The ring of eman vath, p.11
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.11

           Hal Emerson
 

  Chapter Nine: Wren

  Tulia gave Wren his name because of beautiful voice.

  When he cried, melodies seemed to echo back through the cavernous rooms that the Thirteenth Guild inhabited, melodies that evoked pity and made even the hard-heated Thieves feel sorry for him. When he was happy, his laugh would bounce out and skitter around the room like a riotous peal of bells.

  There were many babies among the women who fled to the underground world beneath Caelron. Few survived. Life in the Thieves’ Guild was not for the weak, and none are weaker than the newly born. It was a dark time, and the Thieves became darker still to survive it.

  As such, a reprieve from tragedy was not long for Wren. When he was four, Tulia slipped and fell making her way down from the street into her dank underground lair. It was rumored that she might have been pushed – many others were, in similar circumstances. She never recovered, and so Wren grew up an orphan, with no memory of her.

  The Thieves lived a sparse life, a hard life, and there was much of bitterness, hatred, and sorrow in them as is to be expected of men and women on whom the world has turned its back. A whole faction of the Thieves’ Guild was devoted to hired murder, and every shade and hue of deceit, corruption, and larceny that could be performed had an associated specialist among them. It was in this world that Wren grew up.

  He had pale skin in the tradition of those who had settled Caelron long ago, and his hair was blonde and his eyes were blue thanks to the Aginoran heritage of his unknown parents. He sang often and on request – giving everyone who asked a verse of whatever they asked for. His mind was like a steel trap for melodies.

  It was this more than anything else that saved him.

  Those of the darker shade of life have little use for that which does not serve a purpose. Once Tulia died, there was no one to feed Wren, and no charity to be had from the others. It was only when he came one night, belly swollen and eyes hollow, to a group of men newly returned from a successful raid that he was able to secure his future. The men were in a riotous mood, and they mockingly offered him a crust of bread in exchange for a rendition of “The Sandy Virgin,” widely known as a crude song banned in any reputable tavern.

  To their utter shock, Wren took them at their word and began to sing.

  The bawdy song flowing from the mouth of a child who had no idea what the words meant, nor indeed how to pronounce most of them, sent the men into hysterics. All mockery forgotten, they asked for more, and he sang what they wanted: he went through “The Barge to Londor” and several verses of “Fruitful Mary” before finishing with “My Hat, My Cat” and receiving his glorious bounty of bread.

  He ate well that night, and most nights thereafter.

  He made the rounds during every evening meal, asking anyone who looked even slightly interested if they wanted a song, and whenever they asked for one he didn’t know, he listened at doors and stayed up into the early hours of the morning waiting for someone to sing it so that he could add it to his growing repertoire.

  Those who ran the Guild took note, and at the age of six he was inducted into the Rat Gang, a sanctioned group of younger thieves that the Guild had decided to train. King Hulin still ruled then, but it was well and widely known that his health was failing. The Thieves sensed weakness and hoped to capitalize on it by training future generations in the clandestine arts they’d mastered. With Hulin’s death would come a succession and a time of transition that, if properly leveraged, could mean huge profits.

  Wren’s first theft – as well as the first major operation of the Rat Gang – was set for the night of Solina, the celebration of the winter solstice. The festival was a time of merriment and indulgence meant to celebrate the year’s harvest and to warm the darkest, coldest night of the year. The people would gather in the four great city squares, where drink and food was plentiful, and make merry until the sun came up. It was the perfect opportunity for the Thirteenth Guild to enact their most daring operation to date: to rob the city blind in the middle of the festivities. The nine dark masters who ran the Guild were determined that the night thereafter would be known as the Night of Thieves.

  It so happened that the shop chosen for the Rat Gang was a shop of some repute in the Merchant’s Quarter; a shop with an owner who had never recovered from the loss of his daughter. It was said that if you needed something, you eventually found your way to Jaren’s.

  Rane’s mother and father mourned her death in very different ways. Ellyn secluded herself, and she was often seen in the Grove, where went those who wished to worship the Creator. She prayed there amongst the trees, her mouth moving easily and frequently as she muttered words that made no sense in her own or any other language, hoping that solace might be found in such a way.

