Book: Mountain of Daggers

Previous: Shadows beneath the City
Next: Born of Darkness


 

“You have blood on these hands,” the old woman muttered. Her dry wrinkled fingers worked their way firmly across Ahren’s palms. “Cleaning them is useless. There is more to come.”

Wondering if the white-haired crone could hear his thoughts, Ahren’s eyes scanned the packed wagon interior around him, trying to think about something other than why he was really there. If she caught so much as a hint about the emerald or the Tyenee, he’d be dead. Unusual baubles lined the narrow shelves beside a white skull above the fold-down bed. Webs of colored glass, bone, and wooden beads draped from the cloth-covered ceiling. Feathers and brass keys hung in a strange pattern above them, giving a vague air of mystery the old witch deliberately sought. Fegmil the circus master stood quietly behind him, and Ahren couldn’t help feeling a little discomfort under his unseen gaze.

“What is it you do?” She drew her nail in a pattern through the lines in his palm. “Why are you here?”

“I was a sailor,” he answered. “I’ve traveled the world, but just the coasts. I want to see the land.”

Her thin lips seemed to frown at his answer. “Do you speak any tongues other than Mordakish?”

Ahren nodded. “Rhomanic, Mercińan, and a few words of Galestian.”

The old woman’s eyes narrowed, as if looking though his hands and onto the table beneath. “Mercińan won’t really help you since we never leave the mainland.”

“That’s agreeable with me.”

“You fear very little.” Yemda tapped below his thumb. “You show loyalty and a need for perfection.” She curled Ahren’s hands into fists then unfolded them. “You are strong, yet limber. There is grace in you. Tell me Ahren,” she said, running her fingers down his, “many people join us because they are running from something. They try to escape, but oft times can bring unwanted danger into our fold. What are you running from?”

Katze's dead face flashed in his mind. “Nothing.”

The crone pinched the top digit of his small finger, hard. She gazed up at Fegmil and nodded.

The circus master squeezed Ahren’s shoulder. “Welcome to the Darclyian Circus, my boy.”

Ahren turned to face the quellen behind him. Small round mirrors dotted his brightly colored vest and flat-topped cap. “Thank you, Master Fegmil.”

The quellen lightly slapped Ahren’s arm. “No more of that. Just call me Fegmil.” He tugged at the gold hoop dangling from one of his huge, hand-sized ears. “Come, let’s introduce you to everyone and find you some work.” Pushing through the bead curtain, he opened the wagon door behind him and stepped outside.

“Be careful,” Yemda mumbled, “the blood on your hands may soon be your own.”

“Thank you.” He smiled to the old witch, then set his wide-brimmed hat back on his head and followed the gray-haired quellen outside. A ring of brightly painted tents and wagons lay before him. Striped canvas walls stretched between them to keep unpaid visitors from seeing inside. Rows of carts and wagons surrounded the outside and lined the circus entrance. The gray, dingy walls of Lichthafen rose behind them, a stark backdrop to the faire’s bright colors.

“No! No! No!” Fegmil yelled to a pair of men hammering tent stakes beside a lashed pig yard. “Put it further down. No one wants to eat beside swine filth.” He motioned Ahren to follow and plodded down the muddy lane. “The local idiots are always the same. They travel to be here, arrive two days before we pack up, pay their vending fee, but put absolutely no thought into where they set-up.”

Ahren hurried to keep up with the quellen’s short legs. They passed vendors selling food and exotic wares from around the world, as well as local farmers and artisans hoping to sell their own goods from small booths.

“Everyone here does their part,” Fegmil said. “It’s not just the performances, but setting up, maintaining the wagons, feeding and cleaning after the animals.” He jabbed a thumb to a group of children pointing at a pair of marsh tigers pacing the bars of their wheeled cage. Bright green Mercińan parrots squawked and hopped around inside the barred wagon beside it. “We also look out for one another. We’re a family here.”

Ahren followed Fegmil through a flap, and stepped into the inner ring. Rows of benches ran along one side before a straw-strewn track. A pretty blonde girl stood atop a galloping stallion circling the track. Two tall, thick poles rose from inside the ring like ships masts. A shirtless gypsy man and a skinny boy swung across the trapeze between them. A group of sweating workers sat and watched from beside one of the open-sided ale wagons forming the outer wall.

Fegmil marched toward the chattering audience. “I assume everything is ready for tonight?”

“Just about,” a greasy-haired man said between his missing front teeth.

The three-foot circus master stopped and flourished his arm up toward Ahren. “Everyone, I want you to meet Ahren. He’ll be joining us on the road.”

The group nodded in mumbled greetings.

“What do you do, Ahren?” asked a massive Larstlander, his huge muscled arms folded across his chest. Ahren recognized the hulking Northman as Bjornrek, the strongman from the posters outside.

“We’re about to find out,” Fegmil said. “Drugho!” he shouted up to the gypsy acrobat. “Come here.”

The lean gypsy flipped off the trapeze and landed on the taut net stretched between the poles. He grabbed the edge and swung himself down. “What is it?” he asked, tossing his black ponytail over his shoulder.

“This is Ahren. I want to see what you can do with him.”

Drugho’s brow rose as he inspected Ahren. “Without bending your knees, touch your toes.”

Ahren tossed his hat on one of the nearby benches, then bent over and pressed his fists firmly against the ground. Several chuckles came from the men watching.

“That’s good,” the gypsy said. “Now stand on one foot and hold it.”

Ahren did as he was told.

Drugho stood silently watching for over a minute before speaking. “Have you ever worked as an acrobat before?”

“No. But I’ve worked ship riggings since I was a boy.”

The acrobat ran his tongue behind his lower lip. He jabbed his finger at the platform set twenty feet up one of the poles. “Climb up.”

