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Introduction:

This contains all the chapters
Chapter one

A new life

I was a noble’s son, a bastard. Oh, I got schooling and even some training in the martial skills. One thing I learned was that any offense with an edged weapon was cause for imprisonment. As soon as I was old enough I set out on my own. I headed towards the other side of the kingdom. The large port city of Tide was a major port and trade city as well as the capital for the kingdom.

For two weeks I moved through the shadows of the night. It was the dark of the moon and the four men I had been watching would be moving. I knew where they would enter the merchants manor, just as I knew were they would come out. I knew where they would take everything they stole, now it was just a waiting game. It was right after midnight when they moved and I waited and then moved to the shadows down the street from the side door.

It was only about an hour before the side door opened and they came out. They were carrying a lot of heavy stuff and moved slowly. I waited until they were passing me before stepping out. I was carrying two thick, engraved hard wood clubs. Each was two inches thick and thirty inches long.

I slam the right one into the side of the last man’s head and the left one into the back of the next man’s head. The other two men started turning to see what was happening but it was to late. I struck sideways with the right club as I continued to walk and it cracked into the forehead of one of the other men.

My left club came straight down on the top of the last man’s head and it was over. I quickly searched them for weapons and tied their hands behind their backs and gagged them. From the amount of blood on their clothes they had probably killed the merchant.

I slapped them awake and got them onto their feet. I loaded them up with the loot and led them away. When I pulled them into the city guard building there were only a few guards there. A commander stood, “What is the meaning of this!”

I nodded to the men as I began pulling the loot away from them, “These four just robbed a merchant and from the amount of blood on them, I would say they probably killed him.”

The guards looked at each other and the commander nodded to two guards, “Take them back to the cells.”

I looked around as I pulled out two parchments. One I held out to the commander and the other I set on a nearby table. The commander grunted as he took the parchment and slowly began reading. I sat and pulled out a small bottle of ink and a metal stylist. I started writing and the commander finally looked at me, “This says you are a licensed thief taker.”

I nodded, “Licensed by the king’s court and the first year’s taxes paid.”

The commander looked at the parchment I was writing on, “What are you writing?”

I glanced at him, “The king’s law requires I give an accounting of each thief I catch.”

I gave the commander the address to the merchant’s manor and went back to writing on the parchment. When I finished the guard the commander had sent to the merchant’s manor was back. Not only was the merchant dead but everyone else in the manor. I set all the weapons I had taken from the four men on the table and moved to the pile of loot.

I loaded everything up as they watched me and turned towards the commander, “I am staying at the White Lion tavern.”

I moved slowly because of the weight and a guard by the door opened it to let me out. When I checked with the guards a week later no one had come forwards to claim the merchant’s goods so they became mine. The first thing I did was buy a very old two story house on the edge of the city. It was built from cut stone and not brick. The bottom floor held a large kitchen, a dinning room, a parlor and a living room. The second floor had four bedrooms.

Chapter two

It was not about the Spices

I began moving around the city, mostly at night. It was three days later that I caught the two men robbing a young noble. I slipped out of the shadows and crossed to them as they clubbed him and then kicked him on the ground. My first strike was to the back of one’s head and then I used my other club to back hand a blow across the forehead of the other.

I secured both and took the purse they had taken from the noble. I helped him up and then pulled the two thieves up. I pushed and pulled the two while helping the young man. When I entered the guard building the commander looked up and opened his mouth before closing it. The men were taken away while I wrote up the account. I held the purse out to the young noble but he waved it away.

I shrugged, the king’s court would pay me two silvers for each man anyway but extra money was always nice. Three days later I woke to banging on my front door. When I opened it, it was to see the young noble with another older man that was plainly a noble and a man that was plainly an officer of the guard. I looked at them and the young noble gestured into the house, “may we come in?”

I opened the door wider as I stepped back and they came in. I closed the door and then led them to the parlor. I gestured to the old cushioned chairs by the fireplace and waited before sitting. The young man cleared his throat, “This is Baron Trindal. Someone broke into his warehouse and stole several crates of spice.”

I looked at the guard officer and he did not look happy. I sat back and looked at the nobles, “And what did you want me to do?”

The baron leaned forward, “The thieves killed one of my men, I want them caught. If you find the spices you can keep them.”

I looked at the guard officer, “Do I have your permission?”

He looked at the old noble before nodding. I looked at the old noble, “Tell me everything about it. When, where, how, who… everything you know.”

He hesitated and then started talking. I listened closely and knew right away someone inside the warehouse had been part of the theft. When he stopped talking I sat back, “First, this is going to cost more than the king’s court is going to pay. Second, what I find may be something you did not want to know. Third, I doubt the spices were what they were really after so I need information.”

The old man looked at me as the officer and the young noble looked at each other, “What do you want to know?”

I smiled, “As valuable as the spices are, that was something they used as an excuse to make you think that was what they were after. What else do you have that would make killing a worker worth what they were doing?”

He shook his head and shrugged, “Nothing. I have bolts of silk and other valuable cloth as well as rare spices but that is it.”

I looked at him and sat back to think. I finally stood, “I need to see where the worker was killed.”

As I walked through the warehouse several workers glared at me but remain quiet. As Baron Trindal gestured to the smeared blood stain I slowly started walking around the area. I knew what or I should say where the thieves had been from marks I saw. I ignored it and continued walking around the area.

When we walked back outside I nodded to the guard officer, “They will probably try again tonight. If you can have your guards continue their normal patrols I should be able to catch them.”

I looked at Baron Trindal, “They were not after anything in your warehouse my lord. They were in your office.”

He started and opened his mouth but I held my hand up, “I imagine you have a strong box. Do not do anything like removing your money. Do business like normal and I will catch those responsible.”

I turned and walked away before they could say anything. I made a stop on the way home for some stout cordage. I relaxed when I got home and closed my eyes, it was going to be a long night. When I opened my eyes the light from the window was just starting to dim so I knew the sun was going down. I quickly bathed and dressed before leaving the house.

I made a stop at a tavern I had started using. At first everyone quieted and then they started talking again. After eating I left and headed towards the shipping area of the city. I came to the back of Baron Trindal’s warehouse and looked around. Once I was sure no one was around I moved to a corner and started climbing up the stone drain pipe.

I was careful when I reached the roof and slowly made my way to the sky light I wanted. It only took a moment to open it and then I slipped inside and closed the sky light behind me. I moved along the beam until I reached a large stack of crates. I used the crates to climb down and silently moved to the gap between two where I could watch the back wall of the office.

I settled down to wait, I knew the thieves would wait until they thought everyone was asleep in the city. It was past the mid watch bell when I heard them enter. I watched as three men quietly walked to the wall and looked around before beginning to pull boards off. What surprised me was the young well dressed man whispering orders.

They finally disappeared into the office and I moved to the wall beside the hole they had made. Several minutes later a man crawled out and I struck. One of my night sticks struck the back of his head and I quickly pulled him to the side. A second pushed a large metal lock box through the hole and hissed, “Take it damn you!”

I reached out to pull it out of the way and waited for him to come out. Like with the first man I hit him and pulled his body clear before turning to the hole. The last man to come through was the well dressed man and he held what looked like a ledger. After I laid him out I tied the three men up and tucked the ledger into my shirt. I slapped the men awake and the first one to speak was the young well dressed lad.

He started off with arrogance and threats of beatings. I cuffed him and yanked the two other men up. I forced them to carry the heavy lock box and pushed them towards the door. The young man went from threats to offering me half and then more than half, he even told me where the crates of spices were.

I ignored everything as I pushed and chivied them down the street until we reached the guard building. That was when the young man began yelling for help and accusing me. I slapped him, “Shut the hell up!”

I turned to look at a sleepy guard captain and the Baron that had hired me. They were just coming in a side door. I nodded and looked at the two men carrying the lockbox. The merchant Baron’s face was white as was the young man’s. The guard Captain actually looked grim as he gestured to his guards, “Put them in a cell.”

The guards hesitated at the young man but Baron Trindal snarled, “him too!”

I took the heavy lockbox and set it on the table and then pulled out the ledger. That was when the Baron’s face turned red in anger. I set the ledger on the box before turning to sit and reach for a piece of parchment, “The two men had the box but the young sir had the ledger.”

The Baron almost whispered, “Did you look in the ledger?”

I glanced at him, “No, I do not need to know what they were stealing.”

I began writing the account of the theft and felt the baron looking over my shoulder. When I finished I blew on it and handed it to the guard captain. He read it and smiled, “You did good.”

He looked at the merchant and sighed, “I am sorry about your son sir.”

The baron snorted, “He is not my son.”

He pulled a purse from inside his shirt as I stood and tossed it to me, “Thank you thief taker.”

I bowed, “I only wish the culprits were not who they are.”

The baron nodded and I turned towards the door. Early the next day I arranged for a wagon and brought the crates of spices back to the baron’s warehouse. After I returned it I headed home for a nice meal and a long nap.

Chapter three

A pouch of false gold

I looked up from the large bread bowl of hunter’s stew. The two men walking towards my table did not belong here. One was a young noble dandy and the other looked like a rich merchant. I ignored them to blow on the hot stew and take a bite. I chewed and watched as they finally stopped across from me. I sighed after swallowing and sat back, “Yes?”

The old merchant cleared his throat, “Are you the thief taker?”

I smiled and nodded, “How can I help you?”

He tossed a heavy pouch on the table. I reached out to open it and saw a lot of gold coins. Something was not right though and I poured them onto the table. I used my finger to turn several over before looking at the merchant, “These are fake.”

He nodded, “That is how you can help me. Find the bastards that replaced the gold with these worthless pieces of lead.”

I took another bite of stew and chewed while thinking about it. The young noble leaned on the table pulling a fancy dagger. My other hand came over the table as he was reaching towards my face.

I grabbed his wrist, placing my thumb on the back of his hand as I twisted and yanked. He slammed into the table as my hand slipped the dagger out of his hand. I nodded to the merchant as I released the noble, “for ten percent of what I return.”

He puffed up, “that is robbery!”

I smiled and flipped the dagger before throwing it across the room to slam into the door frame, “then find another thief taker.”

He glared and spun away, the noble snarled as he rubbed his wrist, “this is not over.”

I ignored him to return to my stew. The rest of the room laughed though and he stomped after the merchant. When I finished eating I slipped the serving girl a few extra coppers before leaving. I headed into the slums of the city and slipped into the shadows. When the man I was waiting for limped past, I reached out and yanked him into the narrow alley.

He opened his mouth to yell and froze as one of my clubs jabbed him in the stomach, “Quiet.”

He nodded and looked around as I held up two pieces of silver, “who is buying lead?”

He grinned and looked from my face to the silver, “I will tell for a gold piece.”

I shook my head, “You already owe me for not taking you in for stealing.”

He swallowed and finally nodded, “It be a noble lad. He tries to hide what he is but we have eyes.”

I shook the silver coins, “Name?”

He shook his head, “We do not know his name. He is supposed to buy more lead tonight at the Black Owl.”

I put the silver coins away and he growled. I released him and flipped a single gold piece towards him as I walked away. The Black Owl was in a dark part of the city, they did not even bother to light the few street lamps on the streets and they sure did not bother filling them with oil. I slipped in the back door and smiled at the young lass that glanced my way.

I sat at a dark shadowed table and pushed a silver across the table. The serving girl swayed by and the silver vanished before she continued on her way. I had been here a few times and she knew me. Her next trip past my table a tall mug slid across. I knew I did not have to worry about being poisoned or drugged. I lifted the mug and sipped the cool cider with a sigh.

The ale here was a good way to kill yourself but the cider was pure nectar. I spotted the two lead mongers sitting at a lone table. I relaxed and sipped the cider as slowly time passed. I was almost ready to leave when the slim cloaked noble opened the door. His cloak hid his features but the richness told everyone what he was. I watched and waited as they spoke and he pushed a couple of gold pieces across the table.

He lifted the heavy bag they set on the table and his cloak opened to reveal a fancy dagger I recognized. I smiled and sipped the last of my cider before standing and quietly leaving through the back door. I was waiting across the dark street when the noble left the inn. I followed him easily as he walked through the dark streets not even looking back.

He went towards the part of the city that had stock pens and slaughter houses. He hesitated at the mouth of an alley and I slipped into a dark doorway. After looking back, he walked past the alley and opened the door to a tiny shop next to it. I waited and watched and a little later a short, thin man appeared.

He looked around carefully before going into the shop. I slipped out of the doorway and down the alley. From the back of the shop came the smell of smelting. I pulled my two clubs and kicked the back door open. As I walked in the noble spun from the small forge and the other man turned to run.

I threw one of the clubs to strike the running man in the back of the head before looking at the noble holding his fancy dagger as I moved closer. He lunged (which was stupid with a dagger) and I moved sideways before slamming my club into the side of his head. As he dropped to the floor like a stone, I went after the other man trying to get up.

A crack over the back of the head dropped him back to the floor and I bent to retrieve my thrown club. I quickly tied the two men and began looking around. I found the small gold bar they were going to coat the lead coins with as well as the mold for the coins. I also found a few fake coins. I slapped the short, thin man awake, “Where is the gold you stole?”

He sneered and I slammed a club into his ribs, “I will turn in your broken body if that is how you want it.”

His pale face gestured across the room, “half is under the floor next to the wall.”

I waited and poked him with the club when he did not say anything else. He gasped, “The kid took the rest!”

I nodded and moved to pry the floor up. I pulled a heavy chest out before going to slap the noble awake. He was white faced but the first thing he said was a threat, “My father will have your head…”

I slugged him in the face, breaking his nose and showering blood everywhere, “Where is the gold, thief?”

He sputtered and spit blood before glaring. I shrugged before leaning him forward and reaching behind him. He screamed as I broke one of his fingers and pushed him back to sob. I slapped him, “The gold boy?”

He shook his head and I leaned him forward again. This time he screamed, “Under the mattress in my room!”

I yanked him up and then the other man. I tied them together at the neck before lifting the heavy gold chest. I left the small gold bar and everything else and pushed them out the back door. When I shoved them into the guard building the young noble began screaming bloody murder until I knocked the wind out of him with a kick. I shoved him towards a guard and looked at the guard commander, “They were making false gold coins”

The noble youth tried to bluster and the guard slapped him and told him to shut the hell up. They were taken towards the cells as I sat to write out the report. I gave the commander the location of the shop and two guards were sent out on the double. The commander sat across from me as I wrote and waited patiently.

I pushed the first sheet across and he turned it before starting to read. When he finished, he looked up, “Are you sure, he is…”

I nodded, “I am sure. You can send someone to look under his mattress to confirm he had some of the gold. He was the one working the forge when I caught them.”

I blew on the second page and folded it before pulling the candle near and removing a small solid brass seal from inside my tunic. I dribbled wax on the edge and sealed the paper before siding it across to the commander, “The law requires I send a report to the king as well as provide the court one.”

He swallowed and nodded, “He will see it first thing in the morning.”

I glanced at the cell door, “The king will want them available to answer questions.”

The commander stood, “They will bloody well answer.”

I nodded and stood before heading towards the door with the chest. The next morning a messenger arrived with an elegant thank you letter from the king and a small purse of gold coins. I never heard from the rich merchant but found out he was fined heavily by the king for not reporting the false gold coins.

Chapter four

A band of sneak thieves for a Damsel

I had been watching the market place for a week now. The guard had several reports of sneak thieves stealing purses or items from merchants counter. I had already marked four young men and was watching two more. Currently I was laying unseen on a merchant’s roof peering down into the square. I finally sighed and moved back and down.

I used a drain to climb back to the alley and slipped up behind the lookout. I cracked him behind the ear and pulled him back into the alley. I fished the three stolen purses out of his shirt and the two silver candle sticks. I tied his hands and feet with a noose to his neck before moving back by where he had been standing.

When one of the other thieves returned to look for him I moved forward. I cracked him on the back of his skull and quickly pulled him into the alley with his friend. I stripped him of his stolen goods and tied him up. One after another I took the thieves. After I had the last man I got them up and had them carry the stolen purses and property.

They were a sullen lot that pushed into the guard building. As soon as the guards came to take them the oldest looking one blurted, “We have something to trade! We want the king’s pardon.”

The on duty commander sneered, “Your sneak thieves, what could you have?”

The other men looked at their apparent leader and he swallowed, “We know where the Countess MacTav was taken.”

I looked at them and absently waved one of the guards back, “Prove it.”

He shook his head, “After we are free.”

I laughed and walked to stand in front of him, “Prove it or I will break every bone in your body.”

I ignored the commander who would probable start breaking bones if he still refused to talk. The thief finally nodded, “There is an old tannery called Lion’s Hide. They dumped her belongings in the refuse pit.”

I looked at commander, “Do you want me to go look?”

He shook his head and gestured to one of the guards, “Take a messenger horse.”

He glanced around and gestured to some of the other guards, “Lock them up and one of you go get a magister.”

I pulled all the purses and property away from the men as they were led away. I sat and pulled a blank parchment close before starting to write the report. I was doing it almost absently as I thought of where the Countess’s belongings had been left. I sanded the parchment and slid it across to the commander who nodded absently, “Thanks.”

I sat back as he read it and a black robed magister followed a guard into the building. He glanced at me but sat beside the commander with a sigh, “So we have something on the Countess.”

The commander nodded, “Maybe.”

The commander handed my report to the magister and stood to talk to the guard that had been sent to look into the refuse pit. The guard handed him an arm full of clothes and the commander returned to the table. The magister looked them over, “Very well.”

I watched as the men were brought in and the leader cleared his throat, “After you let us go…”

I brought a stick down on the wrist of one man reaching for the stolen property. I looked at the leader, “Understand this thief, you are my catch. If the Magister wants to trade your freedom for the Countess MacTav it will be through me as the king’s law requires and not through the guards.”

I smiled slightly, “now, if you do not give me the information you do not go free and an extra charge of treason will be added since you know about this kidnaping. After you provide the information you will be escorted to the city gate. If you ever return you will be thrown into prison.”

The commander and the Magister were looking at me as the leader frowned, “After we are freed.”

I stood with my stick in hand, “Are you refusing to tell me where she is?”

He licked his lips, “After we are free.”

I nodded and gestured to a stone faced guard, “Take them back to their cells and prepare the gallows.”

Even as the guard grinned and reached for him he blurted, “WAIT!”

I gestured and he looked at the Magister and pleaded, “I will tell sir, after we…”

The guards grabbed the men and he screamed, “OKAY!”

The guards waited and he looked from the magister to the solemn face commander and finally to me, “Behind the Lion’s Hide is what looks like a ruin of a shack. She is being kept there.”

