‘Well, a snakebite stone is a rock with a perfectly round hole in the centre. You find natural ones on beaches and the like, and they’re said to ward off snake poison, but that’s babble. The proper ones are made by wizards and they do that and more. If you look through the hole at something that’s been enchanted, you can see right through the magic. This wizard is supposed to have a whole bag of them.
‘Now, this job might be a bit tricky. I’m told there’s only one door, right at the top of the tower. I’m not sure how the wizard gets up there, so you’ll need to be clever. But that’ll be no trouble for you, I’m sure.’ Andra squeezed Alois’ arm.
‘What’s the pay?’ Alois asked. He had a quirk of widening his prominent eyes for emphasis.
‘Forty sils, if you get back in three days.’ Andra stood.
‘How far is the tower?’ Alois pinched the bridge of his battered nose.
‘I don’t know. Best not dawdle.’ Andra hoisted her basket and disappeared through the crowd.
Alois groaned, ran a hand through his unruly brown hair and over his scrubby beard, and slumped against the wooden booth. Sulat sympathised, they needed sleep. But forty silver sils was too much money to pass up, and they had been camping on the road for over a month.
Sulat and Alois had a tense relationship with Andra. They needed her for employment, but they chafed under the yoke of her business schedule. Last time, they’d been arrested, nearly hanged, broke out, and then she docked them half for being late. Still, they preferred that to having to deal with her enforcers.
Sulat heaved herself to her feet and tapped Alois’ shoulder armour. If they left tonight, they could make at least some progress. Alois grumbled, but gulped his ale, wrapped the slice of beef around his bread and cheese, and gnawed at it as he followed Sulat out of the inn.
They set out into darkness, dust and the smell of horses heavy on the warm breeze, guided by blue-grey moonlight filtering through the forest. A carriage rattled past, the powdered wig of its wealthy passenger swaying within. Sulat rolled her shoulders back as it travelled down the road. Any other night, she and Alois might have pulled it over. It surely held more than forty sils, perhaps even a gilder or two.
The Stag sat on the crossroads of the Capital Road, which ran from the ridge in the east to Ildecoke Island in the west; and the South Road, which crossed it northwest to southeast. They turned right, heading south.
The sun stood directly overhead when a high melodic sound floated toward Sulat. She put up a hand.
A crushed shrub stood out on the forest floor. And another. A faint line of trampled plants and smooth earth meandered along the ground. Sulat pointed.
‘If you were a wizard, you wouldn’t keep your tower right next to the road.’
‘If I were a wizard, a lot of things would be different.’ Alois grimaced, deepening the lines around his eyes.
Sulat picked her way down the new path, keeping to the vegetation alongside to avoid disturbing the trail. Alois’ heavy footfalls followed her.
Why do I bother with stealth?
They traced the song deep into the woods. Ahead, the trees thinned and the base of a round ivy-covered brick building came into sight, and Sulat and Alois ducked into the shadows around the clearing. As Andra said, there was one door, high up the wall near the peaked roof.
It’s a dovecote. It should have a bottom door.
‘I’m surprised it’s still standing. Damn ettins destroyed everything they saw,’ Alois whispered. ‘Are you sure this is the place?’
‘I only see one entry.’
‘All right, then.’ Alois dropped his pack. ‘I guess we wait.’
They sat in silence as the day darkened around them. Sulat leaned against a tree in the shade, and Alois fidgeted with a deck of cards. Light shone on the leather cuff protecting his right shoulder, embossed with a daffodil and a dog, some regimental symbolism from the war seven years ago. He had risen to the rank of sergeant, but that was all she knew.
Something rustled in the forest and a small hooded figure appeared through the trees, stopping in front of the tower.
‘Daughter! Let me up!’ a man’s thin voice called.
A shining white rope flew out of the window. The man grabbed hold and began to climb.
‘Is that…hair?’ Alois mouthed through curling lips.
It did look that way—long blonde plaited hair. Sulat frowned.
Who would lock someone in a tower and climb her hair?
The next morning, the wizard descended again. As he left the clearing, Alois stepped in front of him, dragon pistol drawn. The man tried to run, but Sulat blocked his path behind, her rapier pointed in his face.