Setting his foot down, Ahren crossed the horse track and took hold of the knotted rope hanging from the platform above. He took a breath, then climbed the thick rope to the wooden ledge. As he stood, the pole teetered slightly under his weight. He looked out over the wall surrounding the arena to see the small market erected around the circus and the green countryside beyond. Passersby stopped, trying to glimpse him perform over the canvas wall. Below, the blonde rider stopped her horse and watched.

“Now,” Drugho called. “I want you to jump, grab the trapeze, and swing to the other side.”

The group of workers laughed, passing jokes and wagers between them. The lovely rider shot them a cold glare but said nothing. Ahren stared at the simple bar hanging ten feet ahead and slightly below him. He licked his lips, tensed his muscles into a small crouch, and leaped.

Stretching outward, he grabbed the bar. His fingers tightened under the sudden strain. He swung, nearly reaching the opposite platform before swinging back the other way. Ahren rocked his weight and pitched himself forward, bringing him closer. Throwing his legs back, he increased the back swing and then sped toward the wooden ledge. As he reached the end of the arc, he released and flew through the air. He cried out as his body hurled upward, missing the platform, then plummeted down into the net below to the cries and laughter of his onlookers.

“That’s good enough for me,” Fegmil said with a grin. “You’ll start training immediately until you’re ready to perform. Until then, find Otto; he’ll find work for you.”

#

Patrons trickled into the market grounds throughout the day, enjoying entertainment and food while perusing the many booths. As the sun began to wane, their numbers swelled to the hundreds. Music called from the multiple stages and vendor booths. By the light of colored lamps and bright explosions from the fire breathers’ performance, customers wandered through the rows of tents and wagons, mesmerized by the intoxicating scent of oils and spiced foods lingering in the air.

Ahren found himself running back and forth between the enclosed circus arena and the performers’ wagons with a seemingly endless list of tasks readying for the show. He hurried along the canvas outer wall, his arms loaded with colorful juggling rings, as hawkers and performers worked the mob. His gaze focused on a young girl deftly cutting the purse from a man enthralled in a harlequin’s act.

Crime always rose when a circus descended on a city. Some by the workers themselves, most by the local thieves lured by the herds of easy targets with hefty purses. The Darclyian Circus however, brought more than just petty thefts.

“Hey!” Otto yelled, sticking his bald head out between the canvas flaps. “Hurry up.”

Squeezing the rings, Ahren jogged to where the stage master waited and slipped inside.

“Stack those by the blue curtain,” Otto barked. “Then we need to get the beasts inside.”

Together with several of the other workers, Ahren wheeled the tiger pen behind the curtains and walked the Tzalkian elephants over from their corral. He lingered in the back as the show began, running props and keeping an eye out for anyone trying to sneak inside without paying. Felka, the blonde rider he had seen before, performed knife throwing with her father. The audience cheered as gypsy acrobats rode around the ring, doing incredible tricks atop their racing horses. Roaring tigers leaped through flaming hoops, and Drugho and his partner Jan amazed the crowd with aerial flips and balancing acts high above the ground. All the while, Fegmil worked the audience and orchestrated the show.

The Darclyian Circus held the reputation of being the greatest of its kind. Yet the masters of the Tyenee had discovered a pattern of elaborate heists wherever the performers played. Four weeks prior in the city of Stromfurt, the Vuschkuls Heart, a massive emerald, vanished during the circus’s visit. Baron Czychlret awaited the gem in Frobinsky, and Ahren’s orders were to intercept the stone before the thieves could deliver it. Finding it, however, would be the real feat. Until then, he had no choice but to play his part.

#

Two days later, the performers packed their tents into their brightly painted wagons and left the city behind. The caravan crawled along the muddy highway, stopping at the occasional village to give small shows and trading for fresh supplies. Most nights were spent on the road, circled in a ring where they rehearsed their acts, while trading stories and gossip.

Ahren plunged himself into their fold, helping fix wagon wheels, tending the horses, and practicing with anyone who would teach him. Some of the performers, like Drenryck, the tiger master, did little to welcome him. He spent most of his time with his wife Gerta and their son, who rarely left their wagon. However, many of the other workers welcomed Ahren’s enthusiasm and encouraged his acceptance.

Slipping deeper into their circle of trust, he found himself invited into different wagons to enjoy games and gossip over drinks. They told him of dimwitted patrons buying counterfeit goods thought to be from distant lands, and laughed at the exploits of their pickpockets while their victims watched the shows. Yet none of the intoxicated workers ever alluded to the grander thefts Darclyian Circus was suspected of. Ahren simply laughed along with the tales, occasionally sharing stories of his own minor thefts and burglaries.

#

“You’re doing much better,” Drugho said patting Ahren on the back.

Ahren looked back at the taut ten-foot line he’d just walked stretched between the tree stumps. “Thanks.”

“Once you can get that five times without falling, we’ll put you up on the long one. Until then, keep practicing.” The gypsy hopped off the stump and headed to the main fire ring, joining the group circled around the cooking supper while working on their costumes and goods to be sold in the fair.

Ahren started down the stretched rope once again when Felka strolled past. She stopped to watch. He smiled to her, but a faint breeze rushed past, causing the rope to wobble beneath him. Keeping his breathing steady, Ahren maintained his balance until it stilled, then continued to the other side.

Felka clapped her hands. “Magnificent.”

Ahren leaped, somersaulting off the three-foot stump and landing with a dramatic bow. “I was about to say the same to you,” he said, plucking a purple flower and holding it out.

“Now that is a performance,” said Fegmil’s voice behind him. Ahren turned to see the tiny circus master saunter over from beside his wagon. A ribbon of gray smoke trailed from his wooden pipe. “The dismount is essential. Just because your trick is done is never an excuse to stop entertaining.” He drew a long pull from his pipe. “The flower is a nice touch. Danger and romance always draws a crowd.”

Felka’s pale cheeks reddened. She accepted the flower from Ahren’s hand, nodded tersely, and hurried off.