I nodded to the commander as I turned to head towards the door. He cleared his throat, “My guards…”

I smiled, “The king’s law allows the trading of information for a life but since they were captured by me that information is mine to act on first. If your guards just happen to wander by…”

He grinned, “I am sure several are in that area.”

I nodded to the magister before leaving and heading towards the old tannery. I was moving fast and the people on the street seemed to know something was happening. I slowed and walked the last hundred paces and pulled the two night sticks. That cleared the people from around me as I turned in and started around the old tannery. The two men that stepped out in front of me took one look and pulled daggers.

I did not even slow as I slammed one stick down on a wrist and moved sideways. The other man tried to strike but his partner was in the way. I struck sideways as the first man bent to grab his broken wrist and hit the second man in the temple. I brought my other stick down on the back of the first man’s head and continued around the building.

A glance back showed several guards following with their weighted night sticks in hand. When I reached the door to the shack I snapped my foot into it and it splintered as it crashed open. I walked in and swung one stick sideways to strike a man in the face that had been beside the door. I continued straight across the room where a man was hastily rising from the naked body of a woman.

I thrust the end of one stick into a rushing man’s stomach and slammed the other stick into the side of his head. The guards came through the door as I reached the man that had been raping the Countess. I snapped kicked into his groin as he sliced with a dagger and then started beating him with my sticks. I spun to hit a man slipping up behind me and then looked around before putting my sticks away and reaching out for a dirty blanket.

I knelt and covered the Countess before lifting her in my arms. I turned and kicked a man backing into us and started for the door. The guard commander was outside and hurried to my side with an older noble. I did not stop walking as they fell in beside me, “She needs a doctor.”

The commander looked at me as the noble frowned, “Why?”

I did not look at them, “I ask formally that the criminals your men assisted in capturing be held for the kidnaping and rape of Countess MacTav.”

The noble sucked in his breath but they both remained quiet. The commander spun and started back but the noble stayed with me until I kicked on a door to a small narrow house. The woman that answered was a large woman. She looked from the Countess to me and backed up, “Take her to the back room on the left.”

I nodded and turned to move past her before going down to the room. I put her in a bed and touched her hand, “You are safe now.”

I glanced at the noble and stepped out with Mother Kerine, “Help her if you can. Several men raped her so use something to prevent or stop her from having a child.”

She nodded and moved into the room. The noble stepped out and looked at me, “thank you.”

I shook my head and headed for the door, “do not thank me. It will be a long time if ever that she comes back from what they did.”

Chapter five

Walking through walls

The reports and gossip working its way through the city was about another theft. It was like all the other recent ones, the thief had entered a locked room and then left. There were no signs he had used doors, windows or other means to enter the rooms. All the thefts were in old noble manors or what had been old noble manors. Since it was noble manors I had no way to examine the sites.

It was a nice day and I was enjoying watching the women walk by. I was sitting at a small outside table on the edge of that part of the market that was mostly for women. I had a mug of warmed cider the waitress kept refilling. The richly dressed magister sat across from me and I glanced away from a pretty young maid. He smiled, “She is pretty.”

I grinned, “They are all pretty.”

He grinned and glanced into the marketplace before looking at me, “The king has asked that you look into the matter of these recent thefts.”

I sat back, “I would need to look at the rooms he broke into.”

He shook his head, “He did not break into them. It is like he walked through the walls.”

I smiled, “Still, I would need to see them.”

The magister nodded, “Done.”

I looked into the market place, “The items stolen have not been sold at any of the fences in the city.”

He looked at me and I grinned, “I have checked.”

He nodded, “Mostly it has been gold but also valuable family relics.”

I sipped my cider and then sighed and stood. I turned as the waitress approached and handed her a silver coin, “thank you.”

She grinned and kissed me before clutching the coin and rushing back into the small shop. I glanced at the magister who was smiling, “I will start with Duke Weist.”

He stood and gestured to a young page standing by a shop, “This is Samuel, my page. I would like it if he accompanied you.”

I glanced at him, “As long as he does not get in the way.”

I watched the magister walk away and glanced at the page, “Come along youngster.”

When I reached the large manor of the duke it took an hour before I was let in to see him. He barely glanced at me, “The king wants the thief found but I doubt we could hold him if he can walk through walls.”

I smiled, “May I see the room he took everything from?”

He gestured to a guard and I followed him through the old house. The room he unlocked had a guard beside the door. I walked into the room and stood in the center before slowly turning. I ignored the guards and the page and went to tap on the walls. I found what I was looking for beside the small fireplace. I began checking old fixtures and decorations.

A few minutes later I found the catch. There was a slight click and I used my fingers to open the hidden door. I glanced in and turned to pull a small lantern down. The duke appeared beside me as I started to enter, “I never knew this was here.”

I smiled as I moved into the passageway, “This is an old manor my lord and back then times were hard.”

He snorted and fell in behind me, the passageway turned and descended in steep stairs. We came to another wall and I reached for a small lever on the right. There was another click and I pushed the door open. We walked into the duke’s large kitchen where his servants backed away wide eyed.

I nodded and looked at the cook, “You had a helper that has not returned. What was his name and what did he look like?”

She looked at the duke, “Jessup lord.”

The duke snorted, “Figures. He is the bastard of Baron Tan.”

I shook my head, “I very much doubt that my lord. Baron Tan enjoys other... sport.”

The duke looked at me for a minute and then laughed, “I should have known.”

I looked at the cook, “describe this Jessup?”

She thought a moment, “medium height lord. Long brown hair and eyes with scars on his hands.”

I nodded and turned to the duke, “Well my lord I will take my leave.”

He nodded, “If you find him let me know.”

I bowed and gestured to the page, it was the same at the other manors. By that evening I had a good idea of what my thief looked like. I also knew there were only three other old manors. I made an inquiry at each and smiled when I found my target. I fed the young page and sat him down in the shadows of an alley. I watched the servants gate into the Earl Richards manor.

The page was sleeping soundly when the gate opened silently. I watched a young man slip out carrying a large heavy sack and started towards him. He looked around when I was a few steps away and his darkened face blanched as his eyes widened. I was ready for his actions when he pulled a dagger and slammed a night stick down on his wrist. My other stick swept across to slam into his face.

He dropped to the street and lay unmoving as I knelt and tied his hands. I grabbed his sack and lifted it as I yanked him to his feet. He was dead weight as I pinned him against the wall, “Keep playing and I will cut the tendons in your legs.”

He stood and glared at me and I nodded, “Take me to where you put everything you stole.”

He shook his head and I put away my sticks and pulled out a thin wire, “I will ask once more. If you refuse I will put this around your manhood and tighten it until it falls off.”

His face whitened and he nodded before turning to lead me. I glanced back at the page who had awakened, “Go tell the magister.”

He nodded and turned to run into the night. I was not surprised when the thief led me into the darkened alleys of the city. When the two men came out of the shadows and attacked, I kicked the thief’s feet out from under him. I slid sideways as I brought a night stick down on one man’s head. I kicked the thief over as he tried to get to his feet and slammed a stick down on the wrist of the other man still on his feet.

He screamed as the bones broke and then I hit him in the forehead. I grabbed the thief’s hair as he was again trying to get to his feet. I put my sticks away and pulled out a thin cord with a slip knot on a loop. I put in over his head and around his neck as he cursed. I pulled it tight and bent to search the two other men before getting them to their feet.

I looked into the surly thief’s face, “try something else and it will be the last thing you do.”

I pushed the two other men along as the thief led me another couple of blocks to an old abandoned manor. It took a candle mark to put all the loot back into sacks. I made the three men carry everything and pushed them through the streets. A guard held the door as I pushed them through. The magister was talking to the guard commander as I grabbed bags of stolen property and set them down.

I pushed the sullen men towards a guard and sat at the table before reaching for the ink and parchment. I glanced at the magister before starting to write my report. By the time I finished every noble that had been robbed was there. I received a small pouch of gold from the king the next morning and a private note thanking me. I also received rewards from each of the nobles.

Chapter six

The life of a maid

I watched the two men as they slipped into the money lenders shop before walking across the street. I moved to stand beside the door and heard them threatening him and the sound of someone being hit. They were trying to start a protection racked and the money lender was just their fourth stop and the first I had been able to confirm. I pulled my night sticks and stepped into the shop to see the money lender opening his lock box.

I struck the bully and strong arm man in the head as he turned and continued past him to the other man. He held a drawn dagger and turned to slice across at me. That was a mistake, I slammed a club down on the wrist and the other into his face. I struck him in the stomach and kicked into his groin.

I snatched him by the hair and yanked him up before I spun him and slammed him into the wall, “He is already under the king’s protection asshole.”

I put my night sticks away and swiftly tied them as the money lender watched wide eyed. I smiled as I pushed them towards the door, “thanks for sending the runner.”

He nodded and I started pushing the two men. When I pushed them into the guard building The commander turned with a magister beside him. I shoved the two men towards a guard, “assault and extortion. I have three merchants statements and witnessed them trying it with a fourth.”

The commander nodded as I sat and started writing my report. He cleared his throat a minute later, “We had a maid killed.”

I glanced at him and he looked at the magister, “She was one of the queen’s maids.”

I straightened, “In his keep?”

The commander shook his head, “On her way home.”

I looked at the magister before nodding, “I will ask around.”

I went back to writing but kept thinking about the maid. After the commander paid me, I left and headed toward the slums. The small tavern I entered went quiet as I closed the door. I smiled and crossed to a nervous looking man with a scar on his cheek. I bent over the table, “Someone killed a queen’s maid in the streets.”

He looked around, “we do not know...”

I slammed a stick down on the table, “It was after she left the king’s keep, which means it was night. I know you and your... people watch those streets. I want a name or I will turn you for the silver.”

He swallowed, “It was not one of ours. It was a soldier wearing a black cloak.”

I straightened, “who and what lord does he serve?”

He looked around and sighed, “Earl Descart and the man is the earl’s captain.”

I nodded, “You should have known the king would look into this, which means the city guards and me.”

I looked around and then dropped a couple of gold coins on the table, “Next time just send a runner.”

I left and started for the richer side of the city as I thought. If a noble had killed a simple maid there was a reason. I stopped outside the huge estate walls of earl Descart. I was in the shadows across from the servants gate and finally just shook my head and started across the street. A guard at the gate straightened as I approached, “No solicitors...”

I grabbed him by the throat and spun before shoving him against the wall, “I am here for the man that killed the queen’s maid. You get in my way and I will take you along for conspiring against the king.”

The guard had been reaching for his dagger and froze. I nodded and turned to walk through the gate. I crossed the grounds and walked in the servants entrance before turning to follow a hallway. I stopped in the doorway leading into the great hall. There were several men at one table including the earl.

Standing to one side beside and behind him was his guard captain. I started for them and the captain’s eyes flicked to me before he straightened. The group quieted as I approached and the earl snarled, “And who do you think you are!”

I smiled as I stopped, “I am here to take your captain for the murder of the queen’s maid.”

He leaned forward as the group shifted, “And how are you going to do that?”

I pulled my night sticks, “By taking any that interfere for treason.”

The earl fingered his dagger, “And when you die?”

I had enough and my sticks swung both ways to slam into the heads of two men. They crumpled and I smiled, “You answered my question lord.”

Everyone had pulled daggers and I blocked a lunge before striking the man in the face. I grabbed his sagging body to shove him into two others. I slammed a stick down on a wrist, breaking it and then jabbed the other stick into the man’s throat. I spun and blocked a stab from the captain and kicked him in the groin before bringing a stick down on his head.

I moved sideways and knocked a dagger from the earl’s hand before slashing out the other way and hitting the other man in the side of his head. I faced the earl as he moved sideways and licked his lips, “It was for Duke Noss.”

I fainted and then brought the other stick around to strike him. As he crumpled to the floor I looked around. Several servants were watching wide eyed and I put my sticks away before tying all the men up. I searched them before I yanked them to their feet and pulled them after me. The main door and gate guards moved to stop me and I growled, “Interfere and I will have you hung for treason.”

When I pushed them into the guard building the commander stood frowning. I shoved the other men towards a guard but held onto the earl and the captain, “These are to be charged with conspiring against the king.”

I nodded to the captain, “This one killed the maid.”

I yanked on the earl, “This one ordered it.”

I looked at the commander as he licked his lips, “The king...”

I shook my head, “It was done for another noble. Put these two in separate cells and after I have finished my report I will go talk to the other noble.”

He hesitated and then nodded to a couple of guards. The earl took a breath and opened his mouth. I slapped the back of his head, “You talk before a magister and no one else.”

He glared but the guard slapped him hard, “You heard the thief taker scum! Keep your trap shut!”

They were led away and I sat to write a report. The commander read it over my shoulder and gasped when I got to the earl’s declaration that the killing was for duke Noss. I ignored him and finished the report before sanding it and handing it to him, “I will be back.”

I walked out thinking about the duke, it was going to be different than earl Descart. Duke Noss was one of the king’s advisors. I headed towards the king’s court, it was after lunch time so I knew he would be sitting in judgement and his advisors would be attending him. I nodded to the four men standing guard at the gates and walked through.

I ignored the line of merchants and applicants and walked into the great hall. Two very large king’s guards stepping in front of me. I smiled, “I am here on king’s business. I am a licensed thief taker and have the men that killed the queen’s maid. I need to see the queen.”

They looked at each other and one turned to wave to a well dressed man. He was short and balding and hurried across the great room. I saw the king watching and bowed slightly before facing the new man, “chamberlain, I am a thief taker and have the men that killed the queen’s maid. I need to speak to the queen.”

He frowned and turned to look at the two large chairs with the king and queen, “take him to the queen’s parlor.”

He turned to walk towards the king and the guards gestured to another guard who led me out of the room. I was looking out the tall windows and turned when the door opened. I bowed as the queen and king walked in. They were followed by the king’s advisors but I ignored them. They stopped in front of me and the king opened his mouth to speak.

I held up my hand as I looked at the queen, “Why would duke Noss want your maid killed?”

She gasped and turned as the king spun to the white faced duke. He snarled, “How dare you!”

I looked at him calmly, “be quiet or I will gag you.”

He puffed up and I pulled a stick, “One word.”

He froze and licked his lips as I looked at the queen, “Why?”

She looked at the king, “Because she heard him say he was going to have me taken and made pregnant by King Andrew’s son to start a war.”

The king glared and reached for his dagger. I cleared my throat, “Excuse me your majesty but this is my business.”

He glared at me but I looked at the duke as he looked around for a way out and the other advisors moved away, “What deal did you make with earl Descart?”

He sneered, “You can not touch me peasant.”

I took two quick steps and swung my stick. The duke jerked back and then staggered as my other stick was suddenly slamming into the side of his head. I grabbed his shirt, “Listen well scum. I deal with your like every day. You will answer my questions or I will beat them out of you.”

I pulled his dagger and tossed it to a guard that was moving towards us. He was surprised and caught it and stopped. I shook the duke, “The deal!”

He stuttered, “He wanted Baron Pells patent!”

I nodded and spun him before putting my sticks away and tying his hands. I nodded to the queen, “Thank you majesty. I imagine he threatened to tell the king something he made up if you spoke.”

She hesitated and the duke turned his head and opened his mouth. I slugged him in the side of his head, “Shut the hell up traitor!”

I looked at the queen again and she smiled and nodded, “He made a story up that baron Pells and I had been lovers.”

I nodded and started for the door, “That’s dumb, baron Pells is impotent. That is why he adopted Stephen.”

I saw the king stiffen and then nod before the door was opened by a guard and I pushed the duke out. The trial for the duke and earl was quiet and then they were hung beside the guard captain that had killed the maid. A large pouch of gold was delivered to me with a elegant note from the queen and king.

Chapter seven

Finding an assassin

I was watching a marketplace when the young beggar stopped beside me, “Sir?”

I glanced at him, “Yes?”

He looked around, “I have something for you.”

I waited and he swallowed before looking at me, “An assassin was hired to kill Duke Justice.”

I looked around, “How reliable is this?”

He swallowed again, “It comes from the shadow house.”

I slipped a gold coin out and tossed it, “Stay safe.”

He disappeared quickly while I thought about what he had said. I turned and started walking towards the richer part of the city. It was a little while before I reached the manor I was looking for. I slipped into the shadow of a building and carefully looked around. I saw the other watcher a minute later and moved back and used a side alley behind a row manor estates.

I silently slipped up behind the watcher and was tempted to hit him with a stick. Instead I used it to tap his shoulder. He jumped and cursed as he spun around, “WHO!”

He swallowed and looked around, “I did not do anything.”

I smiled, “Yet.”

He backed away a couple of steps and I followed, “Who is the assassin?”

He shook his head and I sighed, “Tell me or I take you in and let the guards ask.”

He looked around, “He will kill me.”

I shook my head, “Not if I take him.”

He finally nodded, “Peter the knife.”

I gestured, “I do not want to see you for a couple of weeks.”

He turned and ran off and I started walking towards the front of the estate. The two guards at the wide gate looked alert and competent. I nodded to them and addressed the older one, “I am a thief taker and need to see Duke Justice.”

They looked at each other and the older guard grinned, “Duke Justice is the head of the Magister Court.”

I nodded, “I know that. He needs and requires information I have.”

He looked at me for a minute before nodding and gesturing to the other guard who turned to walk to the large front door of the manor. A few minutes later he returned and escorted me in, when I walked into the study the duke was behind his desk. A young looking servant was beside him pouring tea.

As I crossed to the desk something seemed to send a chill through me. The guard waited beside the door and the duke looked at me, “you wanted to speak with me...”

I pulled a stick and threw it in one motion before lunging. The stick hit the servant’s hand with the thin dagger. I grabbed the servant and twisted as I fell to the side. He went backwards and over me as I hit the floor. I kept rolling and grabbed a hand and twisted. I turned him until he was below me and I had his hand behind his back. I pulled it up hard, “give me the other hand!”

He snarled and tried to struggle as I spread myself and twisted his arm, “NOW!”

The guard reached me as I grabbed the servant’s other hand. He grabbed me and the duke barked an order for him to wait. I sat up as I held both wrists and then I shifted and pulled thin leather ties from a sleeve. I tied his hands before standing and pulling him up. I carefully searched him and glanced at the duke, “I am sorry your grace. I came to warn you but the assassin was already here.”

He looked at the young man as I moved to pick up my stick and the dropped dagger. I turned the man to face the duke, “You should keep your guards with you and take extra precautions until I find out who is behind it.”

He smiled, “Thank you, I will.”

I nodded and pushed the assassin towards the door. The assassin was silent all the way to the guard building. I shoved him towards a guard that had started walking towards us, “He tried to kill duke Justice. Strip him before you put him in a cell.”

The guard snatched the man and roughly started shoving him towards the door heading to the cells. I sat with the guard Sergeant, “No commander?”