‘What do you want? I have no money.’ The man’s voice was high, almost feminine. Behind him, the hair rope inched back up the tower wall.
‘We need the snakebite stones,’ Sulat said. ‘Where are they?’
The old man gasped. A cloud of mist burst around him and he dashed into the woods.
‘Shit.’ Alois dodged a tree, gave chase, and tackled the frail old man. He yanked the cloak off and threw it at Sulat.
‘I’ll die before I give you those stones.’ The wizard’s voice was muffled in the dirt.
‘You don’t have to give them to us.’ Alois grunted. ‘We’re just going to take them. No one needs to die today.’
The man wiggled and found something in his pocket. He shot out from under Alois and sped away. Alois scrambled after him, caught an ankle, and yanked him back.
‘That’s enough, souls.’ Alois shoved a rag from his pocket into the wizard’s mouth, tied his wrists with a bit of rope, and propped him against a tree. He adjusted his sword belt and set his gravel-filled leather sap across his knee. ‘I don’t want to hit you, but I will if you don’t behave yourself.’
The old man glared silently under a scuffed forehead, and Sulat advanced into the clearing.
‘Daughter!’ she called, imitating the man’s voice. ‘It’s me, let me back up.’
‘Father?’ a girl’s voice answered. ‘You’ve barely been gone a minute. You sound strange.’
Sulat swore, hiding her face.
‘I’m hurt,’ she shouted, leaning even more. ‘I landed badly on my ankle. Hurry!’
The blonde hair tumbled back down and swayed in front of her. She seized it, laid her weight into it, and climbed.
Damn, this is harder than it looks. The hair was slippery and elastic and Sulat’s fingers slid between the sections of the plait. It was easier in breeches than it would have been in a dress, but it was still difficult. She puffed and wiped her brow as she reached the window and threw a leg over.
Sulat unsheathed her dagger and pointed it into the girl’s round, wide-eyed face.
‘Against the wall. Go.’ Sulat kept the girl in sight and hauled up the hair rope.
The room was comfortable, with fine furniture, and numerous glass-paned windows. Hundreds of holes dotted the walls where doves and pigeons would once have roosted, and some had been made into cupboards. There were two plush beds, draped in silk and velvet, and a dining table set with silver dishes and a daisy in a vase. A long table stood against the far side of the round tower with an assortment of glass phials and instruments, the trappings of an alchemy set.
‘Where are the snakebite stones?’ Sulat asked.
‘I won’t tell you.’ The girl’s voice quavered as she raised her chin.
‘No? What are they to you?’ Sulat slunk toward the girl like a panther. ‘I have your father, and you have my stones. Do the smart thing.’
‘My father wouldn’t want me to give them up.’ The girl backed up the stairs, clinging to the banister.
‘Would he rather you starve?’ Sulat purred, leaning into the innocent face. The girl hugged her arms around herself, still resistant. ‘If I leave here without the stones, I’ll have to take your father to make them for me. What will happen to you, all alone up here?’
The girl bit her lip. The blue eyes moved slowly to a small door set into the wall and returned to Sulat’s. Sulat backed up, flicked the cupboard open, and removed a locked box and a silver hairbrush. She tossed the brush back into the hole, broke the lock with her dagger and opened it. A black bag lay inside, containing a handful of small triangular stones with perfect holes in the centre. Sulat held one up and scanned the room.
Through the stone, the room was bleak and dingy, the paint cracked and caked with ancient bird droppings, the beams full of termite holes, the furniture busted and threadbare. One of the beds looked like it did without the stone, but the other was a straw mattress on the floor, and the silver plates were all broken pottery. The glass windows were nooks like the holes and cupboards, the only real light coming from the door. The girl’s blue dress was tattered and dirty, her cheeks were hollow, her bare feet black on the soles, and her long hair was coarse and straw-like. Only the alchemy set and the hairbrush were clean and well cared for.
Sulat’s stomach turned. The edges of her vision blurred and her legs ached. I need to get out of here.
She tucked the bag into her belt, tossed down the hair ladder and climbed back down, ignoring the girl’s cry of pain. The hair still felt healthy and soft, but she worried that the thing would snap.