  Rane’s father, Jaren, devoted himself to his shop and lost himself in work. The six years since her death had made him a hard-hearted man. His business boomed, and he grew it with manic intensity though it no longer gave him pleasure. On long nights, he still thought of the daughter he’d lost and what he might have done to keep her safe. When the world was quiet and slow, he often found himself staring out of the expensive plate-glass windows he’d had installed to front the shop – staring sightlessly down the street where Rane had walked.

  Jaren was in his shop the night of Solina. He worked constantly when awake, and he saw no reason to celebrate with the rest of the city on that cold winter’s night. He did not drink, for to drink was to unlock memories, nor did he eat in excess, for it made him sleepy and then came dreams. Therefore, he had little interest in festivities, and with his wife gone to the Grove to pray with the devout believers, he had freedom to work into the early hours of the morning.

  That night was a tremendously successful night for the illicit Thirteenth Guild. Shops were robbed all over town as their owners abandoned them to make merry in the streets, and men and women of all walks of life found themselves penniless in the morning or missing invaluable family heirlooms. A number of the city’s rich, all at one grand party or another, returned bleary-eyed the next day to find their manors sacked and artifacts of great worth missing. It was by and large the most audacious and successful mass robbery in all of Caelron’s history.

  The only merchant of note who did not suffer such a loss was Jaren.

  At the appointed time, the Rat Gang made for his shop. They were smart about it, sending lookouts up to scale the roof and check that the light was out in the bedroom and that there was no light in the shop itself. They jiggered the old, loose lock – Jaren had refused for years to replace it – and quickly made their way inside.

  Pip led them, for he was the oldest at twelve and anxious to prove himself. Too anxious, as it turned out, for when the door was opened he ushered them in without checking first for signs of current habitation. The younger boys – Wren included – had been told to follow Pip’s word at all cost, and so they followed him into the room and spread out. Pip shut the door behind them – he really was a poor thief, truth be told – and in doing so produced a sharp snapping sound.

  Jaren heard it in his back room, the part of the shop where he repaired all manner of objects, and was on his feet immediately. He had encountered thieves before – never had they succeeded, but they had come close – and he was ready. He hefted the heavy wooden rod he kept nearby for just such occasions and hastily doused the candle by which he’d been repairing the timing mechanism of an over-large clock.

  The boys in the other room, urged forward by Pip, were already searching for valuables. They were young, but they knew what to look for: anything that had its own shelf, anything that was on a high shelf, anything that was behind a counter and could be protected by a body, and so on. They had been carefully tutored. The art of mass thievery, so the theory went, lay in taking what might be valuable and sorting it out later. If it turned out to be dross, it would go down the underground river and disappear in the current on its way out to sea. If valuable, it would be sold.

  When Jaren came into
the room, he was so stealthy he did not even seem to breathe. The boys never knew what happened – all they knew was that suddenly the shop’s central lantern was lit, and then there was screaming and a dark looming figure that rushed at them with a club, like some giant out of a story of the Wilds.

  The boys, barely half-trained to begin with, bolted. Pip was the first out, and the others were close behind him, though none were fast enough to avoid a lick from Jaren’s rod, and all left with at least one nasty bruise.

  Leaving virtually all of their loot behind, the Rat Gang streaked away into the night as if chased by the old devil god Delsur himself. Jaren stood framed in the doorway, watching them go, red in the face and breathing heavily through his nose, looking for all the world like a bearded bull. The last of the night’s merriment was finally dying out in the city, but a few remaining revelers caught sight of him and laughed uproariously before they stumbled on.

  With a good-riddance snort, he struck the heavy rod against his thick palm and slammed the door. His eyes combed the shop, looking over the now-illuminated shelves and racks, noting what had been disturbed, cataloging everything with the ready mind of a man who knows his business inside and out.

  That’s when he saw Wren.

  When the small boy had seen Jaren rush in from the back room like a nightmare, he’d completely lost all sense of common cause with the other boys and instead thrown himself beneath the closest shelf he could find. It was what had saved him many times before in the caverns beneath the city: when a strong man was in a black rage, or consumed by earthy urges, only fools stayed in open sight.

  So he hid, quivering with fear.

  When Jaren looked under the shelf and found him, he was struck dumb. The presence of the small, obviously terrified boy was not at all what he’d expected to find after an attempted robbery, and he was so surprised that his choler iced over and shattered, leaving him empty of strong emotion for the first time in years.

  And then, with a sudden rush, that void was filled with dread.