He shook his head, “A small mob fight in one of the markets.”

I nodded and started writing out a report as I told the sergeant about someone hiring the assassin to kill the duke. I handed him the parchment when I finished and stood, “Do not let your men relax around that man.”

He nodded and I walked out and started walked towards the poor area called thieves quarter, the tavern I went to was in an alley. I slipped into the common room and everyone went quiet. I smiled and crossed to the only table with one man at it, “hello Gregor.”

He was frowning, “I sent you a message.”

I nodded and tossed him a gold coin, “Where did the information come from?”

He licked his lips and looked around. I glanced around, “How many of you have I caught and let go?”

They all mumbled and looked away. I nodded, “This is the time to pay me back. Duke Justice is not like the others, you all know that. He was the one to send the extra supplies down here and the food rations. He is also the one that makes sure the men sentenced to work farms are fed properly and have a bed to sleep on.”

They were all nodding and I looked at Gregor, “I need the man that paid for the assassin.”

He grinned, “It was not a man.”

I looked at him and then around the room. He laughed, “It was his mistress.”

I sighed, “He is not going to like this.”

Gregor looked around, “We heard a strange mercenary accepted her money too.”

I looked at him, “There were two assassins?”

He shrugged, “yeah.”

I turned and tossed another gold coin back, “Thanks.”

This time I did not walk, I jogged. When I reached the guards building I shouldered the door open and walked across the room as all the guards and the commander turned to look. I opened the back door and walked into the cell area. The naked assassin was bruised and battered as he glared at me. I stopped in front of his cell, “What is his name.”

He spit on the floor between us. I ignored the guard commander and the guards, “I will ask once more before I open the cell and rip your manhood off. What is his name?”

He looked around before looking at me, “David Kechem.”

I spun and pushed through the guards, “There is another assassin.”

After I left the building I headed back to the duke’s. When I stopped at the gate the guards looked at me and frowned. I nodded to them, “I need to see the duke again as well as your guard commander.”

They looked at each other, “he went to the courts a few minutes ago.”

I turned and ran toward the city courts building. It was less then a minute before I saw the duke ahead of me. His guards were looking around as they walked and the one in back turned to face me. He smiled as he pulled his dagger and turned to step closer to the duke. I was still to far but pulled out a weighted sap and threw it.

The assassin was moving between two other guards when the sap hit. He stumbled and they all turned towards me. I pulled my sticks and slowed to a walk as I pointed one at the assassin, “surrender and I will make sure you live.”

The other guards looked at him as I seemed to ignore them. The duke glanced from me to the assassin before backing away from him. The assassin looked around before reaching into his shirt and pulling a second dagger. The other guards moved away and I shifted as I stopped a pace away. He snarled as he moved sideways, “You should have stayed out of it.”

I watched him as I shifted and moved into his circling and into his path. He thrust one of the daggers towards my hand and shifted as I brought the stick up and out to knock it away. It had been a faint and he lunged with the other dagger. I snapped my other stick down hard and there was a crack as it hit the back of his hand, breaking bones.

He rocked back as he dropped his dagger but I followed him as I moved in. He stabbed out with his other dagger but I was expecting it and struck his wrist with the tip of my left stick. He cried out as the dagger spun away and I stepped in and jabbed into his gut with my right stick. He grunted and started to fold over as I brought the other stick around to hit him on the side of his head.

He twisted and fell to the ground and I quickly knelt. I yanked his arms behind his back as I pulled out leather binding cords. When I was done tying his hands, I yanked him up. I looked at the duke as he came forward, “It is almost over. Your mistress was the one that paid them.”

The duke stiffened, “She would not...”

I just looked at him as his face reddened and shook my head, “next time your grace, just marry the girl.”

I pulled the assassin to where my sap was and then I picked up the two daggers. I pushed the man in front of me as I started back to the guard headquarters. When I shoved him in, the commander turned to look and gestured for a guard to come take him. I set his daggers on the table before sitting and pulling a parchment to me, “He was the second assassin. As soon as I finish this I will go bring in baroness Maldive.”

The commander started, “baroness Maldive?”

I glanced at him but continued to write, “She was the one to pay the assassins.”

I finished and sanded the parchment before pushing it across the table. I stood and headed for the door and back to the nobles quarter. The two guards at the baroness’s gate blocked my way and I smiled sourly, “Your lady broke the king’s law. Move or I will move you.”

One smiled as he fingered his dagger and I sighed before shifting as I pulled both sticks. One lashed out and I slammed a stick into the smug guard’s head and the other slashed down to strike the other guard’s wrist as he pulled his dagger. I moved into him as his partner dropped to the ground and struck again, this time along side his head.

He collapsed and I started for the wide front doors. I walked into the elegant entry and slashed sideways to hit another guard across the face. He fell to the floor as I started towards the baroness across the room, “baroness Maldive, I am arresting you for the attempted murder of duke Justice.”

She was white faced as two more guards appeared. I did not slow or hesitate as they spread out. I moved to one side and fainted before bringing the other stick down on the guard’s wrist. I heard the bone break as I moved into him and jabbed the end on my stick into his gut. He folded as I grabbed him and shoved him towards the other guard.

I followed and slashed across to break knuckles of his hand clutching his dagger before moving closer to jab my other stick into his face. As he stumbled back I kept moving and broke his other hand before hitting him along side the head. I turned to the baroness, “either come quietly or I will tie you and put you over my shoulder.”

“That will not be necessary thief taker.”

I looked at the front door to see duke Justice as he walked in and sighed, “The law was broken your grace.”

He started across the room, “I know that but I will not press charges.”

I shook my head, “If you do not the two assassins will be freed.”

He stopped in front of his mistress, “I know that too.”

I smiled, “I am glad you have decided to honor your mistress your grace but she has broken the king’s law.”

He sighed and glanced at me, “and you always bring in those that break the king’s law?”

I smiled, “You know I do not but this is not stealing food or clothing.”

The duke nodded as he looked at the baroness, “This I know.”

I walked to them and the baroness turned to face me. I shook my head, “I will honor the duke’s request. Know this, if he ever comes to harm I will come for you and it will not be to bring you to court.”

Her face paled and I nodded before looking at the duke, “You owe me your grace.”

I turned and started for the door.

Chapter eight

Raiders

The rumor spread through the city of a band of cutthroats that were raiding nearby towns and villages. I glanced up at the commander and one of the magisters as I finished the report on taking three men that had killed a clerk, raped a woman in the shop and stolen half a wagon load of bolts of cloth.

The magister was angry because the commander did not have enough men to patrol the outer edge of the city. I sanded the document and slid it across the table, “What makes you think these raiders will attack the city?”

The magister snorted, “Most merchants on the edge of the city do a lot of business with the farmers and then bring the produce into the city. Some are freight companies that load and ship to the towns and villages around the kingdom. A lot of money is involved and few guards are there to protect them.”

I sat back, “What about the Militia? The wall is well inside the city now, don’t they patrol around the city?”

He sighed, “You know we have several small internal fights going in the kingdom. The king has them spread out until we do not have enough here in the city.”

I frowned as I thought and looked at the commander, “I could spend a few days wandering around the merchants stockyards?”

He snorted, “You are good thief taker but there are at least twenty or more raiders in this group.”

I smiled, “Towns and villages are small. If they raid into the city they will be spread out.”

I stood, “I could use a few days off to just relax and walk around meeting people.”

I left and crossed to a street vender selling sausages in thick bread rolls, “good morning Thomas.”

He smiled, “Thief taker. My Emma said to thank you for finding and helping our daughter and son in law.”

I smiled and nodded to the rolls, “It was my pleasure, I need a couple of rolls.”

He tried to just give them to me but I left a half silver on his cart when I walked away. I ate as I headed down the wide main street towards the south gate. When I reached the outskirts of the city I wandered around speaking to men or women. I was a little surprised at what I found, there were three or four merchants making a lot of money out here and they were all close together.

I found a stable hand that let me stay in his tack room and kept looking and walking. There were more rumors of attacks and some of the towns mentioned were closer. Five days later it was early afternoon when I noticed men on horses filtering into the area. They all seemed to have some type of bow and they all carried swords.

I slipped between corrals and moved quickly towards the richest merchant’s counting house. I grabbed a pitchfork as I jogged into the street to see four men on horseback in front of the counting house. The front door was wide open, (something they never did). I wandered towards the horses and one turned and look at me before turning his horse, “Go around city scum.”

I smiled as I drew close and jabbed towards the horses head. It screamed and reared, throwing the man back and off the horse. I kept moving as the other men reacted and stabbed the pitchforks into the rear of another horse. It leaped and bucked and the man went straight back and off as I swiped towards another man. He was trying to control his horse and jerked back and fell half off the horse.

The last man was trying to draw his bow and aim at me. I threw the pitchfork towards his horse and it screamed and went wild bucking and twisting around when it was hit. I spun and kicked out into the groin of a man rising from the ground before pulling my night sticks. I slammed one into the face of a man and hit the man half on his horse along side his head.

I glanced at the men on the ground before quickly kneeling and tying their hands. I looked up when three men with naked swords ran out of the counting house. I stood with my sticks as they spread out and moved to the side and straight into one of them. He lunged and I turned and brushed the sword away as my other stick slamming into his forehead.

He dropped to the ground as I quickly back stepped another lunging sword and brought a stick straight down to break the wrist. I turned and slashed across with my other stick and it hit the last man along side the head. I kept moving as he fell and the man with the broken wrist rushed me. He stumbled over another man and I struck. I brought one stick down on his arm as my other slashed across to strike the side of his head.

I glanced around as I pulled a few more leather ties out and put all the men together. I pulled them across and into the counting house where I found the clerk dead. I left the men and headed to one of the other counting houses. It was just down the street and around a corner. When I ran around the corner it was right into the group of milling horses.

The raiders tried to stab down at me but I stepped aside and started yanking them out of the saddles and hitting them in the face or head with a stick. When things calmed down I had four men moaning on the ground. I tied them up before walking towards the counting house. I walked through the door and slapped a sword away with a stick and slashed across to hit the man between his eyes.

Three other men were in the room and two rushed me. I slid to one side and pushed a chair into one of the men as I stepped into the other. I brought the end of one stick down as he slashed at me with his sword but the tip of my stick slammed into his hand. He screamed as bones snapped and I brought the other stick around into his head.

I moved to the side as the other man lunged and brushed the sword aside before lunging in and bringing my stick down. I was aiming at his head but he twisted to the side and I struck into the side of his throat. He staggered to the side as I went after him and slammed the other stick across and into his face.

He dropped to the floor and I started walking across the room towards the last man standing over the bodies of a merchant and his clerk. He was licking his lips as I came closer and lunged. He was to far away but I slapped the sword and it spun away. He dropped to his knees and started to beg but I saw one hand fumbling with a dagger and kicked out and into his face.

He went back into the wall and the dagger slid across the room I moved forward and struck as I knelt, bringing a stick across into his head. I looked around before starting to tie their hands. I pulled all of them outside and to the other group. I kicked and push until they were all on their feet. Merchants, shopkeepers and clerks all watched as I tied the horses together and pulled them after me as I began pushing and shoving the men.

I went back and rounded up the other horses and pulled the other group of men out. The walk through the city was with a growing crowd that threw rocks at the men and spit on them. Even the few guards I met along the way took a moment to spit on them. When I pushed all the men into the guard building there was a small group waiting including several magisters.

The guards pulled the men away towards the cells as I walked to the long table, “I was not able to bring all their weapons but the horses are outside.”

The commander gestured to a guard and glanced at the magisters, “I can not believe you took them all.”

I smiled as I began the report, “They were not very good with the weapons.”

Chapter nine

Finding a stolen ship

I was feeling like shit and sitting in my small kitchen with a towel over my head as I breathed in the steam from a bowl of herbs and water. When someone began banging on my door I was tempted to just let them continue. When it did not let up I groaned and pulled the towel away and stood.

I walked through the house and yanked the door open, “WHAT!”

The merchant stepped back, “are you the thief taker?”

I almost slammed the door, “not today.”

I started to close the door when he stepped forward, “please I need help.”

I looked at him and he blurted, “someone stole my ship!”

I blinked, “how can anyone steal a ship? Just walk through the docks and you will find it.”

He shook his head, “I am Captain Trinadad. All my men were killed and left on the dock. I looked everywhere and at every slip.”

He took a breath, “find my ship and I will pay you ten gold pieces.”

Now that was tempting and I thought about it before sighing, “what is the name of your ship?”

He smiled faintly, “Strange Duck.”

I looked at him to see if he was serious and shook my head, “where can I find you?”

He smiled, “the Captains Tavern.”

I nodded and stepped back to close the door. I went to wash and dress before leaving and heading towards the docks. I started asking questions and got the same answers most of the time. Captain Trinadad was an arrogant ass and stingy beyond a fault. His crew had been liars, thieves and some said pirates.

It took me two hours to find the ship and when I did I had to shake my head. I headed for the Captains Tavern and walked in and looked around. Everything looked nice and well kept and all the men seemed well groomed. I crossed the room to the table Captain Trinadad sat at, “I found your ship.”

He grinned as he stood up, “excellent.”

When we were back on the dock where he had originally moored his ship he looked around and looked at me frowning. I gestured down into the water and he leaned forward before straightening, “they sank her!”

I shrugged, “it looks like it.”

He glared at me before spinning to walk away, “you are not getting anything for this!”

I watched him leave before walking to the end of the dock and sitting beside an old sailor mending a fishing net, “So did they cut holes or do something else to sink her?”

The old man grinned and absently tossed a bottle to me, “drink that, it will help with the sore throat and the headache.”

I looked at him as my head continued to throbbed and opened the bottle to smell. What I smelled was not rum or even alcohol, it almost smelled like a sweet herb tea. I took a drink and sighed as it soothed its way down my throat. I handed to bottle back, “thanks.”

He nodded, “that time of year.”

He went back to the net but glanced down the dock, “was me and I wanted to sink a ship I would not damage it. I would probably open the bilge valves.”

I glanced at the ship before grinning, “want to buy a ship?”

He snorted, “get me a bill of sale and I might.”

I gestured to the bottle, “where can I get some of that?”

He gestured to a tiny shop just up the street, “Mother Sarah makes it.”

After a stop at the shop I headed to the harbor master’s office. I explained about the sunken ship and the deal with the captain. He told me to have another captain witness Captain Trinadad’s refusal to pay and he would grant me salvage rights at the docking slip. I walked into the Captains Tavern and across to Trinadad, “you owe me ten gold pieces.”

He snorted and leaned back, “I am not paying you for a ship underwater.”

I smiled, “you made the deal, ten gold pieces to find the ship, nothing was said about only if it was still afloat.”

He sneered, “I am not paying you shit.”

I glanced around at the few men at other tables, “anyone a ship’s captain?”

Several nodded and I smiled, “I will pay a gold crown to each of you if you tell the Harbor master what this sorry piece of shit just said.”

Trinadad snorted, “What is he going to do?”

I ignored him as two captains stood and led them out and we walked back to the harbor master. An hour later I was back at the dock above the sunken ship, the old fisherman had moved out onto the dock.

He smiled as he drank from his bottle, “you need to swim down and dig a hole under the side of the ship. When you make a tunnel push or pull the ropes through. Tie large barrels to half the ropes and pull each one down to the bottom edge of the ship.”

He smiled at me, “tie barrels to the ropes on the other side and pull them down. It should lift the ship so you can use more ropes and barrels until it breaks the surface, close the bilge and bail her out.”

I glanced at him and pulled out my purse. I held up five gold coins, “do you know a few men that need work?”

He looked at me and the coins before nodding, “and you want to sell the ship?”

I smiled, “knowing that asshole Trinadad, he probably has a pay chest somewhere aboard too.”

I looked at the old man and he grinned, “and after?”

I laughed, “we wait and put the word out about raising the ship. When he takes her, I take him to the goal for piracy.”

The old man laughed and stuck out his hand, “deal!”

I took a sip of my own bottle while the old man left. An hour later a dozen men followed him back to the dock carrying barrels and rope. I stood and watched with the old man as the men took turns diving down into the water. Finally they started tying ropes to barrels and pulling them down to the ship. It was getting dark when the ship surfaced.

A couple of large two man pumps were brought and we took turns pumping the water out until one man managed to close the bilge. After that things went quickly and I headed into the boat with a lantern. I found a small chest in the captain’s quarters and brought it up. I opened it while all the men watched and grinned as I began dividing it up with all of them.

I headed back below and started collecting weapons the captain and his crew had in a large weapons locker. I put everything in a large duffle before grinning at the old man, “want to start spreading the word?”

He chuckled as the other men laughed and walked away. The old man and I had talked about this. The story that was passed had to include me getting the salvage rights from the harbor master. I moved into the shadows on the dock beside a thick pillar. When it got light I moved onto the ship and just inside the hatch leading to the captain’s cabin.

I saw the old man briefly just before noon and straightened. He slipped away somewhere and barely an hour passed before I heard a few men on the dock. I waited until they came aboard before coming out. Captain Trinadad was with them and I smiled, “this is my ship, leave.”

He sneered and gestured, “gut him and throw him over.”

The six men with him moved towards me and I pulled my sticks and slid forward. I lashed out and to the side to break the first man’s wrist as he reached out and jabbed into another’s stomach when he rushed me. I shifted and slid aside as I brought my other stick down on the side of his head.

I used a back swing into a third man’s head as he leaped and turned to let him fall to the deck as I kicked out and into the groin of a fourth man. As he folded I cracked him over the head and moved towards the last two men. They were looking at each other and pulled daggers. I shook my head and moved to one side and they followed and tried to move closer.

I shifted and seemed to hesitate and one lunged. I slapped a stick down on the knife hand before swinging across with my other stick. It slammed into his head and I turn to snap a stick down into the last man’s wrist. I slugged him with my fist around a stick and did it again until he staggered back.

I swung a faint with my left stick and brought the right around when he clumsily tried to block. There was a thunk as my stick hit his head and I started walking towards Trinadad as the man fell. I absently lashed out and struck the first man cradling his broken wrist before slowly circling the captain.

He was crouching with a dagger in each hand and kept fainting towards me. I waited until one went to far and snapped a stick down on the hand. The dagger spun away but he was lunging with the other dagger. I struck with the other stick and knocked it out of line with my body. I stepped into Trinadad and brought my knee up sharply.

He was lifted from the deck and screamed before dropping to his knees. I brought a stick down and across to strike him in the side of the head. I looked around as he dropped to the deck and put my sticks away. I moved to each man and tied their hands behind their backs. It took me awhile to revive them enough to get them on their feet.

The old man appeared with a half dozen men and grinned as he walked aboard. We bargained and I let him buy the ship cheap before pulling Trinadad and the men off. I pulled them after me and through the city as it woke. When I shoved them into the guard building the day and night commander were still together and only shook their heads.