The quellen sighed. “Love, my friend, like anything in a circus, is not without its own risks.”

Ahren chuckled. “I mean no harm by it.”

“I’m sure you don’t. Just remember, she can cut that flower's stem with a knife at fifteen paces. Her father, Achim, can do the same while riding horseback.” He puffed and blew a cloud of smoke into the breeze. “You should know; I’ve seen you practicing with them.”

Ahren nodded.

“But I’m not here to father you. In fact, I wanted to say you’re one of the fastest learners I’ve seen in years. So good, that I think you’re ready to start.”

“Thank you.”

Fegmil smiled. “We’ll reach Kiedow in a week’s time. Some of our riders will go on ahead tomorrow to choose a site and hang posters. This’ll be a real show. Not one of these little village acts we’ve been doing. So you better be ready.”

“I will be,” Ahren said. “I’ll do whatever you need me to do.”

#

The Gremiskian Mountains loomed closer as the caravan continued south down the narrow highway. Small villages grew more frequent, and at each one, a group of performers would break off for a few hours to dazzle the peasants and spread word of the upcoming show.

The evening sun lay low, casting long shadows across the rocky peaks when they finally reached the city built up along a mountain’s side. They turned off the road and stopped in a wide pasture just outside the main gates. Fegmil and Otto hopped from their wagons, immediately issuing orders. Ahren hurried through the shifting maze-work of carts and tents, carrying poles and equipment. Lanterns and torches bathed the scene in golden light as the sun set behind the city. Songs and laughter echoed through the chaotic grounds amongst shouts and pounding of mallets. Ahren stretched colorful canvas between the wagons surrounding the miniature city. His stomach growled at the growing sweet aromas of food wafting between the lanes. Benches were set, banners raised, and corrals lashed. As dawn broke over the mountains, the Darclyian Circus was ready to begin.

#

Ahren spent the next several days working a mixture of various tasks. He cleaned all the animal pens save the tiger’s cage, which Drenryck insisted on doing alone. Whenever his tigers were not on display, the tiger master lowered the wooden awning over the wheeled cage, preventing anyone from seeing inside.

While running errands or selling trinkets in the small booths took a large portion of Ahren’s days, he spent just as much time performing. He worked the crowds with balancing acts throughout the day, and at night, in the large arena, he swung from the trapeze above the audience, warming them up before Drugho and Jan’s spectacular act.

After the show, many of the performers ventured into the city at night. Ahren accompanied some of them the first two nights, but then elected to stay at camp. Once most of the workers had left or gone to their beds, he snuck from his tent and broke into the empty wagons. He searched Fegmil’s first. The fastidious quellen kept detailed books and records amongst an impressive collection of trinkets and oddities from across the world. Ahren checked for hollow books, and secret compartments. A hidden cache built in the rear wall yielded several bags of silver, yet the emerald wasn’t there. Cracking open the door, he confirmed no one was outside, then hurried from the wagon.

Otto’s cramped wagon reeked of onions and mildew. Ahren quickly dug through the stage master’s belongings but found nothing. Outside a group of drummers gathered around a campfire and began to play. Carefully, Ahren slipped out the back and crept away as others wandered to join in the revelry.

He meandered away from the commotion and snuck into one of the storage wagons forming the large performance ring. Its lack of windows left the interior dark, forcing him to slow his search. He’d just about finished when a muffled whimper came from outside.

“Where’s Fegmil?” someone hissed.

“He’s coming.” Ahren recognized Otto’s distinct graveled voice. “What happened?”

“Jan and Drugho had made it inside when I heard shouting,” Bjornrek answered, his Larstlandic accent heightened with the excitement in his voice.

“Pl…please get it out,” a man mumbled painfully.

“Don’t touch it!” Otto snapped. “Someone get Yemda. She can help him. Tell me what happened.”

“Saint Vishtin, he’s bleeding all over the place!”

“I hurried back around,” Bjornrek continued, “and saw a man running from the house screaming for guards. He had a bow in his hand.”

“Bastard was in the house,” Drugho growled. “We didn’t even see him.”

Torchlight moved outside and Ahren sank further back into the shadows inside the wagon.

“What happened?” Fegmil demanded.

“Jan was shot!” the gypsy answered.

“How?”

“There was an apprentice or someone inside. He shot him and fled, but Bjornrek got him as he ran for help.”

“I don’t…want to die,” Jan sobbed. “Get it out of me.”

“Don’t worry. Help is coming.”

“Did you get the eagle?” Fegmil asked.

“Yeah,” Achim answered. “Then we broke off the arrow. Bjornrek put his cloak over him and carried him out the gates.”

Jan’s sobs grew more struggled. “Please. Please.”

“Hold on, my boy,” Fegmil soothed. “We’ll fix you. Did anyone else see you?”

“I don’t think so,” Bjornrek said.

“Get something to stop the bleeding!” Drugho snapped.

Ahren’s heart raced as footsteps hurried toward the wagon. He dove behind a long box and pulled a folded tarp halfway over him. Orange light flickered off the walls as someone stepped inside. A box of iron stakes crashed to the floor as they dug through one of the shelves and hurried out.

“Jan? Jan!” Drugho yelled.

“He’s dead.”

Ahren crouched lower during the long silence and pulled the rest of the heavy tarp over himself.

“Otto,” Fegmil said. “You and Bjornrek bury him. Somewhere no one will find him until after we’re gone. I’ll hide the eagle before anyone comes looking for it.”

“What about Kossintry?” Achim asked.

Drugho snorted. “What about it?”

“The tower. Who’s going to replace Jan?”

“He’s right,” Fegmil mumbled. “Who else can do it?”

“Kerlen can.”

“Are you sure?” the quellen asked. “What about Ahren?”

“Ahren’s too new. Kerlen has proven himself.”

“Fine. Tomorrow we’ll say Jan got killed in a tavern brawl. Meanwhile, we’ll tell Kerlen the plan. You’ve got six weeks to get him ready.” He sighed. “Now go.”