  The boy was hiding beneath a heavy shelf that Jaren had been trying for years to fix. He had managed to prop it where it was – few customers went back there, for it was near to the counter where Jaren normally stood, and if something was needed then Jaren usually got it himself. The prop he’d used was a sturdy wooden plank, the solid kind of oak that only seems to harden with age, and Wren was resting dead against it.

  The scene played itself out in his mind in horrible detail: if the boy panicked and tried to retreat any farther, he would hit the support and be crushed. The shelf was piled high with goods, and if it fell, it would smash him like a bug. Despite Jaren’s bluster and satisfaction in having driven the other boys out, he was not an evil man, and even in his world-imposed hard-heartedness he did not delight in pain. He did not hesitate to teach thieves a lesson for stealing – better they learn the price from him who would dole out bruises than from the king’s justice that would take their hands – but he would no more have killed them than set his shop on fire.

  So when his eyes fell on Wren, the crying, frightened boy who was trying to appear as if he were neither crying nor frightened, Jaren’s good heart won out.

  “You – boy,” he said, drawing Wren’s attention. He put down the rod and carefully rolled it away from them both, sending it clattering beneath a counter. “See here,” he continued, holding up his hands and trying to compose his face into as inoffensive an expression as possible. “There’s nothing to fear.”

  Wren stared at him with wide eyes and only slowly seemed to come back to himself. Shame and humiliation washed over him – two emotions that are particularly difficult to deal with as a child of six – and his urge to cry redoubled even as he tried to stifle his tears. The end result was a strange quivering moan that tapered off into tight-lipped anger.

  “Look now,” Jaren said, slowly lowering himself to the ground so that he was on his hands and knees. He watched the oak support plank carefully from the corner of his eye, and his whole body tensed with the knowledge that if he did something wrong he might very well end up responsible for the death of a young boy. “There’s no need to be frightened.”

  This was the wrong approach to take. Reminded that he both looked frightened and indeed was frightened, Wren became truly angry and sneered at the man, hating him immediately. He hugged his knees tighter against his chest and edged back, straight into the oak support.

  “No!”

  Wren froze as something shifted above him. He looked up and saw the sagging shelf, and then the reality of the situation sank in. He reached around to feel the tilted plank, and the lesser emotions of humiliation, pain, and anger were consumed in that deepest and oldest emotion of all: fear.

  “Stop!” Jaren said urgently, shuffling forward and holding out a hand. “Stop. Don’t move – you can’t move!”

  Wren froze, though every bone in his body was telling him to run and run hard. Something in the man’s eye, something in his manner and tone, told Wren that he wasn’t lying.

  “That’s right,” Jaren said. His voice came out in a hoarse croak. It had not been used in such a way for years now. “That’s right. You can understand me, yes?”

  Wren nodded slowly, his eyes huge.

  “Good, good. Listen – that plank is what’s holding up the shelf. I need to come closer to you to get hold of it and prop the shelf back up. Do you understand?”

  Wren nodded again, his eyes even bigger; through his fear, he had not heard or understood all of the words, but the intention seemed good, and that was what mattered.

  “All right. I’m going to come closer.”

  Jaren did as he said, shuffling forward on hands and knees until he was right in front of the boy, who did not take his eye off of him for a single second. He came closer still, took a deep breath, and then lunged.

  Too frightened to stay still any longer, Wren lunged at the same time, moving out of the way as the man came rushing in. He knocked against the support, and the shelf gave a horrible shutter; at the last possible second, Jaren caught and twisted the support back into place, halting the sagging shelf barely an inch above his own head. He breathed heavily, grunting with the effort, and then pushed and pulled and twisted the plank back into place. It was hard going, and soon he was sweating and gasping for air, and he realized with a sudden depth of clarity that the boy was gone. He’d run for it as soon as he’d been set free. Chances were he was robbing the place blind even now.

  Jaren groaned and heaved against the shelf, but it wouldn’t rise any farther. He had managed to get the plank in place to help, but it wasn’t straight and it couldn’t bear the full weight of the shelf. He strained against it, fighting with all his strength for those the final few inches, but it was no use.

  The knowledge of his predicament began to seep in: if he could not lift the shelf, he could not get out from under it. There was ample room for a young boy, but it was little more than a crawl space for a grown man. He was trapped. Panic raced through him, granting him extra strength through desperation, and he heaved again with all his might, pushing with both hands to gain leverage, but it was still no use.