Chapter ten

Saving the prince

I sat outside the inn sipping cold coffee and eating a late breakfast after a long night. The six men I had brought in had been more than worth the wait and the trouble of hunting them. I glanced at the busy marketplace as the voices grew louder. A trio of the king’s guards pushed through the crowd headed towards me.

I watched them as I finished and turned to call into the open door, “MARIA!”

The woman that appeared was tall and slim. She smiled as she took the plate, “are you coming back tonight?”

I grinned and ignored the guards as they stopped at the table, “that depends on if you are going to come home with me after.”

She laughed and swished her skirt as she turned to walk back into the inn. One of the guards cleared his throat and I turned to look at them, “yes?”

“Are you the thief taker?”

I sighed, “yes.”

He gestured, “the king and queen want you.”

I frowned and stood before fishing a silver out and turning, “Maria?”

She appeared from just inside the door and I gave her the money, “duty calls my lovely.”

She smiled as I turned to walk around the table and let the guards lead me away. I glanced at one as we walked, “any idea why they want me?”

One snorted, “the young prince went missing.”

I looked at him and then glanced around and thought as we walked. I touched one on the arm, “wait.”

I moved to a ragged looking beggar and fished out a silver coin. I dropped it into his lap, “I need everyone looking for the prince. I will give a free pass on anyone if they provide information.”

He glanced around, “a reward?”

I nodded, “there will be a reward but if anyone helps them I will do more than bring them in.”

He nodded and stood, “I will spread the word.”

I turned and headed back to the guards and we started walking quickly towards the palace. Walking through the throne room I saw it crowded with nobles. One of the guards tapped on the study door and opened it, “the thief taker.”

I walked through the door and crossed to kneel, “How may I help your majesty?”

The king turned from holding his wife, “find my son.”

I nodded and stood, “I need information. Where was he last seen? Was anyone with him? Was there anyone that made threats?”

The queen touched his arm, “we received a warning to lessen the merchant tax but that was it.”

The king nodded, “it was left and no one saw anything.”

I nodded, “when was he taken and was there anyone with him?”

The queen nodded, “he was in my private garden with his nanny.”

I frowned, “the nanny?”

The king growled, “dead. Someone strangled her.”

I turned towards the door, “I need to see the garden.”

The guard by the door turned to lead me out and through the palace. The garden was small and isolated, filled with lattices of flowering climbing vines and rose bushes. I saw the blood stain by a carved wooden bench and walked to it as I motioned the guard back. The nanny would not let a stranger approach and would have screamed if they had a drawn weapon.

I slowly turned and looked around before walking towards a lattices with a broken flower stem, “has the gardener been in here since it happened?”

I looked at the guard and he shook his head as the large form of the king’s captain stopped beside him. He was silent as I stepped between the lattices and looked at the gap between them and the wall. I moved to the right towards the palace wall and stopped when I reached a thick ivy covered section.

They had been disturbed and I parted them to see a door. I moved back and looked at the two men, “did you know there was a door here?”

They shook their heads but something about the way the captain had first reacted rang alarms in my mind. I moved back to the door and pulled and ripped the vines away before lifting the latch and pushing. It opened silently and I stopped to look at the well oiled hinges. I was in the much larger king’s garden but behind a trough that held a tall hedge.

The captain and guard followed me out and I looked around to see several nobles and a few merchants. To the left was a wide door in the wall for the gardeners. That was where I went and walked out behind the stables. I looked at the captain, “you have a list of those that used a carriage?”

He hesitated as his eyes shifted, “they were checked.”

The guard looked at him as I smiled slightly, “That was not what I asked.”

He moved suddenly, lunging with a dagger. I slid aside and caught his wrist before I twisted and snapped a kick across into his knee. I pulled the dagger from his hand as he screamed and looked at the wide eyed guard, “go get the sergeant of the guard.”

I quickly tied the captain as he cursed and squatted in front of him, “who took the prince and killed the nanny?”

He spit and I smiled as I pulled out my small knife, “normally I do not use a knife but for the young prince I will risk it.”

A squad of guards trotted around the corner of the stables with a sergeant leading them. I gestured, “first I am going to castrate you and then remove your fingers. When I finish I will ask you again who killed the nanny and took the prince.”

The sergeant cleared his throat behind me but I did not look back, “interfere and you will not live to reach the gallows.”

I moved towards the captain as he began to struggle. I cut his belt and then his pants before yanking them down. He finally screamed, “WAIT! MERCHANT PETERS AND DANIELS!”

I stopped and looked at him before looking at the sergeant, “lock him hand and foot. I will come back to take him to the city guards. Tell the King I have names and am going for them now.”

He nodded and gestured to a couple of men who growled as they yanked the captain up roughly. I turned and started walking as I thought. Peters was local and dealt mostly with locals inland. Daniels had ships and imported his merchandise. I headed towards the docks and started trotting.

I slowed before I reached Daniels warehouse just off the docks and walked towards a small grog shop. I walked in and stopped beside an old man at the bar, “I need information.”

He glanced at me and then grinned, “another missing ship?”

I looked around the shop, “Has Daniels put anything on one of his ships or seemed to be guarding one?”

He thought before nodding, “The Red Gull.”

I slid a silver piece across the bar and turned, “thank you.”

I left and pulled my sticks as I began to walk. Daniels had the whole end of one dock for his ships. Four large men were leaning on crates as I approached. They stood and moved out in front of me grinning evilly. I did not speak or warn them, one stick jabbed into a man’s gut and the other slammed into his head.

A back swing into the side of another’s head sent him crashing to the dock. I turned and side stepped as one lunged with a dagger and struck him just above the eye. There was a sickening crunch as he fell and I slapped a dagger away before breaking the last man’s wrist. Another back swing and he was falling to the dock too.

I started walking and saw several men on the last ship moving as if to set sail. When I reached the ship I jumped and landed on the deck as I lashed out. The sailor leaping towards me crashed to the deck as I started for the captain’s cabin. I twisted and turned as I brought a stick down on a sailors wrist and his knife spun away.

I lashed out and into the side of another’s head to send him after the knife. I kicked into the first sailors groin and began walking again, “if another man interferes he will go to the gallows.”

The crew moving towards me hesitated and I kicked the captain’s door open before walking in. He was across the room holding the prince and a dagger, “leave or he dies!”

I smiled as I started walking, “he dies and it will take you a long time to follow and I promise every second will be very painful.”

He looked around as if for a way out as I stopped, “let him go now!”

He licked his lips, “the merchant did it not me.”

I just looked at him and he slowly moved the dagger and let the prince go. I reached out to pulled the boy to me, “I will give you one hour before I tell the coast watchers. Return to Tide and I will see you hung.”

He looked at me for a moment before nodding and I turned with the prince and left. The crew looked but none moved to stop me as I led the prince to the dock. Word had gotten out and a crowd had gathered at the other end of the dock. I nodded to the old man and gestured to the prince, “Daniels?”

He grinned, “his warehouse. His workers know something is coming, they have already slipped away.”

I looked at the large building and then down at the prince, “stay behind me your highness we have a traitor that your father will want to see.”

He smiled and nodded and the crowd chuckled. I started for the smaller dockside door and walked through it before looking around. I headed to the left where several men stood, “merchant Daniels you are wanted for treason, anyone else interferes and they hang with you.”

Four very large men started for me as they pulled cutlasses. I gestured for the prince to stay and kept going. One lunged and I brought a stick down to break his wrist before slashing across to hit him in the face. He went down as the other three attacked. I turned and sidestepped as I broke another wrist and deflected a sword.

I slid in smoothly and brought a stick across and down to break an arm. I jabbed into a man’s gut and slammed the stick into his head as he folded. I moved to the side quickly as Daniels started around the fight as if headed towards the prince. The last two men were wary as I lashed out and knocked a last sword out of a hand, “run or die.”

They backed up and spun to run towards a back door and the merchant was left to face me. He was holding a fancy dagger and sweating, “I am trained.”

I smiled as I moved closer, “really?”

He jabbed and one stick snapped down on his wrist. He screamed as the dagger hit the floor and pulled his broken wrist back. I moved in and slashed across into his head and he tried to lean back. I jabbed with the other stick and he folded over it before I hit him in the back of the head.

I pulled out leather ties as I knelt, “come help bind him your highness.”

He looked frightened but had stood his ground and came forward. I woke the merchant and the other two men I had tied up. I searched him and beside the fancy dagger I took his purse. I slipped the fancy dagger onto the prince belt before I pulled Daniels into his office. I broke open his strong box and poured everything into a large rag.

The crowd was large when we came out and several spit on Daniels. They followed as I headed through the city. It was not long before city guards were with me and I grinned and winked at the prince before borrowing a pony from a merchant. The prince rode beside me proudly as if on the tallest of horses.

When I reached merchant Peters warehouses and corrals his workers were gone. I pushed Daniels and the two men ahead of us and into the warehouse. I had the prince walk behind me and several guards followed. Peters had a few men with him but one look at me and the guards and they turned to run.

Peters started off trying to explain and then plead. I cuffed him as I spun him and tied his wrists before pulling him into his office. He protested when I broke open his lock box and one of the guards that had followed us in slapped him, “shut up.”

Like with Daniels I took everything he had and made him carry it. Back outside was a huge crowd that stirred as we brought out Peters. I whispered to the prince as I helped him onto the pony and he waved, “we caught them!”

The crowd cheered and followed as I headed towards the guard building. I knew word would have spread to the king and queen before we reached the building. One of the women in the crowd moved closer and gave the prince a broom handle, “prod them along your highness.”

The crowd laughed and the guards chuckled as the prince grinned and leaned forward to shove one end of the handle into the back of Peters. The crowd roared again and I reached out to slap Peters when he started to turn. The king’s guards were around the square when we walked in. The sergeant of the guard that had taken their captain stood tall with three lieutenants.

The king and queen were waiting by the steps. The king was smiling as the queen hugged his arm. I glanced back at the prince, “I think I can manage if you would like to greet your parents.”

He smiled and slipped off the pony to run to his mother. The king waited for me to write out my report before holding court right in the square with the crowd watching. His guard captain and the two merchants were hung less then an hour later. The other two men went to the mines for ten years.

Besides a large purse of gold the queen made me a knight and the king offered me a patient as a court baron, which was a polite way to give me a steady income.

Chapter eleven

A day of taking

I woke refreshed and glanced at Marie beside me. I sighed and stretched before moving off the bed. She laughed, “up so early?”

I grinned as I headed to the bathing room, “time for me to go work.”

I was filling the larger than normal tub when she walked in, “about time you went back to work.”

She tested the water and stepped in, “sitting around watching me and drinking tea all day.”

I grinned as I knelt to wash her, “I had to convince you to bed me.”

She laughed and caressed my face, “pick me up after I get off?”

I nodded and continued to wash her. After we finished she left and I sat to think before heading out to make rounds. I spoke with people and helped a few before I saw my first prey. Three men working a protecting racket were roughing up an old woman selling sausage and bread. I crossed the street as I pulled my sticks.

The first I took in the back of the head and the second I brought a stick around and into the side of his head. The third I jabbed a stick into his stomach to fold him over before I slugged him. I smiled at the woman before kneeling and tying the men. I pulled them to their feet and got the woman’s name.

The men tried to threaten and I used my stick and beat them about their legs. As we got closer to the guard building they tried to plead and then beg. I shoved them into the building and the commander looked up from something he was reading. I shoved the three men towards a guard that started towards us from the fire, “assault, attempted robbery and extortion.”

I sat across from the commander who chuckled, “finally getting back to work?”

I grinned, “I was getting bored.”

I began my report and he waited, “we have been getting almost daily reports of a street gang down by the docks.”

I looked at him and he shrugged, “robberies with bodily injury and theft.”

I nodded and went back to writing, “I will go take a look.”

After I left I headed to the docks. The old man smiled when I sat beside him, “I thought you left.”

I smiled, “a woman.”

He laughed, “a noble cause.”

I glanced at him, “I heard you had a gang down here causing trouble.”

He glanced up the street leading away from the docks, “see the four young men up by the sundries shop?”

I nodded as I looked, “only four?”

He snorted, “there are another three in the alley further along.”

I stood, “perhaps I should introduce myself.”

I walked up to the sundries shop holding my purse as if to protect it. I went in and talked with the owner who was worried the gang would rob him. When I walked out I started up the street holding my purse again. The gang started following me and when I approached the alley the other three came out to block my way.

One sneered as he pulled his dagger, “give us your money.”

I smiled and pulled my sticks instead, “how about I tie you up and take you to the guard instead?”

They rushed me and I side stepped as I lashed out. I cracked two on the side of their heads before slashing to the side to break the wrist of the man with the dagger. I kicked a fourth in the groin and jabbed one end of a stick into the gut of a fifth. My other stick snapped out and into the forehead of another before I blocked a dagger and slugged the last man in the face.

I looked at the men on the ground around me groaning and put my sticks away before pulling leather strings and tying them up. I kicked and hit them until they were on their feet and started them towards the guard building. I kept having to prod them along until I began to hit them in the shins with a stick.

When I shoved them into the building several guards followed us in and laughed as they pulled them away. I grinned as I sat to write out another report, “attempted robbery and assault with a dagger.”

The commander grinned, “since you are working...”

I looked at him and he shrugged, “we have been having a lot of thefts in the farmers market, sneak thieves mostly.”

I nodded and went back to writing. It was almost lunch time when I reached the market and leaned against a stall. I watched the market for several minutes before I had an idea who the thieves were. I straightened and started across for a spice stall as three young men walked to it from two directions.

While two bumped into each other and began arguing the third used the distraction to start lifting the small pouches of spice. I pulled my sticks as I reached the stall and lashed out and into the head of the third man before jabbing into the stomach of one of the others. I brought my other stick around and into his head.

I kicked out into the groin of the last man as he reached for dagger. I brought a stick down on his head and glanced around at the merchants before bending to tie them. I pulled the stolen pouches of spice from the first man and tossed them to the merchant and got his name. I yanked the men to their feet, “I thought I warned you not to return.”

I started them walking and used a stick to prod them along as they began begging and whining. When I pushed them through the door the commander turned from talking to a magister, “already?”

I shoved the three towards a guard, “robbery and attempted robbery. Remember the men I caught and had to let go for the information about Countess MacTav?”

The commander looked at the men and smiled, “they came back, how nice.”

After I wrote out the report and sanded it I stood to stretch, “time to find lunch.”

The magister smiled as he read my report, “there is a new cook across the square.”

I grinned, “that is good because I did not want to have to hunt something down.”

They laughed as I walked out and went across the square. I was eating when the large man walked in and began arguing with another customer. I tried to ignore them until the first man pulled a knife and stabbed the other. I stood and pulled my sticks as the man turned. He sneered as I stepped away from my table and slashed out at me.

I brought one stick down to break his wrist and stepped in to lash out and into the side of his head. After he dropped to the floor I knelt and tied him before searching him, the man he stabbed was dead. I took a thick leather wallet and a heavy pouch of gold before taking his dagger and pulling him to his feet as he began to fight the leather ties.

I cuffed him and shoved him towards the door. He was still trying to fight and get loose when I shoved him through the door of the guard building. The guard by the door slugged him and started cuffing him as he pushed him towards the door into the cells. The commander was looking at me and frowning as I crossed to his table, “murder.”

He blinked and glanced at the closing door, “across from the guard building?”
I nodded as I pulled a piece of parchment to me, “in front of several witnesses.”

He shook his head and waited until I was done to read the report. I thought I had done enough for one day and headed towards Maria’s tea shop. I walked into the marketplace as four men attacked a woman. I turned and started for them as the crowd moved back. They were laughing as she screamed and struggled while her blouse was ripped.

One of the men tried to pull her skirt down. I brought one stick down on the back of a man’s head and jabbed into another’s stomach before kicking a third in the groin. I continued to move and lashed out at the last man as he turned to run. They had stolen her purse and handbag and both lay on the ground as I looked at the men.

I shook my head and started tying them up. I got the woman’s name before starting back to the guards building. The men kept trying to say they were just having fun and had not done anything. I shoved them into the guards common room and the commander turned, “again?”

I shoved the men towards a guard, “theft, assault and molesting a woman.”

They protested and the guard slapped them as they were pushed towards the other door into the cells. I sat and started another report before pushing it across the table. The commander grinned as he took it, “this is turning into a long day for you. Are you sure someone did not curse you?”

I almost growled as I started for the door. On my way back to see Maria two men moved in front of me with drawn daggers not even two blocks away. They were preparing to duel when I reached them. I was not in the mood to be nice and lashed out as I drew my sticks. I hit one on the side of his head.

I brought a stick down on the other’s wrist before almost cracking a stick over his head. I ended up having to carry that one after I tied them up. The commander was walking out the door and held it as I came in. He grinned, “leave the report and I will read it later.”

I dumped the unconscious man before prodding the other towards a guard. After I was done writing I left and heading back to the market. I sat at an empty table and smiled at Maria when she brought me a cup of tea. I had just finished the first cup when the commander appeared and sat. I smiled as I leaned back, “taking a break?”

He sighed and shook his head, “Duke Justice just sent a runner. Baron Sandy has gone missing and he is willing to pay for you to find him.”

I sighed, “how long has he been missing and where was he last seen?”

The commander grinned, “two days and he was last seen going into Miss Amores boarding house.”

He shrugged, “she says he left but no one has seen him.”

I set a few coins on the table, “I will find him.”

I headed toward the better part of the city as I thought. Miss Amores was not a boarding house, it was a brothel that served the wealthy. When I knocked on the front door it was answered by a doorman that frowned, “we are not open yet.”

I used a stick to jab into his stomach before walking in as he folded over. I looked at several women that turned from talking to each other, “listen very close, I want to know what happened to...”

The very large form of Miss Amores interrupted as she walked towards me, “get out or I will have you killed.”

I smiled, “tell you what, how about I take you to the goal? Your wealthy patrons will not do anything, they know who and what I am. Now either you talk to me or last night was the last time you ladies will work.”

She puffed up and I almost absently turned and slashed back into the side of her guard’s head as he snuck up behind me. I looked at her and then at the other women, “Duke Justice and the crown want Baron Sandy. Tell me what happen and I might not take you in.”

Miss Amores was white faced and silent but one of the other ladies spoke up, “He hit merchant Dominic.”

I sighed (merchant Dominic was a wealthy merchant but he was also arrogant), “and?”

I looked at Miss Amores and she looked away, “his guards knocked him on the head and took him. He said if we told he would have the house burnt and all of us killed.”

I shook my head before turning towards the door. I walked through the streets to the large shop that Dominic owned and walked in. Two guards by the back counter shifted and their hands went to daggers in their belts. I headed towards Dominic at his desk and one moved to step in front of me.