Sulat tossed the bag to Alois.
‘Did you get them?’ he asked.
Sulat nodded, rolling her shoulders. Her hands shook as she hauled the wizard to his feet.
I need a wash.
‘What’s wrong?’ Alois asked.
‘It’s disgusting up there. That girl is starving.’ She’s a prisoner.
The old man broke away, but Alois caught him by the collar of his shirt and yanked him back, knuckles white. Alois spun the man around to face him.
Souls, not now.
‘You got that girl up there somehow. How?’ The man sputtered, and Alois shook him. ‘How?’ he roared, reaching for his pistol.
The man gagged and jerked his head toward the base of the tower and Alois stomped off. Sulat kept a hold on the man and growled, ‘Alois, we have what we came for!’
But he was gone to her. He ran around the outside of the tower twice before using the stone to find what he was after. Sulat listened to the sounds of a big man struggling to move something heavy. The noises stopped, and were replaced a moment later by a shrill scream and shattering glass. Sulat sucked her teeth.
Him and his damn causes.
The girl only screamed once, so he must have proven himself somehow. The long white rope flowed back up the wall and disappeared, and Alois came around the tower carrying a large pack, dragging the girl by her hand.
‘There’s no food up there, Sulat,’ he spat, his fist balled. The old man cowered beside Sulat, pale and shaking. The girl clutched at her chest and gasped for air. ‘There’s no food up there, there’s no firewood, there’s not even a damned chamber pot! She’s…oh.’ Alois stopped abruptly. ‘It’s the girl.’ He rounded on the wizard, who backed away so fast he nearly choked himself.
‘What do you mean?’ Sulat yanked the old man back.
‘Look at her, Sulat. He’s sucked her dry.’ Alois shouted down at the old man, ‘You don’t have any magic of your own, do you? Is it her, or is it her hair? Let’s find out.’ He shoved the girl in front of him and she wobbled under his heavy hand, whimpering. He gathered the blonde plait in one hand, drew his dagger, and yanked it in one quick slice through the hair.
The enchantment broke as the dull grey-blonde tangle fell about her filthy feet. The crumbling remains of the old dovecote stood stark in the clearing, with barely a roof and holes formed by fallen bricks. A large stone peeked around the back of it.
That’s where the door was. The girl never knew there was another way out.
‘So, it is her hair,’ Alois said, shoulders relaxing.
‘No.’ The old man spat out the rag. ‘But what does it matter anymore?’
‘Good point.’ Alois nodded. The girl was trembling with sobs, so Alois wrapped the wizard’s cloak around her and she fell to her knees. He knelt down beside her.
It’ll be dark soon. We still have to get back to the inn. Sulat tapped her foot.
‘I’m sorry about that, but I had to try to free you. You’ll come with us, all right?’ Alois said. ‘We’ll get you some food and find you a safe place to live.’ The girl’s chin and lip quivered. She ran a hand over the back of her head and the blunt ends of her hair.
‘Alois, we don’t have time,’ Sulat reminded him. He’s always taking in strays.
The girl looked back at her tower, then at the old man, and finally at Alois.
‘I’ll come with you,’ she whispered hoarsely.
Really? Well, she’s brave. She might actually have a shot.
Alois helped the girl to her feet, and she wriggled out of the cloak, her shoulders squaring as she and Alois set off down the forest path. Sulat dragged the wizard behind them.
As the lights of the inn twinkled through the trees, Alois took hold of the wizard, charging Sulat with the bag of stolen goods and getting the girl a hot meal.
The girl shied away from Sulat, but went with her all the same. They arrived at the Stag, and Sulat bought the girl a bowl of stew. Though it was standard tavern fare, Sulat guessed it was the only actual food the girl had eaten in some time.
‘What’s your name?’ the girl asked, tucking into her bowl.
‘Sulat.’ She didn’t ask the girl her name. It was best not to get too involved with Alois’ pets.
‘I’m Eina,’ the girl supplied anyway, smiling.
‘At least, I think I am,’ she said slowly, hesitating. ‘I suppose I don’t know anything, really.’