  Seconds turned to minutes and his arms began to shake as the shelf swung lower by jerky increments. He could hear the heavy shifting of objects above him, and he tried frantically to shake the shelf in the hopes of knocking some of them off – and only then did he realize what a fool he’d been.

  Why hadn’t he just emptied the shelf to begin with?

  The darkness of the past six years swept over him, everything from his daughter to this day, and short bursts of tears rolled down his face and mingled with the sweat on his cheeks. What did it say about everything he had endured if he was destined to end crushed beneath a shelf of his own wares?

  Noise from the door, a quick pair of feet running back toward the shelf, and then small hands were grabbing things and throwing them, crashing, to the ground. Silver pots, black iron skillets, copper kettles, books, pens and i
nkwells, even a block of candlewax, all of it went flying across the floor and Jaren felt the burden on his arms ease. Suddenly he could push with more strength, and the shelf began to rise again, moving away from his face. He gasped and sobbed even as he pushed, trying to hold himself together as he gave every ounce of effort possible, twisting his torso back and forth. His muscles felt ready to rip out of his skin; his arms and hands were swollen and full of energy and blood…

  The shelf rose the final bit, and the support plank lurched into place.

  Jaren collapsed where he lay, gasping for breath and barely able to believe he wasn’t dead. When he finally came back to himself, he noticed a pair of skinny legs in torn, dirty breeches, far too short for the lean frame on which they hung, standing amidst the scattered goods that had previously occupied the shelf.

  Still groaning and gasping for breath – it felt as though a heavy creature had curled up on his chest in an effort to hold him down – he inched out from beneath the counter and levered himself up to his feet. He winced as his back spasmed, and he was reminded forcefully that he was no longer a young man; he would likely be laid up in bed for days. He brushed his hand over his eyes to clear them of stinging sweat and turned to the boy.

  Wren looked incredibly awkward. He was shifting from one foot to the other as if ready to run, and he quite clearly had no idea why he’d come back. The door was open, and he held a large, full sack that bulged with odd shapes. His clear eyes were wide, and he was staring at Jaren with an open innocence that completely disarmed the shopkeeper.

  This was no thief – this was a boy.

  “You… you, uh… ”

  He cleared his throat and forced his thoughts into coherency, latching on to the only thing he could think of: “You shouldn’t be here at this hour.”

  The boy swallowed nervously and began to back away. He looked at the sack in his hands and then back at Jaren.

  “This… is this yours?”

  The shopkeeper became very quiet, watching the boy carefully. When Wren did not continue, Jaren spoke slowly: “Yes,” he said. “Yes it is. I sell what’s in this shop. It’s how I buy food. For my family.”

  Wren’s eyes narrowed, his brow furrowed, and his mouth pursed, an expression of intense concentration that seemed far too adult for the face of six year old. “You sell them for food?”

  Jaren nodded.

  Wren’s concentration narrowed, if possible, even further.

  “It’s yours,” he said slowly, his eyes no longer on Jaren. “I don’t like people taking from me. Only bad people take from me.” He refocused on Jaren as another thought occurred to him, his bright eyes totally serious. “Are you a bad people?”

  The open innocence and naivety touched something deep in Jaren’s heart, and some of the iron there rusted and fell away. He shook his head slowly. Wren nodded, and it was clear he’d made a decision.

  “Then I shouldn’t thief you.”

  He dropped the bag at Jaren’s feet, and as soon as it left his hands his adultish manner evaporated. He reverted back to the six-year-old he was, shifting his weight to one side and grabbing one of his arms self-consciously. He dropped his eyes, examining Jaren’s shoes, and even went so far as to smile nervously and peek up at the shopkeeper through his mop of lank blonde hair.

  “I’m leaving now,” he announced abruptly.

  He turned and made for the door, and for a long moment Jaren just watched him go, completely unnerved. Then, compelled by some urge he didn’t understand, he scrambled forward. His cramped muscles protested the sudden movement – his back cracked in a series of sharp pops like rocks thrown against a brick wall – and he was forced to grab hold of the counter to keep himself from falling.

  “Wait!”

  Wren paused in the doorway and turned back, looking wary. Jaren sprawled out on the floor was much different than Jaren standing, even if the shopkeeper did look like he had been dragged through a quarry backwards.

  “Why are you with them?” Jaren asked. “Don’t you have a family?”