Today had been a long one and I pulled a stick and lashed out and into the guard’s head, “get out of my way.”

The other guard pulled his dagger as the first dropped to the floor. He moved towards me as I continued to merchant Dominic, “interfere and you will wish you had not.”

The guard lunged and I snapped the stick down on his wrist before pulling the other and striking out. The dagger went flying as I stepped in and struck the guard twice in the head. I left him to fall as I started for merchant Dominic who was on his feet holding a dagger. He sneered, “I will have your head.”

I did not pause and fainted a stab before bringing the other stick down on his hand. He screamed as I broke his wrist and kicked out into his groin. I yanked him up by his hair and struck him in the ribs, “where is Baron Sandy?”

He looked around frantically and I struck down and into a knee. He screamed and I yanked him up again, “Baron Sandy?”

He licked his lips and shook his head. I smiled, “oh good.”

I slammed a stick down into his other hand and he screamed as several bones were broke, “Baron Sandy?”

He shook his head and I pushed him back and went to work hitting him with both sticks until he fell, “once more and then I crush your balls. Baron Sandy, where is he?”

He whimpered, “in a barrel in the warehouse.”

I yanked him up and turned him before I slammed him over his desk. I tied his wrists and went to the two guards to bind them as well. I got them up and pushed them to Dominic before pushing him with them through the back doorway. One barrel was off to the side and several warehouse workers watched but none came to help them as I pried the top off the barrel.

I turned to pull and push Dominic and his guards back through his shop and into the street. He pleaded and threatened me all the way back to the guard building. I shoved them in and glanced at the commander when he turned from speaking with a magister.

I pushed them to a guard and started for the table, “Baron Sandy is dead. His body is in Dominic’s warehouse behind his shop.”

The magister turned from watching Dominic and his guards and shook his head, “he has friends.”

The commander snorted, “more like customers.”

I smiled as I sat, “while your guards are getting the body you could have them collect his account ledger.”

He grinned and the magister laughed, “do it.”

I wrote up the report before standing, “I am going to have dinner and take a lady home so no more business for today.”

The commander laughed, “you should not let the wrong element think you quit.”

Chapter twelve

Nothing but Silver

I had been watching from the shadows for hours. The four men were both clumsy and loud as they pried the dockside warehouse door open. There had been a string of break ins along the dock warehouses. The thing was, nothing was ever stolen but damage was done to the warehouse floor.

I drifted out of the shadows and crossed to the open door. These men were really stupid, they had just gone down the line hitting warehouse after warehouse one right after another. I slipped into the warehouse and heard them prying boards up in the back. I walked back as I pulled my sticks and found them trying to light a full sized lantern.

I shook my head and continued forward, “do not move.”

They spun in surprise and one blurted, “we are not stealing anything!”

I reached the first man and used a stick to prod him into turning. I pulled his hands back, “you have broken in and damaged the owners property.”

I moved to the next man as he turned, “we are just looking...”

The others hissed and he shut up. I shook my head, “I do not really care what you are looking for.”

I tied his hands and went to the third man. The last one was looking almost frantic, “we will give you money to let us keep looking.”

I snorted as I spun him and pulled his arms back, “not a chance.”

The first man shifted, “we were looking for treasure.”

I laughed as the other men hissed again, “idiots.”

They looked at each other and the last man cleared his throat, “The river pirate Machenry buried thousands of gold coins in ten large iron chests.”

I grinned as I started pushing them towards the door, “tell the story to the magister, he could use the laugh.”

All the way to the Guard building they tried to convince me of the treasure. I pushed them in and a sleepy looking watch commander turned, “thief taker?”

I smiled, “breaking and entering as well as property damage.”

He nodded to a guard that stood and stretched, “I will read the report.”

I walked to the table, “they were looking for buried treasure under the warehouses.”

He snorted as the guard laughed and shook his head. I sat and accepted the parchment that was pushed across the table. The commander chuckled, “we get treasure hunters every few years around this time.”

I grinned as I began listing the other warehouses that had been broken into and damaged, “somehow I do not think the river pirate Machenry buried iron chest under warehouses without someone noticing.”

He grinned as I continued to write. When I finished I stood and headed for the door, “tell the magister why they broke in and damaged the warehouses. I am sure he will enjoy the story.”

When I slipped into bed Maria snuggled against me, “you are late.”

I turned to hold her, “I had treasure hunters to bring in.”

She sighed and I relaxed before blinking awake at someone banging on the door. Maria was gone and I groaned as I climbed out of bed. I met Maria on the stairs as she came to get me, “a magister and Duke Justice.”

I shook my head as I kissed her on my way past. They were waiting in the living room and smiled as I gestured to chairs, “what can I do for you?”

The duke grinned, “your treasure hunters have drawn attention.”

I snorted and the magister leaned forward, “unfortunately there is a grain of truth to the stories.”

I looked at him and shook my head, “a pirate that buried chests of treasure rather than spending it on drink and women?”

He redden and the duke smiled, “true or not this happens every few years and causes problems.”

I sat up, “why come to me?”

The duke looked at the magister, “well you seem to have ideas on how thieves think...”

I shook my head and leaned back again to think, “I will give it some thought.”

I looked at the duke, “you know the dates the pirate operated?”

He grinned, “almost exactly two hundred years ago.”

I grinned, “two hundred years ago the city was smaller with soldiers guarding it.”

I looked at them and they just looked back. I shook my head, “no bandit or pirate would ever come close to where he could be caught.”

The idea and thoughts swirled around in my mind as I remembered an old ruin on the beyond the edge of the city and beside the river. If I remembered right it had been a baron’s keep. He was rumored to have kept and run a large whorehouse. I looked at the duke, “the ruins on the edge of the city. What was the name of the whore monger Baron?”

He looked at me, “Henry I think.”

I laughed, “the cagy bastard.”

They looked at me and I stood, “think about it. Machenry... Henry?”

They looked at each other and the duke stood, “it has been searched but go take a look. His majesty said if you find gold he gets half, you can have anything else.”

I smiled, “of course.”

I saw them out and went to find Maria. I borrowed horses and a large wagon from a stable before heading towards the edge of the city. The ruins were isolated with the nearest house a league away. I unhitched the horses and put them on long leads in thick green grass. I walked through the ruins and just measured it in my mind.

The area around the stone dock drew me and I sat to look at it. A river pirate would not bury treasure, he might hide it but not bury it. By the stains the Keep had been destroyed by fire. That told me the baron might not have been able to remove the treasure if he was the pirate. The story was that a jealous woman had burnt it while the baron slept with another woman.

I looked at a pile of stones beside the dock and going up onto the bank towards the Keep. I grinned and stood to walk to it before starting to move stones. I just tossed them to one side or the other and an hour later found the steps. I kept moving the stones and cleared down to a solid stone floor.

I kept going and a few hours later found the caved in opening to a tunnel. It was late afternoon when I cleared enough rubble to walk into the tunnel. It led all the way to a crumbling wooden door that collapsed when I hit it. I walked into a large round room with rubble filled stairs and blank arches.

I started walking around and a little dust stirred which drew my eyes to the floor. I started walking around the room again but bent to look carefully at any marks on the floor. I stopped when I was around and almost under the stairs. Rubble from above half blocked the arch but I saw a lot of scraps and scratches on the floor stones.

I looked at the arch and hit the wall to feel how solid it was. The wall almost vibrated and I grinned before looking around. The round hole to the right drew me and I looked in before looking around again. I pulled one of my clubs and it fit almost perfectly so I pushed it in until I felt some resistance.

I pushed and something gave but nothing else happened. I looked at the wall and realized the rubble from the stairs was blocking it. I started moving stones and it began to get dark. I shook my head before leaving and walking back to the wagon. I thought about what I found as I sat and watched the horses graze.

I finally lay back in the wagon and closed my eyes. I woke quickly to the sounds of the horses snorting. I pulled my night sticks as I slipped out the back of the wagon and moved around the horses until I found the watcher. He was holding a short sword awkwardly and I struck it out of his hand.

I poked him with the other club, “who are you and what are you doing?”

His eyes went wide and he backed up, “we were just after...”

He shut up and I nodded, “the treasure. Run and I will not feed you to the fish.”

He spun and ran into the night as I bent to pick up the sword. I shook my head and walked back to the wagon and tossed it in before heading to the river and the tunnel. When I stepped into the tunnel I saw the lantern light coming from the other end. I started walking and stopped to watch the three men looking around the large round room.

I leaned against the wall as they looked through the rubble on the stairs. I finally shook my head and walked in, “very dumb.”

They spun and one reached for a dagger. I shook my head, “you really want to do that?”

He looked around before letting it go. I gestured to the tunnel and they walked out. I followed and watched as they argued and headed back towards the city. I shook my head and went to bring all the horse to the wagon where I tied them. I laid in the wagon again and closed my eyes, “I can not believe I am still here.”

I told myself that as soon as I saw the next room I would return to the city. I woke to the sun rising and rolled out of the wagon before moving the horses to water and then put them back with the wagon. It took me an hour to move enough stones to push the secret door open. I looked at the iron bound chests around the room and went to the first to lift the lid.

I was surprised it still felt solid. Looking into the chest all I saw was tarnished silver coins. Each of the chests held the same thing. There was another small room and I peeked in to see a pile of silver. There was silver cups and goblets and crowns and candelabra. Everywhere there was silver and nothing but silver.

I harnessed the horses and moved the wagon before starting to load which was not easy alone. It took me several hours to move the chests and then all the treasure. The wagon was creaking heavily when I drove it away and headed back to the city. Men and women stared at the mound of silver that peeked over the side as I went by.

I headed straight to the palace and the stable yards. It was a few moments before the king and the whole court appeared as I climbed down. I smiled, “nothing but silver your majesty. I will let your treasurer count it and I would like to provide the half you would normally receive to the royal orphanage. If her majesty would consider going through the loose treasure I would be honored to share it with her and the prince.”

He grinned, “so there was a treasure.”

I shrugged, “to tell the truth, until I looked into the chests I never thought there was.”

I waved towards the horses and wagon, “if you would have the wagon and horses returned to the Sable Stallion I would appreciate it.”

He shook his head as I headed towards the gate and Maria and hopefully a meal.

Chapter thirteen

Smugglers

I shoved the three men into the room and let a guard take them, “three stupid idiots that were trying to break into a closed moneylender’s shop.”

The day commander shook his head, “everyone knows they do not keep money in the shop after they close.”

I nodded as I sat across from him, “they smell like swamp weed and old burnt rope.”

He sat back, “we catch the users all the time. It is the damn smugglers that are the problem.”

I started writing the report and he waited until I was done before clearing his throat, “if I can get the duke to authorize payment would you hunt the smugglers down?”

I pushed the parchment across the table, “yes.”

I stood and left and found Maria waiting across the square at the café. I grinned as I slipped my arm through hers, “now we can go home.”

She smiled, “why were those men breaking into the shop?”

I sighed, “they were looking for anything to make money so they could buy more swamp weed.”

She shuddered, “foul smelling stuff.”

I smiled and put my arm around her waist, “you smell much better.”

She grinned and slipped her arm around me, “will you say that when it is time to speak to my father?”

I grinned, “I have already spoken to your father. He said your mother is waiting to set a date as soon as you are with child.”

She laughed and squeezed me, “in that case we will have a long night lover.”

It was a pleasant night and I hated seeing Maria leave in the morning. I glanced back at the door at someone knocking. I walked through the house and opened it to see the day watch commander, a magister and duke Justice. I opened the door wider to let them in and led them to my parlor.

After we were sitting the duke cleared his throat, “I have spoken with his majesty and he agrees. The smugglers need to be caught.”

I nodded and the magister smiled, “the price is twenty gold plus five silver per man you catch.”

I sat back, “I want baron Henry’s estate lands with the taxes paid for the next five years.”

The duke smiled as the commander and magister looked at each other, “you thinking of your lady?”

I shrugged and he grinned, “I will speak with his majesty.”

After they left I sat back to think, sure the smugglers could be bringing the swamp weed in through the docks but I did not think they were. First there was to many people around the docks, second there was always a chance a customs officer might be there. The same for the shipping warehouses, there were too many workers around the warehouses.

Now the stockyards were a different story, especially if they brought it in at night during the dark of the moon like tonight. I stood and headed out and then across the city. I talked to a few people along the way but did not get anywhere. What I was looking for was a merchant that was doing well but did not have workers or inventory.

It took all day to find the vacant looking slaughter house. Most of the stock pens were empty except for a few horses. Everyone agreed that Merchant Adams was doing something right because he made a lot of money. The few men I saw at the slaughter house were thugs. I went to a small diner nearby and had dinner and listened to the men talk.

It was just starting to get dark when I left and walked back to the empty pens by the slaughter house. I stayed in the shadows and waited, if they were bring the swamp weed in it would be at night. It was midnight before the line of horses came in with two men. Each horse was carrying a large pack.

I moved through the pens silently and was just starting to approach when I saw the customs inspector. I stopped to watch as he spoke with a well dressed merchant and accepted a heavy pouch. I slipped away and around to wait in an alley and a little later I heard the inspector walking down the street.

I walked out with one of my night sticks along my leg. The inspector stopped, “I am a customs inspector.”

I smiled as I continued towards him, “tell me inspector, what is his majesty going to say when he finds out you are being bribed to let smugglers bring drugs into his city?”

He pulled his dagger, “what do you want?”

I brought my stick up and jabbed into his stomach, “everyone.”

He folded and I slapped his dagger away with my stick. I picked up the dagger and spun the man before shoving him into the alley. I pushed him against a wall and tied his wrists before turning him around, “who else is he paying? Who distributes the weed?”

His lips tightened and I shook my head, “okay broken it is.”

I smashed my stick into his upper arm and then down onto his collarbone. He screamed and I jabbed him in the gut again, “names inspector.”

He tried to run and I kicked his feet out from under him. I knelt and smashed his other shoulder, “names.”

From his shoulders and arms I started hitting his legs but not hard enough to break them. It took thirty minutes, “Commander Macbride!”

I leaned back, “the night watch commander?”

He nodded, “he makes sure his guards stay away and clears the area the weed is taken to.”

I prodded him, “Who distributes the weed?”

He shook his head and I struck him in the ribs, “names!”

He jerked, “Merchants Smith, David, Samson and Taylor!”

I stood and pulled him to his feet before pulling a long piece of cord out. I made a noose and slipped it over his head, “yell and I will tighten it and let you strangle.”

I pulled him after me as I headed back to the slaughter house. I shoved him back against a corner post and tied the cord to the post, “if you turn or move around the cord will tightened until it strangles you.”

I pulled both sticks as I headed towards the building. The guard beside the door was smoking a large pipe of swamp weed. He did not see me until I hit him in the head with a night stick. I tied him and then walked into the slaughter house. The others did not realize I was there until I moved into them as they spilt the large packs of swamp weed.

I moved through them striking each in the head and smashing arms or wrists. Merchant Adams was the only one with a weapon and lunged suddenly. I deflected the blade but it stabbed into my left thigh and I snarled as I swung a back hand. My nightstick slammed into his face and he went down gushing blood from a broken nose.

I looked around as I pulled the sword out and let it fall. I started moving through the moaning and groaning men and tied them and pulled them to their feet. I yanked merchant Adams up and shoved him towards the men, “I want the names of everyone you pay.”

He did not say anything and I brought his sword back and let him see it, “you used an edged weapon. Now you face charges of importing a banned item. Bribing a king’s official and armed assault of a minor noble... That means hanging.”

He jerked, “you can not prove...”

I hit him with the sword pummel, “I am going to cut your manhood off before we walk to the guard building.”

He looked around as his men shifted away from him, “I will talk.”

I slipped the sword blade between his legs and brought it up, “speak.”

He gave me the same names as the customs inspector. I tied them together and pulled them out before adding the other guard and the inspector. I prodded them down the street as I thought and finally pushed them into the guard building. When I entered I looked at the guard commander and his face was white.

I shoved merchant Adams towards the two guards walking from the cells. I tossed the sword on the floor as I walked towards the commander, “commander Macbride I am taking you for accepting a bribe and assisting in the import of a banned item.”

He straightened, “you do not have the authority.”

I pulled a nightstick as he pulled a dagger and brought it across into his wrist, “I am a licensed thief taker and have two witness against you.”

I brought the stick back to strike his head and he went down. I knelt as I glanced at the stunned guards, “get these men locked up and one of you go get the captain of the guard. The other go wake duke Justice and a magister. Make sure Customs Inspector Jenkins and merchant Adams are locked in a isolated cell.”

I yanked the commander up and shoved him towards the other prisoners, “now!”

They started moving again as I went to the table and stripped to look at the sword wound. I hissed and pulled a wax sealed packet from my pouch. I glanced up when the two guards returned looking worried. One cleared his throat, “the commander demands we free him and take you.”

I smiled, “unless you want real trouble you will do as I told you.”

I gestured to the door, “get the captain, the duke and a magister.”

After they left I pulled a small flask and poured it into the wound. I jerked at the fiery pain that spread but did it again and then again before wiping the wound. I opened the sealed packet and took out the curved needle and gut thread. I gritted my teeth as I began sewing the gash closed.

I continued after the captain and several guards came in and finished before tying a knot and cutting the thread. I put the needle away and stood to fix my clothes, “you are in charge captain. When the duke and magister get here they will question the two witnesses against your commander.”

I sat and ignored the burning stinging pain in my thigh as I reached for parchment, “you will need a guard to take a copy of my report to the king.”

He moved to the table, “are you sure?”

I glanced at him, “I had two men tell me the same thing and I still have four merchants to bring in. I was working under duke Justice’s direction and at the king’s request.”

The captain took a deep breath before nodding, “write your report.”

He gestured to my leg, “do you want me to send for someone?”

I shook my head as I continued to write, “it will hold until I can get mother Kerine to do it up proper.”

The captain grinned, “we use her too.”

I nodded as I pushed the first sheet of parchment towards him and reached for another. When I finished this one I sealed it before pushing it towards him, “this goes to the king.”

I looked at the room that had a lot more guards lingering, “would a couple of you bring merchant Adams out?”

They were coming through the door when duke Justice walked in, “what is this non sense thief taker?”

I smiled, “now we just need a magister and then you can get to the bottom of it.”

He glanced at the merchant as I gestured to the guards, “put him in a corner and bring the customs inspector out after the duke and magister finish.”

They looked from me to the captain and I nodded to the captain, “you command the guards.”

He smiled and gestured to the guards, “do what he told you. The rest of you get back out on patrol.”

The duke sat to wait and glanced at me, “are you sure about this?”