Ahren remained still while the men dispersed. He’d found the inner circle, but still didn’t know where they hid their stolen treasure. Earning their trust would be a harder task. A plan began to form in his mind. Once everyone had left the performance ring outside, Ahren crept from the wagon and hurried back to his bed.

 

#

“Good” Drugho said, sitting on Kerlen’s shoulders as the younger acrobat rose to his feet while standing on Bjornrek’s. The gypsy stood and reached for the platform above him when Kerlen buckled, sending the tower of bodies to the ground.

“I’m sorry,” Kerlen said leaping to his feet to help Drugho up.

“It’s all right,” Drugho replied, through a forced smile. “It’s a difficult move. Are you all right Bjornrek?”

The muscled man brushed the blonde hair from his eyes and staggered to his feet. “Fine.” He returned to where he had been standing and lowered to his knees.

“Can I try that?” Ahren asked, walking from the wagon which he’d been leaning against.

Drugho shook his head. “Maybe next time. This is something I want Kerlen to learn.”

Ahren shrugged. “Then let me take your place. You can instruct us from the ground. Maybe get a different perspective on what we’re doing wrong.”

The gypsy stood silent for a moment, then gave an amused smirk and a sweeping gesture. “Go ahead.”

“Thanks.” Ahren waited while Kerlen crawled up onto the Larstlander’s shoulders and then climbed up onto his. He swayed, trying to keep his balance

Kerlen slapped his leg twice, “Up.” Bjornrek slowly rose to his feet.

Ahren’s muscles tensed as he tried to keep from falling off the acrobat’s shoulders. Once the Northman reached his full height and planted his feet securely down, Ahren braced himself as Kerlen slowly moved his feet up onto Bjornrek’s shoulders and stood. Their bodies trembled, struggling to keep balance.

“Keep your knees stiff,” Drugho ordered. “Rise in one motion.”

Once they had reached a precarious equilibrium, Ahren held his breath, and carefully rose. Kerlen held Ahren’s feet firmly against his shoulders as Ahren reached out and took a firm grip on the rough-hewn platform above him.

“Perfect.” Drugho hollered. “Now hold tight. Kerlen, climb up.”

Ahren felt the man beneath him shift and grab hold of his hip and slide out from under Ahren’s feet. A sudden jolt of weight hit as the young acrobat pulled himself up. Ahren’s fingers dug into the planks. Kerlen’s legs wrapped around Ahren’s dangling feet as he adjusted his hold, then climbed up over Ahren’s back and onto the platform, nearly kicking him in the face.

Drugho clapped his hands once. “Ahren, swing up.”

Taking a quick breath, Ahren pulled himself up and threw his legs over the lip of the creaking ledge. He looked back with an accomplished smile to see the dark-skinned gypsy man pursing his lips.

“Clumsy, but you did it. You must make it effortless; fluid.” He snapped his fingers five times in rhythmic succession. “It should take that long to begin and end the trick. Now climb down and start again.”

#

Weeks passed as the caravan continued south, leaving Mordakland and passing into Rhomanny. Ahren’s skills grew in great strides, then slowly honed as he religiously practiced with acrobats, trick riders, and knife throwers. By the time the circus reached Kossintry, his determination and persistence had earned him their respect and trust.

As usual, they made camp outside the city walls, allowing enough room for the fair-goers to gather. Ahren worked tirelessly, setting up everything he could outside the wood and canvas-walled performance ring. Otto tried to get him to help with the trapeze lines, but Ahren was busy with Felka, erecting smaller stages for the other acts.

The white moon glowed high in the night sky by the time the grounds were finished. Exhausted, the workers retired to their tents and wagons as soon as their chores were complete. Ahren lingered in the camp, finding menial tasks to do while everyone else went to bed. Once they were asleep, he circled around behind the performance ring and squeezed under one of the tight cloth panels.

Crickets sounded inside the circular arena, lit by only the frosty moonlight. He wove between wooden benches, past the horse track, and up to one of the massive poles standing at its heart. Grabbing hold of the thick knotted rope, he quickly scaled up to the platform above. He looked out across the grounds visible over the arena wall, checking for anyone still lingering about, then climbed to the top platform.

The poles swayed gently under his weight, a sensation he barely noticed anymore. Ahren grabbed one of the thick taut lines suspended between the mast-like posts, swung his legs up, and crawled upside down over the empty arena. Weaving past the hanging ropes connected to hoops and trapezes, he stopped at a dark rope securely knotted to the support line. The loose rope ended at a pair of swirl-painted bars hanging on a hook above the highest acrobat platform. Drugho used them for his grand trick that only he could do. Ahren locked his legs tight around the taut rope and let go. With his hands free, he hung upside down and worked the tight knot holding the trapeze. The gypsy acrobat always inspected the lines when setting up, but now that it was finished, no one would see the slipknot Ahren tied in its place. He cinched the knot tight; making sure it could support some weight, then crawled back to the creaking poles and climbed back down.

If blame for the knot’s failure would be cast, it would fall only on those who setup the lines, leaving Ahren a solid alibi. With a smile, he hurried out of the arena and back to his bed.

#

Farmers and merchants poured in the next morning, erecting tents and pens. Ahren and the other acrobats watched from atop their platforms as the faire spread out around the multi-colored ring. The smells of cooked meats wafted through the air, making his stomach rumble as they neared the end of their pre-show practice.

Once his portion was complete, Ahren twirled from the trapeze and onto the net below. He took his time, helping set up the seats and moving props as Drugho began his crowning stunt. The gypsy leapt off the highest platform in a spinning flip and caught Kerlen’s hands as he swung upside down off a trapeze. The two men sailed back and forth with increasing speed before Drugho flipped away, catching and spinning off the hanging bars. Ahren held his breath as the gypsy flew upward, catching the lowest bar on his personal trapeze. The knot held as Drugho swung out over where the crowd would sit, then back around. The dark-skinned acrobat flipped upside down as he flew past again. His legs opened, readying for the final trick when the rope popped free, sending Drugho hurling out into the air. His arms flailed, trying to correct his fall as he crashed into the hard wooden benches.

