Authors: Mark Acres
A Gang of Thieves
sat on a carpet of brown evergreen needles with his back to a tall cedar tree. The rough bark scraped his flesh through his coarse tunic, but Bagsby didn’t mind. He was so preoccupied with his confused train of memories and more confusing lack of plans that he didn’t even notice. His short but nimble fingers bent and tied a thin branch of green wood into knots, while he tried to put some order to his thoughts. The presence of the greatest treasure known to mankind, the legendary Golden Eggs of Parona, lying conspicuously on the forest floor, directly in front of him was a constant distraction.
“Oh, a thousand hells of a thousand gods,” he finally muttered, tossing aside the mutilated branch and leaning back fully against the tree, folding his hands behind his head. “At least I stole them. I succeeded.” A stab of pain from the large lump near the crown of his head reminded him of the price he’d paid for his theft. But Bagsby knew a few bumps were nothing compared to the ardors he would have to endure if he wanted to discover exactly what it was he had managed to steal.
“Wot’s that?” called George, stamping noisily through the trees to the clearing, his gnarled, bruised, fighting man’s body still dripping water from his bath in the nearby River Rigel. “I thought you said somethin’.”
“I’m trying to understand an ancient mystery—life, love, women, ethics, and practical problems—all at the same time,” Bagsby quipped, a wry smile forming on his squarish face, which was just beginning to show the first lines of age.
“Oh,” George replied with a shrug, using his filthy brown tunic to dry the backs of his legs. “Never saw much use in all that, myself. Except the women part—and them’s not for understandin’, mind you, not at all.” George winked a broad, stage wink in Bagsby’s direction. “Like Marta, there,” he said, pointing toward the river with his thumb. “She ain’t for understandin’—she’s for sportin’ wit’.”
Bagsby chuckled. “I’ve thought so myself for most of my life,” he answered.
“Well then, what’s so particular right now?” George pressed, slipping the stained, bedraggled tunic over his head. “It’s that elf woman, ain’t it? By the gods, you sound lovesick, that you do.” A note of genuine concern crept into George’s voice. He had followed Bagsby loyally so far because Bagsby had taken him where he wanted to go, was a good fighter, and an even better thief. But what if love was going to cloud his mind?
“Maybe I am,” Bagsby admitted. The short man stood, brushed the tree bark from his back, and began to pace slowly, his gaze downcast. “Is that what it really sounds like to you? Do you think I’m in love with Shulana?”
“Couldn’t say, guv. I just said you sounds lovesick, not that you necessarily is,” George responded, cocking his head to one side and studying Bagsby intently. No doubt about it, George thought, he’s as lovesick as a young boy.
Bagsby had not been a thief and a leader of thieves all his life without learning something about how to read the thoughts of fellow ruffians. The guardedness of George’s reply could mean only that he was holding back. Bagsby stopped pacing, turned on his heel, and directed his gaze straight into George’s small, dark eyes. “Be honest with me, George. What’s on your mind?”
George turned his head, avoiding Bagsby’s prying gaze. He spotted his linen breeches, dirty as his tunic, lying beneath a tree. “Well, guv,” he began, walking over nonchalantly to retrieve his pants. “You asked me a question, and I answered. Now, if you really want to know wot I thinks...”
“I do,” Bagsby interjected, a cold tone in his voice.
“Well, then,” George said, puffing just a bit as he worked his bruised, gnarly legs into the breeches, “wot I think is this: We got that there treasure there. We got one damned mad wizard, who the elf says is some kind of undead thingie ready to breathe fire down our backs for stealin’ it from ’im. And we got a long way to go to find a market where we can sell it and where I can get me cut; that’s wot I think.”
“Have I ever cheated you on a cut?” Bagsby demanded, suddenly indignant.
“No, can’t say you ‘ave,” George replied, his grizzled, weather-beaten face becoming calm and thoughtful. “Can’t say we’ve ever ‘ad a cut before, either, ‘cause these here golden eggs is the first thing we’ve stolen together. But you’ve always been straight with the food, right enough, and you’ve done your fair share of the fightin’ and the risk takin’. I ain’t sayin’ I don’t trust you on the cut. I’m sayin’ let’s get our bloody arses out of ‘ere and get ‘em somewhere where that Valdaimon fellow can’t find us, and turn them eggs into cash, that’s all.”
Bagsby nodded affirmatively. George was right.
I must be losing my edge,
Bagsby thought. At any other time, he would have known instinctively what was on George’s mind. He would also have known that no thief will trust his life to a leader who is distracted by love—especially not a soldier who’s just turned thief, as was the case with George.
