Honour of Thieves

© August 1989

The small crowd of late-comers streamed through the arched entrance to the amphitheatre. Already, the roar of the excited spectators inside could be heard over the high walls surrounding Urswell’s largest sporting venue. It was the mid-autumn holiday, and the thronging crowds had been fully entertained by an afternoon of blood, gore and excitement. One of the crowd, a stooped old woman, guided by a blonde boy looked all around as she scuttled along in the midst of the bustle.

“This way Dian.” she croaked, pushing the boy’s arm to guide them over to one side of the gateway. Here, the arch became an entrance tunnel, taking them through the side of the oval amphitheatre to the terraces from where they could see the arena. Just past the gates were the toll booths, where the silver piece was collected that would gain them admittance. The toll booths were guarded by two bored looking sentries, and were manned by several clerks, each carefully testing the coins as they were handed over. There had been a rash of forged coins in the town lately, so everyone approved of this apparent insult to their integrity. Just beyond the booths, the tunnel began to slope upwards, climbing from ground level to the level of the terraces. Torches lined the tunnel, blackening the roof above them. At the base of the ramp, a narrow passage led off at an angle, all but hidden in the shadows.

The old woman paused by the passage, apparently tired out from walking. The little boy stood by her side, bright blue eyes darting all around. After a few moments he nodded his head and the old woman slipped quickly into the darker passage, her swiftness defying her apparent age.

Quickly moving along the darkened tunnel, she paused only to peel away part of her shawl that hung about her throat. At a whispered command, a faint glow appeared from the pearl set on a chain she wore around her neck. It was now possible to see some way along the dark passage.

Inside, the passage branched two ways. Listening very carefully down each, Kallisti could detect faint sounds of activity down one but not the other. Here in the depths of the amphitheatre’s structure, the sound of the crowd was faint, like the distant wash of the sea on the shore. Tightening the straps which held the padding of her disguise in place, Kallisti stealthily moved forward, drawing her throwing dagger and hiding it in the baggy sleeve of her costume.

Ahead she could see the door which would lead to the strong room. It was located in an alcove off the passage she was in. Opposite would be the guard’s station. This was the tricky part. From the information she had been able to gather, she believed there would be only one guard outside the strong room. If there were two, she would have a problem. Her heart was pounding now, her palms sweaty with a nervousness that irritated her.

Tossing a pebble ahead of her, she crouched in the shadow of the passage, waiting for the guard to show himself to the eager point of her dagger, poised in her hand. There was no sign of a response, no sound bar the clatter of the stone echoing faintly down the tunnel. Kallisti scowled, narrowing her eyes and pushing her hearing to the limit. She could not even hear breathing from ahead. Cautiously, she inched her way forward to the very corner of the alcove and with a sudden pounce was into the alcove where the guard stood.

The long dagger in his chest was imbedded far enough into the wood behind him that it could support his full weight. His eyes stared sightlessly forward, a look of surprise contorting his rigid features. She span on her heels, crouching low, dagger ready as the strong room door creaked open.

“What has taken you so long? I’ve been waiting over an hour for you.” a hissing voice came from the darkened interior. She felt the surge of a spell activating and the walls of the strong room began to fluoresce, shedding a pale green light. The back wall was piled high with chests, each bearing a large padlock. Before them was a desk with several neat piles of coins next to the slumped form of the clerk. A dark stain spread across his back. Next to the desk stood the owner of the voice – a dark-cloaked figure, small, yet emanating an aura of menace. The figure let the hood of his cloak fall to his shoulders.

“Zandros!” Kallisti hissed, recognising the effeminate, pretty features of Triad Gaull’s master thief. “What are you doing here?” she moved into the room, her dagger still in her hand – there was no love lost between the two of them.

“The same as you. I felt the need to liberate some of the council’s profits from today’s entertainments. It seems, though, I have beaten you to it – never mind, no doubt you’ll be able to steal a few coppers from the beggars in the crowd.” he sneered at her, scooping most of the coins piled on the desk into a pouch.

“Pig!” she snarled.

“Oink.” he replied, turning his back on her contemptuously. Kallisti snarled and made as if to lunge at him. Her arm froze mid-swing, a hand clamped vice-like around her wrist. Zandros stood directly before her, his pale blue eyes gazing unblinking into her’s. A faint smile played on his full, pouting lips. Suddenly, he lunged forward and kissed her. His lips were wet and up close he smelled of primroses.

“Triad wants to see us both immediately.” he whispered, grasping her other wrist before she had a chance to swing at him. “I’m sure he wants us both in one piece, don’t you agree?” With the last word, his knee jerked upwards to catch her in the groin. She gasped and sank to her knees as Zandros twisted her wrist savagely to remove the dagger from her hand. “Come, let us not waste any more time.” he commanded, dragging her to her feet.