“Drugho!” Ahren yelled, racing to where his master had fallen. Blood ran down the gypsy’s face as he lay across one of the tipped benches, an arm bent sharply just above the elbow. No telling how many other bones were broken.

“Is he all right?” Otto shouted as he and the other workers swarmed around them.

Ahren slid his fingers along Drugho’s neck. “He’s alive. Someone get Yemda!”

#

“Saint Vishtin,” Fegmil muttered, stomping out of Drugho’s green and purple wagon. “A catastrophe.”

“How is he?” Ahren asked.

The small quellen looked up with a start to see Ahren sitting on a nearby barrel. “He’ll heal. But it’ll be months before he can perform.”

Ahren sighed. “What do we do?”

“You and Kerlen will have to step in for him. The show can never stop. Just check the rest of those ropes before you go.”

“Kerlen and Vifel already did.”

“Good.” Fegmil stood still, tugging his moustache. “You told me that you’d do anything I asked,” he said, apprehension accenting his voice.

“Just tell me what you need done.”

The circus master peered around them, then gestured Ahren to follow. They meandered through the narrow lanes and stopped between a pair of empty carts.

“As you’ve seen, some of our income isn’t the honest type,” Fegmil said.

“I’ve seen.” Ahren shrugged.

Fegmil nodded. “A few cut purses help feed everyone, but that’s not enough to keep this show going. Sometimes we have to do something a little more daring.”

Ahren leaned closer. A shiver slithered up his spine despite his ignorant façade. “How do you mean?”

“By now you understand that we’re all a family… at least, I hope you do.”

“I do,” Ahren assured.

“Good. We have a lot of mouths to feed and a lot of expenses to keep everything together. There’s a good deal of talent in our family as well, talent that provides for everyone else.”

“How?”

Scratching his chin, Fegmil scanned around. “Burglary,” he whispered. “There’s but a few of us involved; the most trusted. Understand?”

“I do.”

“Drugho is part of it. But with his arm…”

“What do you need me to do?” Ahren purred.

Fegmil’s gray eyes twinkled. “After the show, we’ll give you the details. You’ve got four nights to get ready.” He patted Ahren on the leg. “Until then, get back to work.”

#

Felka blew a wisp of golden hair from her eyes and hurled her leaf-bladed dagger at the target board a dozen paces in front of her. It spun through the air and stuck into the pine planks with a hard thwack, severing the red string pulled tightly across it.

“Wonderful,” Ahren said, clapping his hands. Approaching the board, he surveyed his own three blades jutting from the knife-chewed planks, the furthest no more than two finger-widths from his own intact string. Frustrated, he ripped the daggers free.

“You’re getting better,” she said as Ahren handed her back her single blade. Hoots and cheers erupted outside the canvas-and-wagon wall circling the arena. Drenryck always drew applause from the mid-day crowd.

“So are you,” he laughed. “Pretty soon, I’ll have to blindfold you if I’m to stand much chance of winning.”

Felka’s sea blue eyes mischievously winked. “That could be interesting.”

Ahren swigged water from his clay tankard on the bench beside them, then threw his first dagger. It thudded into the board, just a hair below the mocking red string.

“Almost,” she said.

Chewing his lip, Ahren readied his second dagger when Fegmil and Drugho strode through the flap into the ring.

“Ahren,” the gypsy snapped. He carried his slung arm against his stomach like a tiresome burden. “Stop playing and get to your stretches. You have half an hour until your ale-stage performance.” His swollen purple eye had barely healed since his fall three days prior.

“Right away,” Ahren said, still miming his throw.

Fegmil gave a low cough as he sauntered over. “After the big show, change clothes and meet us in here. We’ll get a good look at where we’re going tomorrow night.”

“Any hint as to what we’re doing?” Ahren asked.

The little quellen shrugged. “Goldsmith.”

Ahren hurled the dagger. The tip of the sharp blade buried into the plank and the cut string fluttered down. “I’ll be there.”

#

Weak applause celebrated Ahren’s success as he stepped off the tightrope and onto the twelve-foot tripod across the stage. “Thank you, thank you,” he said in Rhomanic. “If you enjoyed my act, the chink of coin is the best praise to hear. So enjoy the fair and the wonders from around the world, but don’t forget to catch the main show this evening in the arena.” A pair of young girls quickly circled around to the back of the crowd with open hats, begging for tips before the audience could easily escape.

Ahren slid down a rope onto the stage and ripped off his hat with a flourish. He managed to coax a few copper from straggling patrons before enthusiastic, bell-ringing hawkers and the aroma of roasting lamb seduced them away.

“Very impressive,” said a slender man, dropping a silver into Ahren’s hat. A purple scar running from the corner of his lip was all that marred his unassuming demeanor.

“Thank you. I’m happy to have entertained you,” Ahren said with a smile.

The gentleman scanned out over the fairgrounds. “Tell me. Would you mind showing me where to find the exotic birds? There’s one specimen I very much wish to see.”

“Of course.” Ahren scooped the coins from his hat and pulled it back over his head. “Which one?”

“The Black Raven.”

Ahren chuckled, hiding the sudden tightening in his chest. “But all ravens are black.”

A half-smile drew across the man’s thin lips as he pulled a bronze pendant partially out from under his open doublet. The Tyenee stamp marked the medallion’s face. “Not all of them.”

“Ah,” he whispered, tension melting. “Let me take you there.”

They slipped through the crowd beside one of the wheeled bird coops, halting where no one was. A group of young men stood cavorting at the neighboring tiger cage fifteen feet away.