I nodded but kept quiet until the magister walked in looking grumpy, “you better be right thief taker.”

I stood and walked to the corner as he and the duke followed. I smiled thinly, “Merchant Adams I took you for importing a banned item. Bribing a king’s official and armed assault of a minor noble. If you talk I will drop the assault charge which means you will not risk hanging.”

He licked his lips, “I do not...”

I slapped him, “very well I will inform the king to ready the gallows.”

He jerked as his eyes went wide, “wait!”

I looked at him and he sagged, “I was smuggling swamp weed. I paid customs inspector Jenkins to ignore what I was doing and paid commander Macbride to keep the guard away from us.”

I looked at the angry duke and magister and turned to the captain, “amend the charge sheet and bring inspector Jenkins out.”

A couple of minutes later the duke and magister were looking at the inspector. He did not try to lie and started begging and whimpering as he gave names. The duke turned away, “put him back in his cell.”

Once the man was gone the duke and magister spoke together before looking at the captain, “strip Macbride of his uniform and officer braid. As of this moment you are the commander. Have him ready to go before the king in the morning.”

They walked out and I turned to leave, “I will be back.”

First on my list was merchant Taylor, I headed to the Drunken Swan. It was a peaceful inn that only served ale until the tenth hour and warm spiced cider after that. They were known more for the games of Tiles that were played. When I walked in a few people looked at me as I crossed to a corner table.

The man sitting at the table was well dressed but everyone could see they were old, worn clothes. I smiled as he sat back, “are you looking for work?”

He shrugged, “what are you offering?”

I looked into his eyes, “one night’s work. Four men for two silvers apiece.”

He stood, “deal.”

After walking out I glanced at him, “merchant Taylor is first.”

He looked at me before looking up as he thought. He smiled and nodded before turning to lead me down the street. Smoke was a finder and knew where people lived or worked. The area he led me to was barely in the better side of the city. The narrow house still had lights on and I nodded as I went to the door to knock.

It was a minute before a large man opened the door and looked at me. I smiled, “merchant Taylor?”

He growled and turned, “some prowler boss.”

“Send him away.”

The man turned back to me, “he is busy.”

I sighed and pulled my nightsticks before jabbing one into the man’s stomach. I brought the other down on his head as I pushed the door open and walked into the room. I slashed out to the side and caught another large man reaching for me. I looked at a well dressed man holding a dazed girl, “merchant Taylor?”

He growled, “you do not know who you have messed with.”

I smiled as I crossed the room, “actually I do.”

I brought one stick down on his wrist as he reached for his dagger. I yanked him to the side and into the wall before putting my sticks away and securing his hands behind him. The girl had sat on the floor when he was pulled away. I shook my head before taking his purse and glanced at the door, “Smoke!”

He peeked in the door and I smiled, “why don’t you go see if he had any nice clothes?”

He grinned as he headed towards the stairs. I bent and lifted the girl and sat her in a chair before looking at Smith, “where are you keeping the weed?”

He glared and I shook my head as I went to tie the two men and wake them. I searched the lower floors and returned with a heavy pack of weed I had found in his den. I waited and when Smoke came down with his arms full of clothes I started pushing the men out the door, “meet me in front of the guard building.”

When I shoved them into the building a guard pulled them away. I nodded to the merchant, “charge him with distributing a banned item and the other two for conspiring with him.”

I looked at the new commander and a sleepy looking lieutenant as I sat to write the report. When I was done I pushed it across the table and stood, “three more.”

The commander grinned, “trying to bring them in for the morning court?”

I smiled as I headed for the door, “before they find out we know and run.”

I met Smoke as I walked across the square, “merchant Samson.”

He looked up, “the spice merchant or the mercantile...”

He looked at me before grinning, “spice merchant it is.”

This time we walked through the streets headed towards the docks. We stopped in front of a shop and Smoke gestured to a door beside the shop door, “he lives above his shop.”

I banged on his door for several minutes before he suddenly yanked it open, “get your weed tomor...”

I cracked him on the head as I pushed in and slammed him into a wall, “Merchant Samson?”

He struggled as I tied his hands and pulled him up the stairs, “the guard is going to have your head for this!”

I glanced at the two packs with swamp weed spilling out of them and the three girls slumped around the room. I glanced at Smoke following us, “you can look over his clothes.”

I moved to the other side of the room where an iron bound strongbox was. I smiled as I lifted the lid and absently slapped the merchant as he shifted and tried to kick, “proceeds and possessions of a criminal are available to the thief taker that catches him.”

I looked into his glaring face, “which means all the silver in your counting box.”

I glanced at Smoke when he returned and ripped a curtain to make a pouch. He had his arms more than full and carried several pair of fancy boots, “meet me at the same place.”

It was morning when I walked out of the guard building the last time. I was carrying a small ornate chest and several heavy bags full of the coins I had taken from the swamp weed merchants. Macbride was hung, customs inspector Jenkins whipped and sentenced to ten years. The others were all sent to prison for ten years after being branded.

Chapter fourteen

Meeting a brother

I finished the last section of fence and straightened to watch the few cows in the pasture before walking across to the men working to clear the old keep. I had made a deal with them, besides paying them a wage they got to take and sell the stone blocks so they worked harder. The ruins were almost clear now and they were just loading and taking the blocks of stone.

I smiled at Maria as she shooed the chickens away so she could collect their eggs. I turned and carried the shovel to the river opening of the tunnel. When I came back I caught my new wife and gave her a kiss, “the fence is fixed and I need to go earn some money.”

She grinned, “you mean have fun.”

I caressed her face and kissed her again before heading for the gate. I had not wanted to tell Maria that I was going for two men that had been robbing and killing merchants down on the docks. I smiled at the people in the street as I walked and many nodded or waved. Sometimes it pays to help people and not make them pay.

This time it was for Mother Kerine and one of her daughters. I had a tip that the two were watching a goods shop just off the dock. I stopped down the street to watch as a noble and a servant walked into the shop and the two men lounging across the street straightened. I shook my head, the noble almost screamed that he was carrying money.

It was a moment before the two men started across and entered the shop. I was already walking and stopped beside the door to hear what was happening. I heard the thud of blows and shook my head before pulling my night sticks and turning to push the door open and walk in. The noble was backed into a corner with his servant and shopkeeper behind him.

He had a dagger in his hand and the two thieves were shifting back and forth as they tried to move closer with their weapons out. One turned and I lashed out to slam the stick into his head before jabbing as the other turned. He folded over as my stick took him in the stomach and I brought the other down on his head.

I glanced at the noble as I knelt and began tying their wrists. I froze as his face registered and then shook my head and watched what I was doing, “you are a long way from home brother.”

The noble stirred and stepped forward, “Sinclare?”

I gathered the daggers and yanked the two men to their feet, “did father send you or are you adventuring?”

He snorted, “I stopped that nonsense when father married me off like a stray daughter.”

I smiled as I turned and pushed the men to the door. I glanced at the shopkeeper, “tell Mother Kerine I took the men that killed her son in law.”

He nodded and I pushed the men out with my brother and his servant following, “wait.”

I looked at him, “you have legs.”

He shook his head, “still do not know your station.”

I smiled, “my station? I am a thief taker.”

I shoved the men and he started following, “Father was required to give oath to the prince.”

I glanced back, “he is here?”

James nodded and I smiled again, “I wonder how many bastards he leaves behind.”

When I pushed the two killers into the guard building my brother was still following. I pushed them towards a guard and nodded to the commander as he looked up, “the two that have been robbing and killing along the docks.”

He gestured for them to be taken away as I sat and pushed the daggers across the table. He looked at James, “do you need help?”

My brother frowned, “just my brother’s attention.”

I pulled a blank parchment to me, “I will be at the practice yard of the Keep in a hour or two.”

I started writing as he hesitated and then left. I ignored the commander as he looked at me and finally shrugged, “he is my older brother and my father’s heir.”

I finished the report and sanded it before sliding it across the table and standing. I thought as I walked out and headed back to the ruins. Maria was waiting and smiled when she slipped her arm into mine, “you made it on time.”

I squeezed her arm, “I was lucky enough to catch them right away.”

When we walked into the large keep grounds she squeezed my arm before heading for the group of women around the queen. I waited before heading around to the practice yard where dozens of minor nobles were showing off to more female noble lasses. I smiled at countess MacTav beside the prince and his arms instructor, “good day.”

She smiled as the prince grinned and let her hand go, “I practiced Sinclare.”

I bowed and gestured to the practice ring as I pulled my sticks, “show me.”

He pulled the two sticks I had cut down and walked into the ring. I waited for him to move into his stance before stabbing at him with a stick. He slapped it away and swung towards my hand but my other stick caught it and his other stick jabbed. I shifted and turned as our dance continued while he stalked after me.

Finally I stepped back, “enough.”

Nobles around the ring laughed as he almost dropped his sticks while panting. I ignored them as I knelt, “remember what I said about strength and endurance. If you practice each day it gets easier and once you are strong enough you can exchange the sticks for knives or swords.”

He grinned and nodded, “what are you going to teach me today?”

I smiled as I looked at his instructor, “what is something common everywhere? People do not think of it as a weapon but it can be.”

He frowned as he thought and I put my sticks away, “what about a staff? You see brooms in the palace don’t you?”

He nodded and I smiled, “outside you have rakes and shovels and lots of tools with a long handle.”

I stood and caught the thrown staff his instructor tossed. I slowly went through the standard moves and then repeated it several times before looking at the prince, “I will watch you next week.”

He nodded eagerly as the nobles laughed again. I tossed the staff back to his instructor, “okay now show me your dagger work.”

He pulled the fancy dagger I had given him and shifted before moving and shifted smoothly. The nobles were not laughing now as the boy went through the drills he had been taught. I smiled when he stopped and bowed, “much better. Next week I want to see you working the sticks longer and doing a few of the moves with the staff.”

He nodded and I gestured to countess MacTav before looking at my brother, “now that I have a minute...”

He smiled, “and here I thought I would have to vouch for you.”

The queen walked through the nobles with Maria and grinned, “Sinclare, your wife said you are almost ready to build your house.”

My brother looked startled as I bowed, “we should start the foundation tomorrow before starting the framing.”

She grinned, “we wish to come watch.”

I bowed again, “it will be our pleasure.”

She smiled and turned to lead a few of the ladies away as Maria slipped under my arm, “I was thinking of asking Thomas to bring his cart out to sell his food and maybe have his wife and daughter set up an area for tea.”

I smiled as I turned her, “that sounds good, you should give them advanced notice and maybe help select the tea.”

I gestured to my brother, “Maria this is my brother James.”

He looked at me before shaking his head, “you married?”

He looked at Maria and bowed, “my lady.”

She grinned, “that does not work on me. Sinclare tried it the first time.”

He looked at me and grinned, “in that case. I am pleased to meet you.”

I gestured and started walking, “what were you doing in that shop this morning?”

James glanced at Maria before shrugging, “my wife wanted something special and my servant told me it could be found in that shop.”

I looked at him as we walked, “if it is the herbs to keep her from having a child, try the Blue Flower off the main marketplace. It has better quality herbs and is safer.”

He reddened, “we have two and she wanted a break.”

Maria grinned, “or you want to make sure a maid does not conceive.”

He looked at her quickly and then at me before shrugging, “my wife knows and picked her out.”

I shook my head, “I have a home to build.”

James nodded, “perhaps after we have given our oath we can speak more.”

Maria held my arm as we walked back through the city and kept looking at me, “you do not like him.”

I looked at her and sighed, “It is not that I do not like him. He is a lot like father in many ways.”

She squeezed my arm, “and you do not like your father.”

I smiled and then frowned as I saw two men shoving Thomas back and forth between them. I let Maria’s arm go as I strode across the square and pulled my sticks. I poked one in the gut when he turned and back handed the other in the face. I cracked the one bent over on the head and jabbed into the second as he yanked out a dagger.

The first dropped and the second went down trying to breath. I looked at Thomas and he smiled faintly, “strong arms trying to make me pay a noble tax for those here to give oaths to the prince.”

I moved around as I put the sticks away and tied both men before slapping the one awake. I pulled them up and shoved them across and into the guard building. Maria followed and stood just inside the door as I shoved the two men towards a guard, “strong arm robbery.”

I started for the table where the day commander was sipping tea when one of the men tried to struggle, “we are sworn men to baron Clair!”

I stopped and turned to look at him as the guard slapped him in the head. I looked at the commander before sitting and reaching for the parchment he pushed across, “the baron Clair is giving his oath to the prince if you want to inform him.”

He looked at my set face as I wrote out the report and pushed it across the table, “do me a favor? Find out how many men the baron brought and wait a day or two before taking them before the magister?”

He grinned and stood, “we can do that. I think the shift sergeants were looking for someone to clean the jake holes and scrub the isolation cells.”

I smiled as I stood, “thanks.”

I slipped my hand into Maria’s as we left and went back across to speak to Thomas about tomorrow. We walked through and out of the city as we returned to the ruins. The men were almost done with only a couple of small piles of stones left at the basement hole down to the tunnel.

I spoke with the crew boss as Maria went to speak to her sister who was staying with us and watching the animals. I was thinking about the man’s words as I moved hay and helped lock the chickens into the pen down in the tunnel. We walked home and Maria and her sister Sarah went to make dinner.

While they sat in the parlor after dinner I slipped out. The dark smoky tavern I walked into went quiet as I crossed to a table with two men, “I need a favor Gregor.”

One of the men sat back, “oh?”

I ignored the other man and tossed a gold coin, “baron Clair has men shaking people down. I want them.”

He grinned, “well I was just thinking of explaining the rules to them but this is a little better.”

He looked across the room, “Dodger!”

A tall slim man stood, “sir?”

Gregor grinned, “take the thief taker around to the street vendors and merchants the outsiders have been bothering.”

He nodded and grinned, “my pleasure.”

I walked out with him and he glanced at my grim face but kept quiet. He stopped at a corner after peeking around, “there are two of them now.”

I walked around the corner and started down the street. I saw two men with a third pressed against a shop door. I could hear their threats as I pulled my sticks and stopped behind them, “hands on head.”

They turned and one reached for his dagger. I jabbed into his gut as the other leaped towards me. I slid aside and brought the other stick down on his head before kicking out into the first man. I slammed them both against the shop wall and tied them before looking at the bruised merchant, “they will not bother you again.”

I pulled them back and started pushing them down the street. I glanced at Dodger in the shadows as we went by, “meet me across from the guard building.”

I took twelve men before stopping and that was only because the rest were gone or asleep somewhere. I was up early and enjoying a morning wash with my wife as she kept grinning and pushing me away. I straightened at the banging on my door and growled as I grabbed a robe. When I opened my door it was to see my brother.

He growled, “how dare you interfere in...”

I stepped closer and slugged him. I grabbed his shirt and yanked him close before hitting him several times. I turned him and stepped back before kicking him in the ass and sending him sprawling in the street, “I am a thief taker brother. Piss in my city and I will haul your ass in front of his majesty.”

I walked into the house and slammed the door. I went up and got dressed and then waited for Maria. We were leaving when my brother came back with four city guards, “arrest him for assaulting a noble.”

I grinned as the guards looked at each other, “it is not that simple James. While you are father’s son and heir, I am a baron and your senior.”

I smiled at the guards, “sorry to bother you gentlemen. His lordship was bothered because all his servants were arrested last night.”

I looked at James, “if I find out you sent them or they were breaking the king’s law on your orders I will come for you.”

I turned and let Maria slip her arm into mine. She looked at me, “you think he did?”

I sighed as I tried to let go of the anger, “yeah. Father was bad enough but James used to be a bully. Now it seems he is using his servants to steal.”

We took care of the cows and the chickens while Thomas and his wife set up not just his cart but a gauzy curtained tent. The workers arrived and I checked with the mason as they began laying the stones for the foundation. The workers brought the thick beams and joists they were going to use for the floor.

Less then an hour later the queen arrived and suddenly noble ladies were everywhere and then children and men. It was a busy day and I know the mason received at least a dozen requests for work. The gauzy tent was perfect for the ladies tea and always seemed full. When everyone left and the work stopped it almost seemed to quiet.

Maria sighed as we watched Thomas and his wife leave and I squeezed her hand, “enjoy yourself?”

She grinned, “it was very nice. The other ladies invited me to tea with countess Mactav.”

I smiled as we started walking, “your sister had young nobles following her everywhere.”

She giggled, “I know. She knows how far to let them go.”

Dinner was ready when we came in and Maria whispered with her sister as I went to wash. When I came out of the kitchen a sober faced guard was at the table. Maria sighed, “do not stay out all night.”

I smiled and thought of my brother, “lock the doors and do not open it unless it is me.”

She blinked and shared a look with her sister before nodding. I walked with the guard who waited until the front door closed behind me, “a noble woman was raped.”

I looked at him as something in my chest tightened, “when?”

We continued walking, “this afternoon. The duke wants you, he and the king are waiting.”

I stopped and glanced around before gesturing to a street boy. I held up a silver piece when he swaggered up, “you know who Gregor is?”

The boy looked at the guard quickly and I growled. He nodded and I flipped the coin to him, “take him a message. Tell him the thief taker is asking for a crew to watch and protect his house. Tell him I will pay in gold.”

He nodded and spun to run off. The guard growled, “Gregor is...”

I looked at him as I began to walk, “a good man who watches out for the poor and helps them when they need it.”

He looked at me as we walked, “and a thief.”

I smiled, “I have not caught him.”

He laughed as we walked into the guard building and duke Justice and the king turned. I looked at both as I crossed to them, “who?”

The king looked angry, “my niece.”

I blinked and looked at the duke and he shook his head, “countess Lariva was walking in the garden after leaving countess MacTav and the prince.”

I nodded and looked at the king, “I need to speak with her.”

He snorted and looked away, “she will not speak to anyone.”

I touched his shoulder, “I need to speak to her. Bring lady MacTav and your son.”

He looked at me and then nodded, “she is with my wife. The maid that found her did not tell anyone until she returned.”

I gestured towards the door, “come.”

His guards left the walls and went through the door and we began walking toward the king’s Keep. I waited with the duke when the king went to speak with the queen. It was several minutes before I was led through and into a set of rooms. Countess MacTav was there and white faced as she held the prince’s hand.

I looked at all the maids and turned to open the door, “out.”

They hesitated as the countess Lariva looked at me with a white face. I gestured again, “everyone leave.”

I waited until they were gone before closing the door. I walked to the lady and knelt, “I am a thief taker. The man that did this will pay and that is my promise.”

I turned, “lady MacTav? You know what happened to the men that I caught, tell lady Lariva.”

She shifted, “they were hung. The guards beat them half to death and they were hung.”

I gestured, “your highness?”

He walked to me and I looked at the countess Lariva, “his highness and I are going after this man but we need to know who it was.”