Bagsby scowled, and grimaced again at his own thoughts. Why couldn’t he think straight? Was it the mystery of the treasure, the trouble with Shulana, or just fear and the first—the very first ever—twinges of the advancing years? But whatever it was, he’d better put a good face on it, because he needed the loyalty of George, Marta, and Shulana, at least for the moment.
“Right you are, George, right you are. Soon as the sun’s down, we move from here.”
“That’s more like it, guv,” George replied, a broad smile revealing his strong, yellow teeth. “Where we goin’ to?”
“Yes, where are we going? And don’t think I don’t mean to have a say in this,” fat Marta shouted from behind a clump of bushes where she was busily hiding her bulk in the folds of a plain, gray, ankle-length tunic. “And none of your smart mouth, George. I want to hear what Sir John has to say.”
“‘Ere now, where you get off talkin’ to me like that, wot showed you such a good time in your bath?” George shouted back, his eyes alight with the teasing game. “Ain’t you got no respect for one what loves you and fights for you and feeds you and…”
A ball of wet brown mud flew from between two tall trees and thudded squarely against George’s mouth, turning the end of his sentence into a series of surprised sputters, gasps, and spits.
“Don’t you go on at me, George Miller’s son,” Marta called back, shaking her hand to fling off the clinging droplets of the mud ball. “You’re nothing but a deserter, and from Heilesheim at that, the most evil kingdom in the land. Not three days ago you was ready enough to kill for that Valdaimon, whatever he is, and for that demon-spawn king, Ruprecht, may he rot in the hells of a thousand devils,” she spat for emphasis, “and just because I choose to take my pleasure with you, don’t think you can talk familiar to me!”
Black fire flashed in Marta’s eyes as she lugged her bulk into the small clearing during this diatribe. George, far from combative, had flung himself to the ground and lay on his back, alternately chortling with laughter and using his callused fingers to dig bits of mud from his mouth.
“By the gods, Bagsby, ain’t she a fine one for sport?” he asked.
“And don’t you be talkin’ to Sir John about our private moments. It ain’t no business of his, even if he is a knight,” Marta snapped. Indignant, she cast about the clearing for the mail shirt and sword she had stolen from a dead trooper days ago, and which had become a part of her normal wardrobe.
“‘E ain’t no knight, ‘ow many times ‘e got to tell you, wench?” George shouted. “That was a ruse. ‘E’s a thief, ‘e is, and a damned good one at that.”
“Well he’s Sir John to me. That’s how I met him, and that’s how I call him,” Marta replied, donning her chain-mail shirt. “He’s led an army, and that’s more than the likes of you can say. And if he stole that treasure from Valdaimon, with the help of us all I might add, then I say may the gods bless him.” Marta struck a heroic pose, her sword raised high toward the heavens. “May the gods bless any and all who strike a blow against Heilesheim, Ruprecht, and Valdaimon!”
Then, seeing she had silenced George, who stared at her in bemused astonishment, she put down the sword and went about the mundane task of gathering the long tunic in bunches inside her thick legs, converting its bottom half to improvised breeches.
Bagsby, too, stared for a moment at the amazing Marta.
He had first seen this woman when she was brought before the council of the king of Argolia, where Bagsby had sat in his guise as Sir John of Nordingham—an identity he had created for the occasion out of thin air. She had appeared to show the council the wound inflicted on her by Ruprecht himself: her back was branded with his coat of arms, a dragon with wings spread wide. Her husband had been slain and herself thus treated when Heilesheim’s army had first begun its campaign of conquest against the numerous kingdoms of the Holy Alliance, a campaign that still continued and had thus far been unmarred by any major defeat. From that day, Marta had vowed vengeance on Heilesheim, Ruprecht, and Valdaimon, the undead wizard who guided Ruprecht’s hand in most affairs. She had disguised herself as a man and fought with the Argolians at the dreadful battle of Clairton, the outcome of which had put that kingdom under the heel of Ruprecht. Then, after meeting up with George, a Heilesheim deserter, she had joined Bagsby and Shulana and helped them steal the fabled Golden Eggs from Valdaimon. She was a woman with a single passion, Bagsby knew, though it seemed to him now that George’s attentions had softened her a bit.