The wind off the sea was cold and lashed the exposed ledge with fiercely driven rain. It was a shocking contrast to the balmy weather of just a few hours before, but it was not unknown for these sudden wintery storms to sweep down from the northern latitudes. Kallisti hugged herself under her cloak and shivered as a rivulet of cold water ran off her hair and down her back under her short silken dress. She was not dressed for this weather and Zandros knew it. That was why he had volunteered her to perch out here, exposed on the side of the cliffs south across the bay and around the headland from Urswell. He was snug and dry, protected from the ravages of the elements inside the labyrinth of caves in the limestone cliffs.

“Someone,” Triad had said when the two of them finally found him earlier that day, “is diverting some of the goods from the smuggler’s landings. I’m not sure who is involved, so I’m sending you two along to find out and deal with the thief.”

A lot of good she was doing stuck out here. The storm was so thick that she would not be able to see a light even if the oncoming boat showed one. Anyway, why was she out here – this was not what Triad had sent her to do. Sniffing with indignation, as well as the cold, she scrambled along the outcrop and back into the cave that led her back into the labyrinth.

Shaking herself to throw off some of the water, she descended from the dark of night into the deeper dark of the caves. At a word, the pearl at her throat glowed feebly. It too was cold and wet – and if it were possible, was feeling just as miserable as Kallisti. The passage descended quite a distance into the cliff,with several side passages leading off at odd angles.

“You are taking some risks tonight aren’t you?” Suddenly a faint voice made her halt in her tracks. It came from a narrow tunnel off to her left. Carefully, she crept closer.

“Are you serious? That idiotic girl is no problem. She’s got no idea what really goes on and she’ll have even less idea at the end of tonight.” The condescending tones were all too familiar, and it did not take much effort to guess who they were talking about. Her blood boiled and she was ready to storm in on them.

“Are the shipments up to schedule?” She froze and craned her head forward to catch every word. This voice was deeper – she recognised it as Triad’s man in the Merchant’s Guild.

“This storm isn’t helping much. The South Road’s bogged down – none of the wagons can get through. At least nobody will see them in the dark.”

“That is not much consolation.” the other voice sounded almost petulant. Edging slowly along the tunnel, Kallisti came to a place where part of the side of the tunnel had caved in, leaving only a narrow crack. Through this, she was able to see into a large cavern. On the floor of the cavern, scattered amongst the stalagmites, were boxes, chests and barrels of all shapes and sizes. The only way into the cavern seemed to be a door, some twenty or so feet below her present position and on the far side. The door had been carefully shaped to fit into the natural opening in the rock. It was of solid oak, steel banded and fastened with large bolts. It was shut now and the only occupants of the room sat on a pile of chests in the middle of the floor, surrounded by smuggled goods and stalactites. The two men were familiar to her, but the one writing in a large leather bound ledger made her lip curl with hatred. Of course, it could only have been Zandros, stealing from his own employer, as if he did not already have enough!

There was a knock at the door and at a word from Zandros, it opened to admit a shortish man, so thin as to be almost cadaverous. He walked with a shuffling gait and he looked for all the world like an animated corpse. Kallisti gasped at the sight of him.

“Yes Rilla, what is it?” Zandros did not look up from his ledger.

“The ship’s been sighted. It will be docking presently.” the ill-looking man said. He coughed, a wretched, hacking cough. Kallisti bit her knuckle – what was her father doing here? He did not look well, the trembling in his limbs seemed to be worse than she remembered.

“Good, get the men ready to unload the cargo. Send someone to fetch the girl, we might as well make it look as if she’s being helpful to Triad.” Zandros jumped from the chests to his feet, closing the book with a loud snap. He hurried out, followed by the other two, and slammed the door shut behind him. Over the echoes, Kallisti heard the crunch and grind of the locks and bolts falling into place. The ledger still sat atop the chest Zandros had been sitting on, the lantern had also been left behind – they obviously intended to return.

Checking the passage behind her, Kallisti discarded her sopping cloak and moved to the gap left in the tunnel by the rock-fall. It was narrow and cramped – stones dug into her as she squirmed and wriggled. Digging her fingers into the earth, she dragged herself forward, grunting with effort, breathing in short gasps as claustrophobia threatened to engulf her. Her face was half buried in the dirt of the rock-fall as she inched her way to the opening. All of a sudden she tumbled down a short slope of rubble to stop on the very lip of the opening. Her head and shoulders jutted out over the drop, so she clung to the edge for dear life. Crawling back, she managed to get to her feet again.