She looked at me and then at the small prince before smiling slightly, “it was baron Clair’s son.”

I stood and nodded, “thank you.”

I smiled, “ready your highness?”

He nodded and walked with me to the door. After I closed it in the hall I looked at his guards, “where is Baron Clair?”

They straightened and one turned, “he is in the great hall.”

I started walking as the prince fell in beside me. I glanced at him when he skipped and slowed, “sorry your highness.”

He looked a little frightened and I smile, “just watch my back and witness everything, that is the most important thing.”

He nodded and took a deep breath, “why did someone hurt lady Lariva?”

I slowed more and glanced at his guards before stopping and knelt so we would be even, “what the man did was an attack of violence and dominance. The man was a bully and bullies are cowards which is why they target women.”

He looked back, “can I hit him when you catch him?”

I glanced at his guards when they chuckled, “you can borrow one of my sticks.”

I stood and turned to start walking, “first we confront the baron and find his son.”

I looked at the prince as we walked into the huge room filled with nobles. I knew where baron Clair would be and headed towards a corner where a lot of ladies were. Everyone moved out of our way and the grey haired man I was looking for turned. He straightened before his eyes lifted from the prince to me.

He froze and I stopped in front of him, “where is James father?”

He sneered, “why..”

I slapped him and followed as he stepped back, “because he raped a lady and I hunt him and will hang his body from the Keep gates.”

My father reached across his body for his dagger and I pulled a stick and brought it around to strike his hand, “James father. The king has demanded it.”

He backed into a wall, “Sinclare, he is your brother.”

I put the tip of my stick against his chest, “and you gave an oath to the king. Where is James?”

He looked around at the now silent hall before looking at me, “I do not know.”

I was watching his eyes and nodded before turning to the prince, “you witnessed your highness?”

He nodded and I looked at my father, “if I find out you lie you will hang with James.”

He licked his lips and shook his head, “he was going to leave and head back home.”

I looked at him before snorting and turning to walk away, “we need to go to the stables your highness.”

I looked at the white faced prince, “sometimes ruling and obeying the law is not easy. If you always try to do what is right no matter what, you feel a lot better about it. This time you need to remember the lady Lariva and what was done to her.”

He nodded and straightened, “I think I understand.”

I smiled, “like the men that took you only much worse.”

He nodded again and we walked the rest of the way in silence. The grooms hurried to us and I gestured, “has lord Clair left?”

They shook their heads and one cleared his throat, “he asked for his carriage to be ready.”

I nodded, “where is it?”

They led us out to a side yard and I walked around it and lean against the wall beside the Keep door. The prince joined me and his guards smiled as they watched. I heard the servants before they came out and then James came out trying to get a woman to move faster. I moved away from the wall and towards my brother, “you are wanted James.”

He spun, “she invited me and asked for it.”

I stepped close and slapped him, “you are a lair and a coward. You raped her and now you will pay.”

He lunged suddenly as his dagger came out and I twisted and shoved the hand with the dagger away. I stepped back and pulled my sticks, “that is going to cost you.”

I began circling as he shifted to follow and then he was staggering and falling to his knees before collapsing. I looked at the prince holding the broken rake handle and then at the guards as they laughed. I grinned and knelt to tie my brother’s hands behind his back, “nice work your highness.”

I slapped him awake before yanking him up and looking at the young woman, “you might want to see the baron or return to your quarters.”

I shoved James and nodded to the prince, “I believe we need to bring him before your father.”

He nodded and set the broken rake aside, “may I borrow a night stick?”

I pulled one and reversed it before holding it out. He took it and looked at my brother before striking suddenly. James grunted as the stick jabbed into his gut and folded before jerking as the stick slammed into his side, “we are not pleased with you lord Clair.”

The prince glared at him before solemnly handing the stick back to me. I accepted it and yanked my brother up before pushing him ahead of us. A servant appeared, “the king said to bring him to the throne room.”

I nodded and followed the servant as I kept pushing my reluctant brother who had begun to plead and beg. I stopped just inside the door and looked at the prince, “take him to your father for judgement.”

He nodded and glanced at one of his guards who moved up and shoved James to get him moving again.

Chapter fifteen

Thief taker school

I glanced back from the half built manor and the weekly ladies party to see the king. He was sitting on the low wall and holding court while his wife drank tea in the much larger set of gauze tents. I shook my head, the king had not hung my brother but he had stripped him of rank and privilege as well as whipped and castrated him.

He had been put into chains and taken away on a ship to be sold in a foreign port. My father had receive a warning and left the court running in fear of being castrated. I glanced at duke Justice and the king as they walked up and bowed, “tired of waiting for the ladies?”

The king grinned, “actually no. We came to ask you to accept a position.”

I waited and the duke cleared his throat, “the guard needs to do more. We would ask that you start a thief taker school to teach them.”

I looked at the king, “the commanders...”

He shook his head, “will do as I say. The guards need to learn.”

I looked at Maria as she smiled and moved around and spoke with the other noble ladies. I sighed and nodded, “no more than six at a time, to many and someone does not learn.”

The duke nodded, “we will start with one commander, two captains and three lieutenants.”

I blinked and the king grinned, “if they learn first they can not complain.”

I smiled, “you do not know men if you think they will not complain.”

He laughed, “well they will complain less.”

I nodded and straightened, “have them meet me at nightfall in the guard building. Tell them to wear dark clothing and bring two night sticks each.”

The rest of the day went quickly and I kissed Maria after dinner. I was right they were not happy but I shrugged, “my orders come from the king and duke. I was not thrilled with the idea.”

I gestured for them to follow and led them out. I started talking and explaining as we walked and I met a few of my... contacts. It was two hours before one gave me anything. I listened and watched the interest spark in the other mens eyes. I slipped a couple of silvers to the man before we left.

I glanced at the men, “always pay for any information. If it is bad you can always collect a few lumps later.”

They chuckled and I moved to the side of the street we were on, “when we get to the merchant’s house stay in the shadows and watch for a minute. House breakers always have a lookout and we want him.”

It was awhile before we saw something in the shadows across from the house. I moved back and started around with them following. We came out of the darker ally shadows and I pulled a stick. When I reached the slim man looking at the house I reached out to touch him with the stick, “make a sound and you will not like what happens.”

He hissed, “I am not doing...”

I poked him, “you are a look out and I am a thief taker.”

He swallowed, “I have information.”

I tilted my head as the others gathered around, “about?”

The man swallowed, “the three girls that were killed by the docks.”

The commander hissed but I ignored him, “and how do I know it will be good information?”

He looked around, “do you know the Black Sea Serpent?”

I nodded, “yes.”

“The new owner is running paid women and the three refused to work for him.”

I touched his shoulder with a stick, “proof.”

He stammered, “he cut off their hair and has it in a case behind the bar.”

I nodded, “if I catch you again...”

He shook his head and I gestured, “fade but do not even dream of going to the Black Sea Serpent.”

He backed away before spinning and running. I glanced at the men, “so as soon as we take these we go see if the whore monger killed the girls.”

They nodded and seemed more into what we were doing. It was not as simple as I hoped, when the three men came out one had blood on his hands and front. The commander slapped one that tried to run in the side of the head as the others jabbed into the mens guts. I tied their hands and then pushed the three back into the house.

The others growled when they saw the dead man but I was looking for the women that were missing. An hour later we were finally able to leave the guard building and headed to the docks and the Black Sea Serpent. It was almost empty when we walked in and the large man by the bar straightened.

He looked us over as I started for him, “we are closed.”

I smiled, “show me the hair you cut off the dead girls.”

He yanked his dagger out and I pulled a stick, “wrong move.”

The others growled as they spread out and pulled their sticks. The man licked his lips as he looked for a way out. I slapped a stick down to knock the dagger away and out of his hand. He leaped straight at me and I went back with him and turned it into a roll before slugging him in the face. I shifted and moved as I yanked him onto his stomach.

The others were there and we tied his hands before pulling him to his feet. I walked around the bar to a single case and lifted the lid to see the bloody hair from the three women. I closed the lid and lifted the case, “take him back to the guard building.”

As I wrote the report I was telling them what was needed in the report, Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. I told them to be back after dark the next night and went home for a few hours of sleep. For two weeks I worked and helped build my house and at night taught the six men what they needed to know about being a thief taker.

During the two weeks we caught eight killers, twenty thieves and four smugglers. By the end of the two weeks each had to work a night with us following and watching as their test. The next night I walked into the guard building with another commander, a captain and four sergeants waiting. We also had a case already, a lady’s maid had gone missing.

I looked at the men as I walked towards the noble sector, “keep your mouths closed and listen. Watch the husband and the servants.”

They nodded and when we reached the estate I spoke with a guard who let us in quickly. The baroness was one I knew and her husband was in the room. I asked her questions about when she had seen her maid last and where. While we talked I watched her husband and then we went to talk to the servants.

I knew before we finished that the maid was probably dead. I gestured to the other men and the chamberlain, “take him and charge him with the murder.”

He gasped and looked around at the other servants in the large dining room, “I did nothing!”

I sighed as the commander and one of the sergeants moved towards him, “you are lying and the maid is probably died.”

He backed up, “wait!”

The other servants had moved away and he looked around frantically, “the baron did it!”

I growled as I stepped closer, “where is she?”

He licked his lips, “the storage room in the basement.”

I gestured, “secure him and bring him with us.”

I looked at the servants, “if one of you so much as hint what has been said I will put you on the gallows next to the baron.”

They shook their heads as I turned and walked into the kitchen and then down into the basement. As soon as I opened the storage room I saw the wrapped body. The others growled as I crossed and opened it. The girl was warm and I felt her pulse in her throat. I turned, “we need a doctor.”

They blinked as I lifted her in my arms and carried her out and back upstairs. I laid her on a couch in the parlor as the captain went to send a runner. I walked out of the room and upstairs to the lady’s solar where I heard them arguing. I opened the door and walked in and the baron turned and snarled, “how dare you!”

I crossed the room and pulled a stick, “you are under arrest for the rape and assault of your wife’s maid.”

He paled as he reached for a dagger and I slapped the stick along side his head. He staggered as I followed and jabbed into his gut while his wife screamed. When he folded I slugged him with my fist around the stick. I knelt as he dropped and yanked him onto his stomach, “if the magister lets you go I will challenge you and gut you.”

I pulled him up as the commander and the others stared from the door. I looked at the lady, “your maid is downstairs in the parlor and needs someone. If you are not willing to help I will accept her into my home.”

She looked away and kept silent as I pushed her husband out. He was stripped of his patient, castrated and sentenced to ten years. I had a runner go for my wife and she had a carriage brought to bring the girl to our home. By the end of the two weeks the six men were very good thief catchers.

Chapter sixteen

Missing children

I grinned as Ann walked into the room and Maria turned from the crib, “Ann how do you keep her from crying?”

She grinned as she stopped beside my wife and bent to rub my daughter’s back, “I have no idea my lady.”

Marie made a raspberry, “none of that.”

Ann laughed as my daughter stopped crying and I headed for the door, “I will leave this crisis in your hands.”

Maria laughed as I walked out and headed towards the city. Ann had been a godsend and my wife cherished her so when she asks me to look into something I had to agree. I stopped in the guard square and smiled at the half dozen guards standing around the prince. I started across, “sorry I am late.”

He turned and grinned, “the commander talked to someone and your maid was correct, children are going missing.”

He was growing taller and filling out. He was also carrying himself with more assurance. I clapped his shoulder, “and did you speak to earl Edmond?”

He grinned, “he and lady MacTav are betrothed.”

I nodded, “and countess Lariva?”

He laughed, “she was most eager to except Baron Mcpherson’s courting.”

I sighed and looked around, “that is good. I dislike seeing a woman hurt.”

He nodded and then touched my shoulder, “I have a young merchant who has seen your maid and wishes to pay her a visit.”

I looked at him, “she is still skittish but if he agrees to my wife or myself chaperoning them...”

He nodded and I turned, “now for the missing children.”

I left him and started for a tavern that was in the poor section of the city and in an alley. It was mid day so few men were here. The man I was looking for could always be found here during the day. I ignored the two toughs at the door and crossed to the table he was sitting at, “I need information David.”

He snorted as he sat back, “what makes you think I would tell you anything?”

I pulled my sticks and spun to lash out and strike one of the two men slipping up on me. He went down as the other paused and I jabbed a stick into his gut and then slamming the other stick along side his head. I turned as he fell but the man had not moved. I smiled and leaned on the table, “because if you do not I will take you as a child rapist.”

He licked his lips, “I have...”

I tapped a stick on the table, “the maid you are sneaking around with is young. Now you will tell me what I want to know and you will go to her father and offer her marriage.”

He nodded quickly and I smiled, “children are going missing.”

He blinked, “I do not...”

I tapped the stick again and he flinched, “okay, maybe I know something.”

I nodded and he looked around, “try the docks. There is a rumor someone is selling kids in Dynesty so they would have to be smuggled out.”

I put my sticks away and dropped a gold coin on the table, “go speak to the girl’s father and then go to Saloman in the merchant pens, he needs a clerk.”

I glanced at the two men on the floor before leaving and heading to the docks. I looked around before finding the old sailor in a grog shop. Of course he was drinking tea with an older woman who smiled at me. I sat and gestured to the serving girl before looking at him, “know anything about smuggling?”

He hesitated, “now thief taker...”

I held up my hand and handed the serving girl a silver, “for their tea.”

I looked at him, “there are children missing and a rumor of someone selling them in Dynesty.”

He blinked, “children...”

He looked at the frowning woman before looking at me, “go down almost to the wall and there is a large barge on a floating dock.”

I nodded and stood before heading towards the door. I looked back and saw him signaling to another man. The way down the dock was crowded and winding but I finally saw the barge and knew with one look it was what I was looking for. I started towards the floating dock and four large men stepped out to block the way.

One smiled with broken teeth, “private dock sport, beat it.”

I pulled my sticks, “not anymore sport.”

They pulled daggers as I continued to walk and jabbed towards one and slammed a stick into the head of another when he began to lunge. He fell and I moved back and to the right so the others would have to step on or over him, “when I find the children you will hang. The king is getting very tired of those who choose to harm them.”

They hesitated as I slid in to jab into the gut of one and strike him in the head when he folded. I slid back as they tried to attack and lashed out to the side and hit one on the wrist. His dagger spun away but he lunged to grab me. I turned as the other struck and the first gasped as the other man’s dagger stabbed into his back.

I shoved him back and followed as the last man turned to run. A crowd of dockworkers was suddenly there blocking his way. He turned back to me as I kept walking and threw down his dagger, “mercy!”

I glanced at the old man with the other dockworkers, “he and the others need to be alive.”

I turned and began walking down the dock as the man started yelling and pleading. I walked up the gang plank as two large deck hands walked onto the deck. They pulled thick wooden pins, “you picked the wrong barge.”

I smiled as I walked straight towards them, “actually you picked the wrong barge. The men on this one are heading to the gallows or the goal.”

He grinned as he started moving one way while the other man moved another. At the last moment they both lunged and swung wooden pins. I lashed out with my left stick and struck the man along side his head. My other brushed the second pin away as I spun and then struck with the left stick. The man tried to move out of reach but I was not aiming for his head.

The stick cracked down on his wrist and he screamed as we heard it break. The night stick in my right hand snapped out and into his head and he went down. I ignored the dockworkers following me onto the barge as I headed for the cabin. The fancy clothes on the man in the cabin told me I had found at least one of the merchants, “where are the children?”

He licked his lips as he pulled a sword, “I do not know what you are talking about.”

I started across the room, “let me see you repeat that on the gallows.”

He lunged and I brushed the blade aside with a stick before bringing the other down on his hand. The sword clattered to the deck as he screamed and tried to back away. I stalked after him and jabbed towards his gut. He twisted and I stepped in and brought the other night stick around.

It cracked his collar bone and he screamed as I swung the other stick and hit him in the ribs. There was another crack as it broke a rib and then I hit him in the face. I grabbed his throat and slammed him into the wall, “where are the children!”

He choked and gasped, “the hold.”

I spun him and slammed his face into the wall before tying his hands. Picked up my sticks and pulled him after me and out onto the packed deck, “open the hold.”

Several dockworkers turned and yanked the hatch up before tossing it back. I looked in to see children huddled together in small cages and almost killed the bastard I had taken. I growled, “we need rope and a net to get them out.”

A dozen men hung and dropped into the hold as others moved the barge crane. They lowered the nets as the men in the hold freed the children. Once all of the children were out of the hold I started for the gang plank, “bring them all.”

The crowd that followed us grew larger and angrier until I reached the guard square. Word had spread quickly and the prince was waiting with all the city magisters behind him. I shoved the merchant and the crowd of dockworkers shoved other men forward, “these men were caught kidnaping children. They were holding them in cages in a barge’s hold.”

The crowd shouted and started to surge forward but the prince held up his hand and yelled to be heard, “PEOPLE!”

The crowd quieted and he looked at the merchant, “what say you?”

The merchant began pleading and begging and the prince turned. The seven magisters murmured and one looked at the prince, “one hundred lashes...”

The crowd roared in anger and I turned, “QUIET!”

I turned back and the prince smiled, “only lashes?”

The magister shook his head, “no. One hundred lashes and then they are to be hung on the gallows.”

The prince turned and nodded to the guards around the edges of the crowd, “strip them and prepare whipping posts. Commander I need your biggest men or any volunteer to carry out the sentence.”

I cleared my throat, “your highness?”

He looked at me and I gestured to the children, “perhaps each child could give each man a stroke?”

He smiled, “of course.”

Chapter seventeen

Seven wicked maids

I smiled as I walked behind Ann and the young merchant courting her. He was always polite and attentive and listened when she spoke. This time we were walking through a large common market. I slowed when I saw a maid slip something into a drink while the man was looking away. She slipped back into the ale stall as if she had never been there.

I reached out and caught the Ann’s shoulder, “wait.”

I spun and started for the tables as the man turned back and drank from the ale. I had several people get between us so I was not able to reach him in time. When I reached the table he was coughing and shuddering before trying to stand. He fell as everyone turned to look and I moved around the table.

He was convulsing as I started for the shop, “no one touch the ale.”

I walked in as the woman was leaving through the back, “STOP!”

The stall owner spun as the woman turned and her face went white. I strode to her and shoved the stall owner out of my way, “I think the magister will need to speak to you about murder.”

I spun her as she cried and squirmed but I had seen enough women crying to know her tears were not real. I tied her hands and looked at the stall owner, “If you helped...”

He shook his head quickly, “she said she wanted to surprise her brother.”

I pulled her out and saw a guard crossing and pushing people out of the way. I waited until he reached us and looked at the body, “this woman put something in his ale.”