“My name is Karrem,” the man said, watching an icy blue parrot chew seeds from a clay bowl. “I came to find out how everything was faring. I assume by your little show that you haven’t found it yet.”

“Not yet. But I’m close. I’ve infiltrated the thieves.”

“Close isn’t what we need.” Karrem reached though the wire bars and stroked one of the bird’s long tail feathers. The irritated parrot waddled away down its perch. “You’ll be in Frobinsky in a just a few weeks. By then it’ll be too late.”

The boisterous boys wandered over to where Ahren and Karrem stood. The two men casually strolled over to the tiger cage. The two massive cats lay inside, silently watching the newcomers.

“We’re breaking into a goldsmith’s tonight,” Ahren muttered.

“Luvrncheck’s?” Karrem asked, amused.

He nodded. One of the tigers rolled to its feet and began pacing along the bars of its tiny cell.

“How?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Ahren glanced back over his shoulder for anyone nearby. “Once we get the goods, I’ll see where they hide them. Then the Vuschkul’s Heart is ours.”

“You have until tomorrow night,” Karrem growled. He cracked his knuckles slowly as a man and woman strolled past. “If you can’t get it before the circus leaves, the Tyenee have other methods of getting it.”

“Such as?”

“Highwaymen. It’s messy, but effective in emergencies.”

Ahren swallowed at the thought of everyone being butchered over a single emerald. The green-eyed tiger stopped and stared at him, as if somehow understanding the possibility. “That won’t be necessary,” Ahren managed.

“I hope not. I have a cooper shop by the Narenset Oratory within the city. Come there if you have any problems or once you have the stone.” Without another word, Karrem turned and walked away.

#

Shadows flickered across the nighttime arena, cast red under the light of lamps hanging along the inner walls. An orange half-moon peeked over the horizon. Tingles of excitement and anticipation ran across Ahren’s skin as he stepped through the flap. Fegmil stood beside one of the rough-hewn benches speaking to Achim and Bjornrek, while Kerlen, Otto, and Drenryck quietly listened.

The circus master clapped his hands and smiled as he spied Ahren approaching. “There he is. Ready, my boy?”

“I am,” Ahren said with a nod.

“Perfect. There’s been a slight change.”

Ahren’s brow creased. “What?”

“Nothing important,” the quellen said with a dismissive wave. “Achim will accompany Drenryck on another errand, so Felka will be joining you as lookout. She’s readying the cart outside.”

“I see.”

“Good.” Fegmil tugged his graying moustache as he looked everyone over. “Make it fast. Good luck.”

“We’ll be back in two hours,” Bjornrek said, rising to his feet. The massive Larstlander snapped his fingers. “Let’s go.”

Ahren and Kerlen hurried after the hulking strongman out the back to where Felka waited beside the horse corral with a wooden cart filled with straw. She smiled as Ahren approached, then took the handles and followed them toward the city.

“Are you ready for this?” she whispered over the squeaking wheels.

Ahren nodded. “Have you done this before?”

“Many times,” she chuckled.

The city guards barely looked up from their posts as the four circus workers passed through the massive arched gates. Few travelers strolled the dark streets, gathering mostly at small pubs and taverns. The cartwheels bounced and shook down the winding, cobbled roads leading deeper into the city. A towering statue of a warrior, his sword raised to the heavens, stared silently down as the thieves passed through a square and followed a dark lane's gradual slope. Elaborate knockers of iron and bronze adorned the sturdy doors lining the streets. Birds erupted from a dark belfry as it chimed the hour. They swarmed around the onion-domed steeple until it fell silent, then returned to their roosts.

The road leveled out and turned. After several more empty blocks the street split around an island of stone before coming back together. A square tower jutted up from the small slice of land. Granite posts connected by a thick twisted chain encircled the property, discouraging anyone from crossing the six-foot span between the street and the tower walls. Dark, narrow windows looked out from the second and third floors. Ironbound double-doors closed off the front of the fortress. Above them, a carved woman held a wooden sign by a golden chain.

Luvrncheck’s held the reputation as the finest goldsmith in Kossintry if not all of Rhomanny. Its customers included nobles and kings, and it was said a wedding ring crafted by Luvrncheck’s smiths would ensure happy marriage and strong sons. As its renown grew, so did the threat of thieves. To protect themselves, the owners erected the imposing tower capable of staying off armed invaders, let alone courageous burglars. In its four century history, Luvrncheck’s had yet to be robbed.

After checking that no one was on the streets, Felka stopped the cart along the curb beside the building. Stepping over the swinging chain, the three men hurried to the wall. Bjornrek dropped to his knees and Kerlen instantly mounted his shoulders. With a quick jump, Ahren hopped up onto the acrobat’s back and held his breath as the three of them all stood at once. The slit-like window above flew closer and Ahren grabbed onto the stone windowsill and clicked his tongue, signaling Kerlen to go. The slender man quickly scaled up Ahren’s body and slid through the narrow opening. His hand grabbed onto Ahren’s wrist and helped him inside.

Blocky shapes loomed in the darkness. Allowing his eyes to adjust, Ahren slowly made out long tables strewn with braziers and unusual equipment mounted to the oaken planks. Rows of intricate tools lined the walls. He quietly wove his way through the workroom and listened at the door. Hearing nothing, he signaled Kerlen and the two men began rummaging through the workshop.

Ahren ignored the gold chains laid out across the table beside him and moved to a massive iron-bound oak cabinet bolted against the far wall. Kerlen stuffed half-finished rings and other baubles into an empty sack as Ahren removed the picks from his pouch and began working on one of the three huge locks on the armoire doors.

Kerlen had finished his looting and tossed the burlap sack out the narrow window by the time Ahren managed to pop open the difficult locks. The old hinges groaned as he pulled the heavy doors wide. Brass-handled drawers filled the interior. Ahren pulled one open and gasped to find it filled with small gold bars, not much larger than his thumb. Removing an empty bag from his belt, he scooped the heavy ingots and dropped them inside. He tied it shut and handed it to Kerlen before taking out the second empty sack. Ahren dumped the last of the gold bars into the bag and started on a drawer of silver ones as Kerlen barely glanced out the open window before dropping the treasure below.