  “No.” The boy turned again to go.

  “Wait!” Jaren repeated. “Wait. You could have robbed me – you could have taken everything. You could have gone to get the others and come back with them and you would have been a hero.”

  Wren’s face fell. He had not thought of that.

  “If you go back,” Jaren continued slowly, “back to wherever you’re from – if you go back there without anything, how will they treat you?”

  Wren went pale, grimaced, and turned to leave.

  “Wait! Wait – take something!”

  Wren’s expression clearly implied the shopkeeper had lost his mind.

  “You must!” Jaren said, completely consumed now by some force he did not understand. “Take something – take something – what do you do? What do you like? Take it as yours and show that you didn’t come back empty-handed. Whatever they’ll do to the others they won’t do to you. Right?”

  Wren followed this logic easily. If he came back with nothing, he would be beaten. If he came back with something, he would be allowed to keep it – the first steal was for you to keep, that was what the Thieves promised.

  “Anything,” Jaren said earnestly. “What do you do? Your favorite thing.”

  “I… I sing sometimes?” Wren asked, wondering if this was the correct answer. He was in uncharted territory here, and he had no idea how to comport himself.

  Jaren’s eyes lit up, and he hobbled over behind the counter against which he’d been leaning and brought out a long wooden case. Wren was intrigued despite himself, and he moved away from the door as the shopkeeper snapped open two tarnished silver clasps and raised the lid of the box. He swung it around to face Wren, and the boy’s face lit up.

  It was a lute.

  It was old and beaten, but it had been carefully repaired and Wren could see the patches of lighter wood that had been integrated into the rounded bottom to seal up what had once been holes. The strings were old, but they were straight and well-pegged at both base and head, and when Jaren handed it to Wren, the boy’s whole world changed.

  The wood was warm beneath his hands, and a thrill rushed through him that he could not explain. His breathing quickened, and his body tingled with excitement. He ran a finger over the strings, which thrummed out a simple, sweet sound, youthful and innocent.

  He looked up at Jaren.

  “Thank you,” he said. But then he thought about what would happen when he got back to the caverns, thought about how he would keep it safe – could he keep it safe? In the wet? It was solid, but it was quite beaten and no one would try to steal it for themselves and sell it, especially not since it was his first steal and that made it his by Guild rules – but maybe they would? Maybe – ?

  “Take the case,” Jaren said quickly, retrieving the lute from Wren and placing it in the wooden box lined with old, yellowed canvas. “So that it doesn’t get hurt.”

  He snapped the case closed and handed it back to Wren. The boy took it in both hands – it was nearly the same size as he was – and held it carefully, balancing it as best he could. He looked one last time at the man, and then turned and fled out into the night.

  Jaren hurried to the door and watched him go. He felt no sense of loss in seeing the lute go – he’d been trying to sell the thing for ages, but no one wanted it – but did he feel, somewhere deep inside him, a kind of tender warmth he had not felt in years. He stayed there in the doorway for a long time as the rest of the city slowly slunk home to sleep.

  When Ellyn returned in the early hours of the morning, he told her what had happened and began to weep. It was the first time he’d wept since Rane’s death. Ellyn went to him and held him, and he spoke to her in a voice low and husky, as he had not since Rane’s disappearance. She spoke to him too, and comforted him as she had not in many years. They lay in bed as morning dawned, curled around each other, and when they woke, on that morning six years later, they began to heal.

  Wh
en Wren found his way back to the caverns he was greeted with the solemn, surly faces of the other Rat Gang members who already knew their punishment. He was frightened. Would the masters let him keep the lute after all? Would the Rat Gang punish him for doing what they could not? Pip was cruel when angry, and Yuli…

  He need not have worried. The fact that the rest of the Rats had been scared away and Wren had stayed to fleece the biggest object he could find – he was careful not to correct this assumption – caused fierce celebration and laughter among the Guild. And when finally the case was opened before the Guild heads – the men who were the best cutpurses, robbers, strongmen, and outright murderers in the city – even they could not help but smile at the sight of the lute. There was laughter all around, and it cemented forever Wren’s reputation in the minds of the Thieves as a small, charmed urchin boy, and it cemented his own idea of himself as well.

  But the dark forces that sometimes shape men’s lives were not done with him. They had one final break, one final tragedy before he was sent out into the world on his way. It must be told, or his story is not complete.

 
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