‘That means you can be whoever you want. No one knows the truth.’ Sulat dusted off her tooled leather boots and pulled her pipe out of her pocket. I would know.
Alois dragged the wizard to the back of the inn, where he found two men he knew well. Tall, and thin as starving dogs, the thief-takers lounged at their table, hoisting pewter cups. Swarthy Huw with the long scar down his cheek, and dashing Col with his auburn hair tied in a blue ribbon watched Alois approach with slow smiles.
‘New friend, Alois?’ Huw nodded at the old man. ‘He’s not as fair as your last.’
‘Though “fair” might not be the word for Sulat,’ Col said. Both men chuckled at his joke, and Alois rubbed his brow.
‘Enough of that, lads. I come with gifts.’
‘Turning yourself in at last, are you?’ Huw asked, gulping his drink.
‘No,’ Alois said. ‘But you can probably get a handsome reward from the magistrate for this one.’
‘What’s the charge?’ Col asked.
‘Kidnapping.’ Alois considered. ‘Imprisonment. Good case for witchcraft.’
Huw and Col dropped their feet to the floor and leaned forward.
‘Proof?’ Col asked.
‘Here, hold this.’ Alois dug in his pocket for a scrap of paper and pushed the wizard toward Huw. Huw took hold of the old man and Alois scribbled out a map with a graphite stick, circling the location of the dovecote. ‘The girl is with Sulat over there. I’ll set her up for the night, but you can question her. You should be able to get enough for a case. You can make up the rest.’
Huw and Col nodded along, their attention wandering to Sulat and the girl. Col’s light eyes snapped back to Alois and Huw’s followed.
‘And you?’ Col asked, a smirk creeping across his face.
As thief-takers, their business was taking thieves to court. A successful conviction, and subsequent hanging, filled their pockets with silver. They had been trying to get Alois and Sulat for years. They knew they were thieves, but could never prove it or catch them in the act. Over the years, the two teams developed a grudging friendship, but the thief-takers needed incentive not to turn their considerable skills on Alois and Sulat.
Alois dug in his pocket for something of value, and tossed a silver snuffbox to Huw.
‘You take snuff, right?’
Huw’s face lit up as he flipped the small metal cube over in his tan fingers. Col pouted.
‘And what about me?’
‘You’ve got your looks.’ Col and Huw both scowled at Alois, and he grinned. ‘You can probably sell it for
more silver than it’s made of. There’s a good chance it’s magic. And even if it’s not, you gents are good at lying.’
The thief-takers nodded, stood, and held out their hands for Alois to shake.
‘Pleasure doing business.’ Huw pushed the wizard ahead of him toward the door.
‘And don’t forget.’ Col winked. ‘One slip and it’s the noose.’
Alois and Eina made instant friends, both chatty and amiable. She was about fifteen, from what the wizard had told her, and she hadn’t lived anywhere but the dovecote. Alois was fine with the girl, and Sulat was tired so she took the loot with her into the forest to set up camp.
We’ll go through it later. She dragged it with her into her tent and drifted off.
Rustling bushes woke her sometime later. Alois came stumbling toward her, bumped into a tree, and shooshed it.
‘What happened?’ Sulat asked, glaring.
‘Oh, Sulat, you should have seen her.’ Alois wobbled and flopped down in the grass. ‘One of the lads got a little familiar.’ He pushed his hands toward Sulat’s chest and swayed close, and she backed away from his loaded breath. ‘She slapped him. Sulat, five blisters, right here, on his face.’ Alois put his hand up to his own rosy cheek and wheezed in quiet laughter.
‘She burned him with her hand? So she is magic.’
‘H’oh yeah. She’s going to be fine.’ He rolled onto his back in the grass and was asleep in minutes.
Well, good for her.
The next morning, Alois was gone from where Sulat had left him, but loud snoring came from his tent. Sulat fetched some water from the stream and set about making coffee.
The smell woke Alois, and he stumbled out of his old army tent, tankard in front of him.
‘I’m going to let you handle Andra today,’ he grumbled over the hot liquid. ‘I have something to do.’
He always ran off whenever they were in this part of Viehland, and Sulat never asked.