“You!” someone shouted outside. “What are you doing?”

Ahren hurried to a narrow window to see a soldier racing to the cart where Felka and Bjornrek stood.

The soldier jabbed a gloved finger at the bulging sack in Felka’s hands. “Thieves!”

“You’re mistaken,” Bjornrek laughed, taking a step closer. The muscles beneath his dun shirt flexed, readying to strike.

“Stop!” The soldier ripped his sword from its sheath. “Don’t move!”

Biting her lip, Felka’s hands traced closer to a bulge at her waist. Her hesitation only affirmed Ahren’s suspicion she’d never used a blade for more than show. Ahren thought of the flat dagger hidden in his boot, but didn’t have time. Swinging the half-empty bag in his hand he hurled it down at the soldier still advancing toward the Northman.

The heavy sack sailed down, smashing into the side of the guard’s helmet, knocking it from his head. Gold and silver bars exploded out, glinting briefly in the air before scattering across the cobbles like tinkling hailstones. Dropping his sword, the stunned soldier staggered and fell.

“Quick,” Ahren hissed, turning to Kerlen beside him. “Down!”

The two thieves slipped through the window, grabbed the bottom ledge, and dropped to the ground below. A sharp yelp came from behind. Ahren spun to see Bjornrek skewer the guard with his own sword.

“Let’s go!” Ahren snapped at Kerlen, reaching for the small ingots scattered across the ground. Shouts of alarm came from the darkened streets behind them as the four thieves escaped up the road, hurrying for the city gates.

#

“Idiot,” Bjornrek growled after passing through the gate. “You didn’t see him walking down the street?”

Kerlen remained silent, his eyes downcast.

“We had to leave over half the gold, and could have been caught!” The Northman’s hateful glare could have crushed stone.

Ahren held his tongue as he pulled the squeaking cart behind them. Kerlen’s carelessness was inexcusable, but no more than murdering the guard. The penalty for being caught had raised tenfold with the soldier’s death.

“I want to thank you,” Felka whispered, jolting Ahren from his thoughts.

“For what?” he snorted. “Losing half the treasure?” They turned off the dirt road and into the empty fairgrounds. Fat pigs stirred in their filthy pen as the thieves passed.

“But I know why you did it,” she said flatly. “And I’m grateful.”

Ahren guiltily smiled. “Don’t worry about it.”

Felka licked her lips. “You need to leave.”

“What?”

Felka swallowed. Her lip trembled as if struggling to speak. “Something bad is going to happen. You need to go.”

Ahren’s brow creased in confusion at the young woman’s terrified expression.

“Here we are,” Bjornrek said, stopping at the tigers’ caged wagon. Heavy locks hung from the lowered wooden awning, preventing anyone from seeing inside.

“What do you mean?” Ahren asked.

The grinning Larstlander pulled a brass key from his purse. “This is where we keep the treasure.” Hinges screeched as he opened the rear door. “Nice and safe.”

Ahren backed away, waiting for one of the beasts to lunge from the shadows.

“It’s safe,” Bjornrek laughed. “See for yourself.”

Cautiously, Ahren approached the open door and peeked into the dark wagon. Something moved in the back. Squinting, he made out the shape of a man lying inside on the straw-strewn floor. The figure rolled over, revealing Karrem’s bloodied face staring back at him. Ahren’s eyes widened in terror. Something hard smashed into the back of his head and everything went black.

#

A muted scream roused Ahren from unconsciousness. His skull throbbed in dull pulsing pain. He reached up to feel the swollen lump, but coarse rope bound his hands behind him. Filthy straw came into focus as he opened his eyes. A hard thud followed by another muffled cry came from behind him. Rolling over, he found himself locked in the tiger cage, now inside the performance arena.

A small crowd had gathered behind Achim. Karrem stood tied and gagged against a target board twenty feet before him. A dozen daggers protruded from his body. The curly haired knife-thrower twirled a slender blade in his hand before hurling it. The dagger whipped through the air and imbedded into oaken planks. Karrem’s severed finger fell to the ground to the roar of cheers and laughter. Icy terror flooded Ahren’s veins. He twisted against his tight bonds, trying to loosen them enough to reach the dagger he still felt hidden in his boot.

Gerta, the tiger tamer’s wife, glanced away from the macabre entertainment and smiled as her gaze fell on Ahren. “He’s awake!”

“There you are, my boy,” Fegmil said. “Just in time to see your friend’s finale.”

“What is this?” Ahren demanded, twisting against the course rope.

“Don’t you know?” the quellen laughed. “This is the final performance of the Black Raven.” Fegmil lifted a bulging sack. “Isn’t this what you were looking for, Black Raven?” He removed a sparkling green emerald the size of his small fist. The massive stone glittered in the orange lamplight. “We took you in, and you betrayed us.”

“He saved me in the city,” Felka shouted. Tears traced down her pale cheeks.

“No, child.” Achim drew another blade. “A hunter will spare a wolf if he thinks it will lead him to the pack.”

“Enough!” Fegmil yelled. “Achim, finish that one off. He bores me. It’s time for Ahren to pay for his crime.”

The knife thrower hurled his dagger into Karrem’s throat. Blood burst from around the blade as the wounded man struggled against his bonds. Bjornrek yanked open the tiger cage door, grabbed Ahren’s ankle, and dragged him out.

Ahren drew his legs tight, then kicked the strongman hard in the chest. Bjornrek’s grip loosened and Ahren twisted from his grasp.

“Get him!” Fegmil screamed.