Wiping her hands on her thighs, she peered over the edge of the narrow opening. The wall was rough and the way down seemed dangerous. Backing over the edge, her foot sought out a foothold. It seemed a long way down, but a jutting rock provided the first step. Easing herself down, she crawled and slithered to the floor. Dodging between the crates, she came to the spot where Zandros had been sitting. She quickly glanced through the book and was pleased to find meticulously kept records of what appeared to be all of the goods diverted from Triad’s smuggling operation. There was something strange about the handwriting though – it seemed almost familiar… Realization struck her – it was her father’s hand! But she had seen Zandros writing in it.

“Damn him,” she cursed, shutting the book with a snap. “He must be forging Daddy’s hand to conceal his involvement.” What use was the book to her now?

A sound outside the door made her jump. Glancing round, she spotted a dark space where some chests, leaning against the rough-hewn walls made a perfect hide. Grabbing the book, she swiftly clambered into hiding, only just in time. The door opened and her father came in, accompanied by another man she had seen once before. Her father moved to where the book had been left. “Hmm, I was sure he left it here. Did you see it with him?” he said, glancing over the packing cases where Zandros had been sitting. The man shook his head. “Well he must have it, because it is not here. One of Triad’s tarts it up at the lookout where Zandros sent her to keep out of the way. You’d better fetch her to the docks – the boat’s just tying up.” They left again, locking the door.

Kallisti fumed silently at her father’s description of her. A tart indeed! She’ll teach him a lesson. First, though, she must beat the man back to the lookout. Tucking the book in her belt, she started to climb back to the concealed tunnel.

“K-Kallisti! What are you doing here?” her father was shocked to see her accompanying the man he had sent. She resisted the temptation to comment on the `tart’ description.

“I came along with Zandros to help out.” she replied disdainfully. They were now in a large cavern. The far end was open to the sea and a jetty had been built along one side, jutting out from the shallow beach that formed just under half of the cavern’s floor. The water at the end of the jetty was deep enough for a reasonably large ship to dock, although it was a precarious mooring.

The sailing barge was moored just out from under the overhang, but its masts seemed to come perilously close to the rock. The rocks to either side of the cavern mouth formed a natural harbour, sheltering them from the worst of the sea’s excesses.

“What are you, doing here? I wouldn’t have thought you’d be involved in Triad’s smuggling?” she scowled at her father. He simply shrugged.

“Triad bought up my old debts. He uses my business as a front for the smuggling. It’s his way of getting me to pay my debts.” He sighed and turned away to supervise the unloading of the ship.

Kallisti headed for the jetty, but pulled up short as she recognised Triad coming toward her, closely followed by a scowling Zandros. He nodded to her, a faint smile of amusement on his face.

“Well?” he glanced from her to Zandros and back. Kallisti shrugged. Zandros shook his head. “Perhaps we had best remove to some more private place to discuss this.” His eyes wandered around the large cavern, taking in the group of men moving to unload the ships cargo.

“How did you manage to get on board?” Kallisti asked as they wound their way through a stack of crates to an area which passed as an office.

“The captain was forced into Urswell Harbour by the weather. As soon as I heard, I went aboard to make sure none of the harbour authorities took it into their heads to search it. My presence deterred their curiosity somewhat.” he smiled dryly.

“Now tell me, have you found anything?” Triad stood before them both, like a schoolmaster with two errant pupils.

“Nothing.” replied Zandros. “Not even the destination of the goods.”

Triad nodded, touching his lips with a stubby finger. He looked at Kallisti, his brow arched expectantly. Kallisti shuffled her feet nervously, glancing first at Zandros then at Triad then finally at the ground before her. She clutched her hands behind her back, gripping the hidden ledger.

“Well?” Triad was getting impatient.

“I – I found this.” she quickly stepped forward and presented the ledger with a trembling hand. Triad took it and flicked through, nodding appreciatively.

“Very good. It appears to be records of all that has gone missing over the past few months. Where did you find it?” he glanced at Kallisti, standing skittishly at his side, well away from Zandros.

“In a cavern. There were a number of crates and barrels there as well. I think it is the storeroom for the thieves.”

“Show me.” Triad closed the book.

“Em – I think it was this way…” Kallisti led the small group along a dark, sloping passage. Triad followed her with Zandros and two men holding torches.

“You don’t sound very sure.” Zandros’ tone was faintly sarcastic. “I think you are deliberately trying to get us lost.”

“Don’t be stupid – what would I gain from getting you lost?” Kallisti snapped back.

“You get to conceal the identity of the person who wrote in the book.” Zandros. “I thought I recognised the handwriting – it looked very much like Rilla’s, Kallisti’s father.”