“The wars of you humans are a matter of little concern,” a soft voice spoke into the gathering. Silently, the lithe, thin form of the elf Shulana slipped into the clearing. From whence she came not even Bagsby’s keen eye could tell, for like all elves she could move almost invisibly in any natural forest. “Whether the gods care about such things I know not,” she said matter-of-factly to Marta. “But I do know we must decide what to do next.” Her eyes took in all three of the humans. “Valdaimon will not be long in trailing us with assassins worse than any human he could hire. He wants the Golden Eggs, and he must not have them.”
“Why is that?” Bagsby asked quickly.
George rolled his eyes; Malta averted hers. The old quarrel was about to begin. In
the few days the foursome had been together, George and Marta had heard more than enough times that Bagsby wanted to know the true nature of the Golden Eggs, and that Shulana knew but would not tell him.
“I cannot tell you,” Shulana said. She strode over to Bagsby, embraced him tenderly, and stared into his eyes. “They must be destroyed before he is able to recover them.”
“Destroyed!” George shouted, leaping to his feet. “Now just wait a minute. I didn’t risk life and limb and ‘angin’ to get me hands on that treasure just so’s you could come along and destroy it without so much as a ‘by your leave.’ I wants me cut. I know wot’s right, I do.”
“Shulana won’t destroy the treasure,” Bagsby said softly, pushing her from him. “She can’t.”
“If you think my affection for you will prevent me from carrying out the mission entrusted to me by the Elven Council, you are much mistaken, Bagsby,” Shulana said directly, her soft eyes meeting his with a mixture of affection and defiance.
“I know that,” Bagsby said. “When I said you couldn’t destroy the treasure, I did not mean that any affection for me prevented you from doing so.”
“What did you mean?” Shulana asked, turning her back on the short thief.
“Right, what did you mean?” George demanded.
“I meant,” Bagsby said softly, “that if Shulana had the power to destroy this treasure, she would already have done so. She does not have that power. This elf, my friends,” Bagsby went on, explaining for the benefit of George and Marta, “can cast a marvelous variety of spells. She can even call forth a magical fire that consumes men, beasts, swords, armor, almost anything.” Bagsby turned back around to face the elf. “But it cannot consume the Golden Eggs, can it, Shulana? For if it could, you would already have cast the spell.”
“True enough,” Shulana admitted.
“Well, that’s a mercy,” George muttered. The elf was a pretty little thing, at least as pretty as an elf could be, and George would have hated to have had to kill her, especially since Bagsby was obviously fond of her.
“All the more reason we must take the eggs at once to the Elven Preserve, where the combined magic of my race can once and for all destroy the threat they pose to this world,” Shulana said decisively. “Yes, that is what we must do. We must take them to the Elven Preserve.”
“If the elves wants ‘em, let ‘em pay us for ‘em,” George challenged flatly.
“That was the original agreement,” Shulana said. “The Elven Council has agreed to pay its entire treasury for the delivery of the Golden Eggs.”
“Well then, what are we waitin’ for?” George asked. He started gathering his scattered weapons and pack. Then he paused. “How much is in the treasury of the Elven Council?” he queried.
“More than two hundred thousand gold crowns,” Bagsby answered. “But I don’t think we ought to give the elves possession—just yet.”
“Why not?” George demanded. “Where else we goin’ to sell ‘em? Everyone in the world will recognize ‘em and know they’re stolen.”
“Nonetheless, at the moment they are mine—I stole them,” Bagsby said.
“You led the group that stole them,” Marta interjected. “Still, I’m interested to know what Sir John is thinking. Why shouldn’t we sell them and use the money to aid the fight against Heilesheim?”
“You spend your own money, sweet’eart. I’ll spend mine,” George countered.
“Because we don’t know what these two things really are,” Bagsby said. “How do we know that even the entire treasury of the Elven Council is fair value?”
“For a fourth part of two ‘undred thousand crowns, I’m willin’ to take the risk,” George said, strapping on his pack.
“Maybe you are, but I’m not,” Bagsby declared. “If the Elven Council’s offer is fair, why won’t Shulana divulge the secret of what these items really are? These two objects have been the subject of legends for thousands of years. Why does Valdaimon want them so desperately? Why do the elves want them so desperately?”
Marta strode forward to stand directly in front of the Golden Eggs of Parona. As the red rays of the sunset streaked through the forest, the two huge, egg-shaped nodules of gold, each nearly three feet from base to crown, gleamed in the dying light. Flashes of countless colors reflected from the hundreds of gemstones set in their gold finish, and the strange patterns worked into the gold coating looked to Marta like some strange, foreign writing—the writing of ancient, mystic prophets, foretelling doom for a world. The bulky woman stared at the eggs, then at Shulana, then at Bagsby.