His hands still bound, Ahren rolled from the lunging Northman and scrambled to his feet. Achim readied his dagger. As Ahren passed one of the thick trapeze poles, he feigned a stumble, lifting his chin and exposing his throat. The sharp blade flew through the air and Ahren ducked just in time for it to hit the wood behind him. Dodging another of Bjornrek’s swings, Ahren reached behind him, grabbed the dagger and cut his bonds.

An iron-like fist smashed into his jaw, sending him to the ground. Still holding the blade in one hand, he scooped up a fistful of dirt and lurched away before the Northman could grab hold. Leaping up, Ahren whirled around and threw the gritty dirt into Bjornrek’s eyes. Ahren ducked to the side and hurled his blade into Achim’s shoulder as the knife thrower prepared for another attack.

Furious cries filled the arena as the circus thieves charged. Shoving Kerlen aside, Ahren dove and tackled Fegmil to the ground. The heavy sack fell from the quellen’s grasp, spilling treasure across the trampled, straw-strewn track. A gem-encrusted gold eagle bounced out beside the Vuschkul’s Heart. Ahren scrambled for the massive emerald when he heard a terrible growl behind him. He spun around to see Gerta rip away her robe as she fell to her knees. Tiny pimples spread across her body, sprouting orange and black hairs. Frozen in horror, Ahren watched the woman’s mouth split open, and her teeth elongate into dagger-like fangs. Behind her, her son Liebren roared as he finished the same transformation.

Fegmil rolled to his feet and drew a short knife from his belt. “Kill him,” he ordered, kicking the gem from Ahren’s reach.

Ahren sprang to his feet and ran as the half-formed tigress lunged. He punched Drenryck in the gut as he raced past and seized the knotted rope hanging from the acrobat platform above. Clambering up the line, Ahren drew up his legs just as one of the tiger’s paws swiped past. Sweat beaded his brow and trickled into his eyes. The rope trembled and Ahren looked down to see Kerlen and one of the other acrobats climbing after him. Ahren reached the top and ripped the flat dagger from his boot. Fervently, he sawed the thick rope until it snapped under the two men’s weight, sending them sprawling to the ground below.

Ahern spied the green gem lying before one of the vodka wagons forming the ring. Grabbing a trapeze bar beside him, he leaped to the other side. The rope pulled taut, nearly jerking from Ahren’s sweating grasp. He swung wide out to the side and circled around, flying over the enraged mob, let go, and somersaulted through the air. Wood groaned and popped under his sudden weight as Ahren landed atop the wagon and rolled to his feet, almost sliding off the edge. The tigers charged toward him. Roaring and snapping, they clawed the wagon roof eaves. Bottles shattered inside as their heavy bodies knocked against the side, nearly tipping it over. Quickly, Ahren unhooked one of the lanterns hanging at his feet, barely avoiding one of the tigers blurring swipes. He hurled it down at the animals below him. Glass shattered and flaming oil exploded across the wagon, splattering into the beasts’ fur. The howling tigers sprang away and rolled, igniting the dry, straw-laden ground.

Ahren jumped off the burning wagon and snatched the emerald before the spreading flames could reach it. He dropped to his knees as a wooden bench sailed past. It smashed into a cargo wagon, knocking its hanging lantern to the ground. Bjornrek grabbed another empty bench and charged, holding it like a ram. Springing to the side, Ahren rolled away as the screaming Northman plowed past. Bjornrek swung the bench like a great club. It whooshed inches from Ahren’s head, fanning his hair. He dove forward, shouldering the strongman as Bjornrek awkwardly tried to correct the wild swing. Dropping the heavy bench, Bjornrek crashed backward into the burning oil-soaked hay.

A thunderous crack rang from Drenryck’s leather whip. His face contorted in rage, the tiger tamer lashed it out. Ahren threw up his arm to shield himself and searing pain exploded as the whip split it open. Drenryck brought the whip back for another strike, but Ahren hurled his flat dagger into the beast master’s gut.

Smoke flooded the arena as wind-fueled flames spread across the stretched canvas walls, igniting the other wagons. Shouts and cries came from both sides of the ring as circus workers struggled trying to contain the spreading blaze. Ahren’s watering eyes burned under the thickening smoke. Coughing, he grabbed hold of a nearby wagon and pulled himself to the top. Orange fire sheeted along the wagon’s outer side as the burning cloth-covered wall ignited the wooden eaves. Ahren jumped over the licking tongues of fire and rolled to his feet.

Horses whinnied inside their lashed corral as smoke and orange embers blew across the wide field. Ahren hopped the creaking fence and reached for one of the chestnut stallions when a voice screamed behind him.

“Son of a whore!” Otto marched toward him, clutching a rusty cleaver-like hatchet. He chopped the ropes binding the corral gate closed and threw it open. “I’ll kill you!”

Ahren stepped back, scanning the ground for something to defend himself with. The bald man charged, holding the hideous weapon high. He reared back to swing but suddenly staggered. The cleaver fell from his fingers and Otto eyes went empty. He fell to the ground, twitching, a dagger handle jutting from the back of his skull. Ahren looked up to see Felka standing, silhouetted in the fiery glow, an unsheathed dagger in her hand. Their eyes met and they stood silently locked in each other’s gaze as panicked screams for water echoed around them. She raised the dagger, ready to throw, but stopped.

Keeping his eyes on hers, Ahren grabbed the restless stallion and swung himself onto its back. She remained still. Glass shattered and flames plumed from one of the burning vodka wagons.

“Come with me,” he said, extending his hand.

The uncertainty in her eyes melted and she lowered her blade.

Ahren edged the impatient steed closer. “Let’s go.”

She took his arm and he pulled her behind him. She held tight to Ahren’s hips and he kicked his heels into the horse’s sides. Thick smoke blanketed across the grassy fields. They rode from the city, the galloping hooves drowning out the cries. Her arms circled snugly around him as they crested a low hill, leaving the burning ruin of the Darclyian Circus behind.

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