“Well well well.” Triad tutted. Kallisti flushed. “What could this mean then?”

“Who’s there?” a timid sounding voice came from an adjoining passage.

“Rilla, well I never, fancy meeting you here!” Triad approached the voice and came upon a corridor leading up to a large, steel-banded oak door. Kallisti’s father was shocked.

“T – Triad!”

“And where were you going? Through this door?” Triad moved to the door. “Keys?” he held out his hand. Rilla reluctantly handed over a large bunch of keys. Tension mounted as Triad released the three locks and three bolts that secured the door. Pushing it open, he stepped into the storeroom. “Well…” the word hung in the air.

“So I think we have found you your thief Triad!” Zandros was smug.

“Indeed?” It was a question. It confused Zandros.

“No Triad, this is not what it appears.” Kallisti found her voice again. She was loosing control of the situation and could not see a way of regaining it.

“Oh really?” he gazed at her, steely eyed.

“No,this is not my father’s doing…”

“Of course, it wouldn’t be would it?” Zandros sneered. “What do you expect her to say? They are obviously in league.”

“No!” Kallisti snarled. “It is you who are in league. Triad, this book was written by Zandros, I saw him do it.”

“When? How?” Zandros glared at her angrily.

“There is an old tunnel which comes out over there.” she pointed up at her concealed entrance. I heard you talking with Mallibar, complaining about the weather and how the wagons were bogged down on the South Road. I watched you write in the book and when you went to see about the boat, I climbed down and took it. While I was doing it, Dad… Rilla came to get it, but I hid.”

“Stories! It is not my writing in the book, explain that?”

“You’re a forger, you forged his writing.”

“Oh for goodness sake,” Zandros raised his eyes heavenwards, “in that case, it could have been any number of people, including Triad! Isn’t there a much more simple explanation?”

“What Kallisti says is tr…” Rilla started to speak, but a coughing fit halted him. His body trembled constantly. Kallisti’s mouth opened and closed in astonishment.

“I can prove Rilla didn’t write in that book.” she stated confidently.

“How?” Zandros narrowed his eyes at her.

“Daddy, please write down exactly what I say.” She handed him the book and a piece of writing charcoal. Rilla frowned, but opened the book on the last written page and leaned it against a crate.

“Triad,” Kallisti dictated, “this should prove to you that I did not write in this book. Instead, Kallisti will show you that it was Zandros all along.” she finished. “Now, Triad, compare them.” she glanced at both samples first to make sure she was right.

“And…?” Triad sighed, looking at both samples.

“Look at them carefully – one is smooth and flowing, how my father used to write, but look at the latest one – it is much more jagged and uneven. Ever since he had the fever, his limbs have trembled. It’s grown even worse in the last couple of years – you didn’t notice that, did you Zandros?” she smiled in triumph.

“It does look that way.” Triad agreed. He turned to Zandros. “How do you, account for this now? Ah, Mallibar, I’m pleased you could join us.” The man Kallisti has seen speaking to Zandros earlier appeared at the door to the cavern. “What can you add to this difficult situation?” Triad said after briefly summarizing what had gone on before.

The tall, heavily built man considered this for a moment. “What Kallisti says is true my Lord, it is indeed Zandros who has been stealing from you.”

“Why you…” Zandros leapt at the Merchant, dagger drawn. Kallisti was as fast, though. She crashed into the small wiry Zandros, knocking him to the floor and rolling herself away and to her feet in one lithe movement.

Zandros twisted round, his knife hand drawing back, but the dagger was missing. Kallisti held it.

“Enough!” Triad commanded imperiously. “Zandros, you have betrayed me. I suspected as much, hence why I had Mallibar spying on you. You needed to be taught a lesson though, and I am pleased that you, Kallisti, were able to find me the proof. Now I will not stand for this brawling – you are both too valuable to risk loosing on a fight like this. I forbid the two of you to ever fight, is that understood?” He moved between the two of them. “You can return home Kallisti, but you,” he turned to Zandros, “have your punishment awaiting. I have it on good authority that you don’t like spiders…” Zandros’ face was white…

The night was cold and wet. The road back towards Triad’s villa was thick with cold clinging mud. Kallisti’s canvas slippers were soaked through and covered in the mud and she shivered in the cold. Seeing her father in the condition he was in had been a shock to her and even after he had thrown her out and disowned her, he was still her father. Maybe she could get her friend Suki to pay him a visit and help him with his sickness. There was one positive for the night’s work however, the sound of Zandros sobbing as he was lowered into the spider pit Triad had built especially for him.

If only she could get warm again, brrrr!