‘Don’t tell her about the girl. Or what happened to the wizard, just to be sure.’
‘I’m going to keep two and give her the rest.’
Alois nodded. ‘Probably for the best.’
‘How long will you be?’
He snorted and his face darkened as he picked at his fingernails. ‘Who knows? Maybe all day, maybe an hour.’
‘Fine.’ Andra will be easy enough to deal with.
Alois left his pack with Sulat and headed off. Sulat hid their things in her secret hiding place, a hole beneath a hollowed-out tree. She scribbled her sigil, a stylised sword with a squiggly blade inside a keyhole, on a hidden patch of wall with a bit of chalk, and went in to wait for Andra.
Eina was awake and behind the bar, and beamed at Sulat.
‘Emrys is going to let me live here, and he’ll pay me for serving drinks to people,’ she said brightly.
Yes, that’s called a job. The girl likely didn’t know what that was, but it was kind of Emrys to let her stay. He probably hoped she’d help his son, Tophyl, with his social issues.
‘Good. I’ll have bread and butter, and I’ll be in the corner.’ She sat down with her drink and crossed her booted heels up on the table to have a nap.
A gruff hand pushed her feet to the ground, wrenching her awake. Andra’s two goons loomed above her.
Timur was an enormous man, a full head taller than Alois, with short black hair and an eye patch. His partner, Roul, was smaller and blonde with heavier features. Both men were blocky and heavily scarred, with jutting chins and matching broken noses. They were almost never apart and neither carried weapons.
‘I’m supposed to meet Andra,’ Sulat said by way of greeting.
‘She sent us.’ Roul gave a gappy leer, and dropped into the seat opposite. Sulat crossed her arms across her chest.
‘Look at you, a seat at the table.’ Timur cocked his head.
Sulat chewed her tongue. One misstep and they could choose to withhold payment, or worse.
‘An honour.’ She adopted the most sarcastic tone she could and tossed the bag of stones onto the table.
‘Where’s Alois?’ Roul asked, poking a thick finger through the hole of one of the stones.
‘More important than finishing a job?’
‘Job’s finished.’ Sulat stiffened.
‘Whoa, steady now.’ Timur put his hands up. ‘We’re just having a friendly chat.’
You’re stalling. Sulat’s jaw clenched.
‘Risky, isn’t it?’ Timur asked softly. ‘Leaving you here all alone.’
‘He must think I can handle myself.’ Sulat tensed her thigh, and her gun holster shifted around her leg.
‘Oh sure, in a fight, you’re a match for anyone. But this is business.’ Timur scratched a stubbly chin.
Roul held up a snakebite stone and squinted. ‘Huh. She really is pretty. I was sure it was a glamoury. That hair is real, too.’
They’re just baiting you into a fight so that they don’t have to pay. Blood rushed into her face and past her ears.
‘Well, I think we’re overstaying our welcome.’ Timur smacked Roul’s arm. ‘Give her the money, and let’s go. Andra’ll be done soon.’
Roul tossed a lumpy leather sack from his jacket at Sulat and scooped up the bag of stones.
‘Wait while I count it,’ she said, laying a hand on her blunderbuss.
Give me a reason, please.
The corner of Roul’s mouth twitched as she opened the bag.
It was dark when Alois returned to the inn. He sat and ran a hand through his hair.
‘How’d it go?’ he asked.
‘Did you get the money?’
‘Counted it myself before they left.’ Sulat tossed the bag onto the table.
‘They?’ Alois’ hands froze.
‘Andra was busy, apparently.’
‘How’d it go?’
‘It was lovely.’ Sulat pressed her lips together. ‘We had tea and chatted about the weather. How do you
think it went?’
‘Did they say nasty things to you?’
‘Of course. They wanted to talk to you.’ Sulat ground her teeth. ‘But I got the money and nobody got shot.’
‘So we can get rooms now?’ Alois picked a couple coins out of the bag.
Sulat tossed a key up to him. He was gone in an instant, shouting over his shoulder, ‘I’ll see you in the morning!’
She finished her drink and went up to bed as well. Neither of them knew how long it would be before they could afford separate beds again, and they weren’t going to waste the opportunity.