He looked at her and nodded, “take her in.”

I reached for the tankard, “sorry Ann.”

She nodded as she hugged the merchant’s arm. Before we reached the guard building the woman was promising me anything and everything to let her go. I turned her over to a guard and wrote out a report and stood as I looked at the commander, “the tankard has the poison in it.”

He nodded, “we have a cleric that can tell us what she used.”

I turned to head for the door, “how about a nice meal at the Yellow Pheasant on me?”

Ann grinned as the merchant looked at her and nodded. Lunch was fresh baked bread, slices of hot roast mutton and cold cheese with mugs of spiced cider. We had finished and the merchant and Ann were deciding where they wanted to go. I glanced across the room as voices were raised. One of the servers was arguing with two men.

I glanced at the tavern keeper as he came out and headed across the room. He was too late, the maid pulled a wicked looking kitchen knife and lunged into one of the men as she began stabbing him. I sighed as I stood and started across the room. The tavern keeper had pulled the maid back and taken the knife.

The man she had been stabbing was on the floor and his friend had backed away. I knelt and checked him before standing, “dead.”

The maid spit on him, “good.”

I turned her and yanked her hands back before I tied them, “why did you kill him?”

She was struggling, “the pig was with another woman.”

I sighed as I took the knife from the tavern keeper, “tell it to a magister.”

I paid the tavern keeper for our meal before I pulled the maid out. I glanced back as Ann and her merchant followed, “perhaps we should find Marie at the tea shop.”

She grinned, “okay.”

When I pulled the maid into the guard building the commander turned from speaking with a magister, “another one?”

I nodded, “she stabbed a man in front of the whole tavern.”

He shook his head, “I hate spring.”

I pushed her towards a guard and sat to write out the report. When I was done I led Ann and the merchant out. They had stayed together and whispered the whole time and I smiled as I led them through the streets and to the tea shop. Marie was with two other ladies as they talked. I stopped to kiss her cheek and she grinned at me, “tired already?”

I grinned as I looked around outside and stopped when I saw the maid. I growled as I started walking and caught up to her in the middle of the marketplace. I grabbed her wrist and twisted after she finished cutting a man’s purse. She spun and began yelling and screaming and I twisted her wrist again and turned her.

People were moving away as I held her arm behind her back, “put the other arm back.”

She cursed and kept yelling and a man stepped out of the crowd, “let the woman go.”

I ignored him as I caught her other arm and pulled it behind her. The man reached for me and grabbed an arm as I was trying to tie the maid’s wrists. I leaned the other way and snapped a kick out and across into the man’s far leg.

He went down and I finished what I was doing and looked at him, “first I am a thief taker. Second the woman is a cutpurse and has stolen at least four purses.”

I looked at the crowd around me and sighed as I bent and picked up her large bag. I turned it over and dumped out a dozen purses and looked around as they shifted and mumbled. I bent to scoop everything back into the bag before taking the woman’s arm and pulling her in front of me.

I pushed her and kept her moving as she began to beg and plead and then entice. By the time I pushed her into the guard building she was threatening me. The guards looked and I pushed her towards one as I moved to the table, “she is a cutpurse.”

I dumped her large bag on the table before pulling a sheet of parchment closer. After I was done I headed back to the tea shop, I did not reach it. Halfway there a shopkeeper’s wife began arguing with a customer. I would have kept going but she pulled a dagger and backed the man against the wall as she took his purse.

She stabbed him in the arm when he tried to stop her and I sighed. I walked up behind her as I pulled a stick and she spun and slashed out. I snap the stick down on her wrist and she screamed as the bone broke. Her husband rushed out holding a large club as I caught the maid and spun her around, “interfere and you will go to the goal with her.”

He looked at me and then at his wife and licked his lips. I tied her wrists as she cursed me and got the man’s name after tossing his purse to him. I yanked her after me and ignored her ranting and screeching. When I shoved her into the guard building the guards hesitated in taking her as she began cursing them.

I shoved her towards one as I headed to the table and the frowning commander. After I finished writing I left and returned to the tea shop. Maria was still there and Ann and her merchant were holding hands while whispering together. I decided to do some shopping and crossed the square.

I was looking at cloth to give to Maria when a couple began arguing beside me. The man was refusing to pay for a whole bolt of expensive silk the woman wanted. When they began calling each other names I was looking around for a guard. The man turned to walk away and the women screeched as she grabbed him.

She yanked out his dagger as he tried to pull away and began stabbing him in the back. She kept it up as he staggered before falling and she followed him to the ground and continued to plunge the dagger into him. I sighed and pulled a stick and slashed out and into her hand as she lifted it.

She screamed as the dagger was knocked away and I grabbed her by the hair, “enough!”

I yanked her up and pushed her against a counter before I tied her hands behind her back. I glanced at the body before bending to take the pouch. I weighted it in my hand and shook my head as I started pushing the woman who started yelling and screaming for help. The people around us moved back and no one came to help her before I reached the street.

A city guard walked up and I paused and gestured towards the dead man inside the shop, “she killed a man. You might need to send for a cart.”

He smiled and nodded as he continued to walk and I started pushing the woman again. She had stopped screaming for help before I reached the guard building but as soon as I pushed her in she began all over again. I pushed her towards a guard, “murder.”

She began yelling that he deserved it and the guard yanked her towards the door into the cells. I sighed when I sat and reached for the parchment the commander slid across the table. He grinned, “somehow I do not think you have been looking for all the business.”

I snorted as I started writing, “it is like the maids have lost their minds today.”

When I finished I decided to go home, I had plenty to do and there would not be any crazy maids. I did not even make it out of the guard square. Two maids were arguing loudly with a merchant. As I started to walk faster one grabbed the broom from the merchant and started hitting him with the handle.

I sighed and turned to walk towards them and caught the broom when the maid pulled it back to strike him again. The other woman moved as if to come to her aid and hit me and I growled, “do it and I take you to the goal with her.”

I grabbed the woman’s wrist and tossed the broom away as I began pulling her across to the guard building. When I shoved her in the commander turned from speaking to a black robed magister, “another?”

I pushed her towards a guard, “she was across the square assaulting a merchant.”

He shook his head as I crossed to the table and sat. I pulled a parchment to me and started writing. When I was done I sanded it and pushed it across the table. I stood and headed towards the door, “I am going home before I run into more crazy maids.”

The guards and commander laughed as I opened the door and walked out. I almost made it to the open gate before the two half naked maids came out a door. They were fighting and scratching with a man following along behind them. He kept trying to pull them apart and I was going to keep going.

Once more fate poked its head in as the man pulled one maid back and the other screeched. I do not know where the long hair pin came from but she attacked the man and started stabbing him. I took a couple of steps and caught her arm as she pulled it back to stab the man once more.

I squeezed and twisted as she screamed and yelled and hair pin dropped. The man took a step towards me and I growled, “do it and I will break your legs.”

He stopped and the other maid was suddenly clutching one of his arms while trying to turn him to see the wounds. I tied the maid’s wrists behind her back as she continued to struggle and curse both the man and the other maid. I glanced at the guard walking towards us from the gate.

I grinned as I pushed the maid to him, “Assault with injury, she stabbed the man with a hair pin.”

The guard looked at me and then at the man and finally down at the hair pin I pointed to. I started for the gate and home, “have a nice day.”

Chapter eighteen

Adopting an urchin

I moved out of the shadows and the slim man jerked and stared with wide eyes, “I...”

I shook my head, “you are late and coming from a drug den.”

He swallowed, “I have information.”

I tilted my head, “and what information would that be?”

He looked around, “the new Dark Man is collecting homeless to sell.”

I straightened, “this had better be true.”

He nodded, “I heard it from the dark quarter.”

I pulled a couple of silver coins and tossed it before turning to walk away. He had sent word he had information for me which is the only reason I was out here in the middle of the night. Maria would understand once I told her what it was about. The dark man was the one to run all the illegal business in the dark quarter.

The last had known to keep his business secret but had died in a dark alley like the one before him. I walked deeper into the dark quarter and then into what was known as squatters alley. Several men stood as soon as they saw me and I looked past them at two dozen women and children, “I am the thief taker. Do you know where the others were taken?”

The men remained silent but a boy that looked about eight stood, “I know.”

He was dressed in rags and was filthy but his eyes were bright. I smiled, “will you show me for a couple of silvers?”

He grinned, “and a meal?”

I grinned, “sure and maybe a bath.”

He scowled but the men chuckled and one pushed him towards me, “he is a good lad but an orphan.”

I turned and gestured, “show me.”

The boy almost strutted as he walked beside me. He glanced at me several times before speaking, “why don’t you carry a sword?”

I smiled as I walked and looked around, “using an edged weapon can mean prison. Besides, if I use my night sticks I do not kill and get answers to questions I might need.”

He grinned, “and you get to hit people.”

I glanced at him, “only those that deserve it.”

He kept grinning and I shrugged, “yeah I get to hit people.”

He slowed when we reached the edge of the city filled with warehouses. He slipped into the shadows and moved slowly down a long dark alley. He looked at me and I could see how frightened he was. He peeked around a corner and whispered, “see the second warehouse with the dark lantern beside the small door?”

I looked around the corner with my hand on his shoulder before pulling him back. I slipped two silver coins into his hand, “wait here.”

I moved across the street and down an alley before turning to move towards the back of the other warehouse. I glanced up at a dark drain pipe and quickly climbed up. I moved to the sky lights and looked down to see lots of cages with people inside them. Six men were playing cards by the back office and I moved back to climb down.

The boy yelled and I spun as three men rushed out of the night towards me. I pulled a my night sticks and lashed out as I moved to one side. It caught one man’s wrist and he stumbled into the other two. I hit him in the head with the other stick and jabbed the first past him in the stomach. While he fell I brought one stick down on the reaching arm of the last man.

They were yelling as I struck one in the head and hit the other in the forehead. I looked around before I knelt and began to tie them. I was just finishing when the men that had been inside came around the corner. I moved out as they started towards me and pulled my sticks again.

I jabbed one in the gut and lashed out and to the side to hit the hand of another who held a dagger. It spun away as I brought the other stick down on the man’s head that I had hit in the gut. I stepped and turned and shifted while sliding a lunged dagger away and towards one of the others. I snapped a stick across and into his forehead before moving again and blocking.

I fainted another jab and turned to slash out and into the face of one leaping towards me. I caught him and spun to shove him towards the others as they rushed me. They became entangled and all but one went down. I brushed his stabbing dagger aside and hit him in the side of the head. As he was going down I went after the two struggling to rise.

The first I hit on the top of the head and the other in the back of his head. A few were moaning and moving as I put my sticks away and began tying them. I did not see the man sneaking up out of the shadows until he was almost on me. The boy was suddenly there and leaping on him and I spun and kicked out and into his groin.

I pulled a stick as he threw the boy and tried to move back while shaking the pain of my kick off. He yanked another dagger out and snarled as I continued to stalk after him. Suddenly his foot was kicked out from under him and he staggered and twisted while looking down at the boy. I leaped and brought the stick around just as he turned back towards me.

The stick struck across and into his forehead and he went back and down. I followed and yanked him onto his stomach and tied his hands before going to check the boy. He grinned as he stood and I shook my head and went to finish tying the others. I slapped them awake and pulled them to their feet.

They threatened and then tried to bargain by telling me who they worked for and then began pleading. I pushed and pulled them into the warehouse and crossed to the cages. I searched the men but did not find the keys until the boy ran out of one of the offices. The people were silent as they stood and I unlocked and opened the cages.

I had them follow as I began pushing and shoving my prisoners. When I reached the guard building the boy ran ahead to hold the door open as I shoved the men inside. I nodded to the commander as he stood and looked at everyone, “kidnaping and assault with a weapon.”

He looked at the people that had followed and I glanced back, “they were the victims. I think a week or two in his majesty’s shelter will help them recover.”

He smiled and nodded as two guards began shoving the men towards the cell door. I sat and looked at the boy before gesturing to the bench. He sat beside me and whispered, “what are you doing?”

I smiled as I pulled a parchment close and began to write, “the law requires me to write down what I did and why I arrested the men.”

He snorted, “I do not like that part.”

I grinned as I kept writing, “if I want the men to be punished I write a report and the magister will use it to sentence them.”

He mumbled so that I barely heard, “I do not know how to write.”

I glanced at him before finishing and sanding it. I pushed it across to the commander who had already sent the people that had been kidnaped to the king’s shelter. I stood and looked at the boy before deciding to keep him with me. I walked out and headed into the slums and a tavern called the Black Owl.

I touched the boy’s shoulder as I headed for the door, “when I go in you move to the side and into a corner.”

He looked up at me and nodded and I opened the door and stepped in. The room went quiet as I looked around before heading for the table at one end. A back door was behind it and two rough looking men sat at it. Another stood and moved to block my way and I pulled a stick and lashed out. The stick connected with the side of his head and he fell.

All the benches scraped as men stood and I growled, “you know who I am. I am only here for the Dark Man. Anyone else wants to get involved it means a life sentence in the mines.”

They looked at each other as I started around the table and the two men pulled daggers. They moved apart and one sneered, “you bit off more than you can chew thief taker.”

I ignored his words and shifted and stepped back as I brought a stick down on the other man’s wrist when he lunged. The dagger spun away as he yelled and yanked his hand back to cradle it against his body. I pulled my other stick as I side stepped and brushed the dark man’s dagger away.

I swung out and to the side as the other man tried to back away and the stick connected with his forehead. He dropped as I suddenly changed direction and slashed down. The stick hit the dark man’s dagger and it flew to the side and into the wall. He cursed as he pulled another but I jabbed with one stick and he tried to block it.

I brought the other around and down on his forearm and he screamed as the bone broke. The dagger fell as I jabbed into his stomach and then brought the other stick around. His scream cut off when the stick hit the side of his head. I lashed out and down as I stepped in and one stick came down on top of his head and the other hit his other hand as he reached for me.

The bones in the hand broke and he staggered back while I followed. I shifted and struck out and down while jabbing again. The second went into his stomach and he started to fold. The first hit the side of his knee cap and he began screaming once more as he went all the way to the floor.

I knelt and yanked him onto his stomach and began tying his hands behind his back, “you fight like a girl. All mouth and no bite.”

The room suddenly laughed and I moved to the other man and turned him onto his stomach and tied him. I yanked them both up and started shoving them towards the door, “have a good night people.”

The boy held the door and followed me out and walked beside me. I glanced at him, “so food first?”

He grinned and nodded and I smiled, “I know where we can get the warm bath and a comfortable bed.”

He grumbled but did not say anything. He held the door to the guard building when we got there and followed me in. I shoved the two men towards the guard walking towards us, “the one limping is the Dark Man and the one responsible for kidnaping the people. You can add assault with an edge weapon to the charge. The other one is just assault with an edge weapon.”

The commander nodded as I crossed to the table. I wrote the report and slid it across and let the commander read it. He nodded, “the duke will want to thank you.”

I stood, “tell him to find shelter for a few of those that are in squatters alley and we can call it even.”

He grinned as I headed for the door. I glanced at the boy as we walked, “what is your name?”

He glanced at me, “Ashton.”

I nodded and we turned in at a tavern. I glanced around the almost empty room before moving to the kitchen door. I opened it and a man turned from the stove and two girls sat up from a pallet, “anything left in the pot March?”

He grinned, “aye. Stew and a loaf of bread.”

I nodded, “cheese?”

He smiled, “I will find some.”

He gestured, “find a seat and I will bring a bowl.”

I shook my head, “make it two.”

He nodded and I closed the door and turned to cross to a table. Ashton followed and sat across from me. He fidgeted a little until March came out. He glanced at the lad but did not say anything as I slipped him a silver. Ashton started to wolf the stew but I cleared my throat, “slow down and taste it before you swallow.”

He hesitated before doing as I told him. I ate but watched him as he finished the stew and then the bread and cheese before seeming to put his head on the table to fall asleep. I finished and stood to move around and lifted the boy. I knew Maria would not say anything once she saw him. He was very thin and did not wake as I carried him home.

When I got home I was not surprised to see Maria still up. She looked from me to the boy and I smiled, “an orphan that helped me.”

Her eyes went to his face before she smiled, “put him in one of the rooms off the nursery. He can take a bath in the morning.”

Chapter nineteen

Catching a torch

I grinned as I watched Ashton chasing the calves and Maria giggled. The boy had filled out a lot since I had brought him home. He loved to care for the animals and Sarah acted like he was her little brother whenever she was around. Ann seemed to have a soft spot for him as well. As much as he had disliked it at first it was hard to get him out of his daily bath.

I turned and glanced at the city and frowned at the pillar of dark smoke, “it looks like another fire.”

Maria shifted and hugged my arm, “they say someone is doing it on purpose.”

I nodded, “it started with empty buildings but the last couple had people in them.”

She bumped me, “go find whoever is doing it.”

I looked at her and she smiled, “you are bored and I do not want someone burning my house.”

I smiled and gave her a kiss before I started walking towards the city. I headed through the city and followed the column of smoke until I reached the crowd of people passing buckets to keep the fire from spreading to the houses on each side. I looked around at the crowd of people watching the fire burn and my eyes stopped on one man.

His eyes were bright and he kept licking his lips as he stared. They finally managed to put the fire out and the man turned and slipped into the crowd. I followed him and moved back as he reached streets with fewer people. I glanced at a street beggar when the man went into a building that sold rooms. I held up my hand and showed a couple of silvers.

The beggar looked from my hand to my face before moving towards me, “my lord?”

I held out the coins and dropped them into his hand, “you saw the man that just went into the building across the street?”

He nodded and I gestured to the coins in his hand, “I will double it if you watch and follow him. You can send a runner to me at the guard building and I will pay him a silver. My name is Sinclare and I am a thief taker.”

He looked at the building, “the man?”

I shrugged, “maybe the man I want.”

He grinned, “I will watch.”

I nodded and turned to head to the guard building. When I walked in the commander, a magister and the duke were together arguing. I cleared my throat and they looked at me and the commander grinned, “just the one we need. None of the street people or our informants know anything about the one starting these fires.”

I nodded as I crossed the room, “that does not surprise me. Someone doing this is not going to tell people or let anyone see him do it. He will keep it secret and only start a fire when he knows he can get away with it.”

I glanced at the three men looking at each other and shrugged, “the ones that do not do it for money have to watch the fire burn, that is how they get caught. The flames draw them like a moth to a lantern and sometime there are both kinds.”

I glanced at a couple of guards coming in, “I followed a man from the last fire. I have a beggar watching the building. I will stay with him or have him watched until there is another fire. If he does not set it I will have to keep looking.”

The duke nodded and looked at the commander, “find the street people and pay them to watch him.”

I shook my head, “I will watch him. If he is the one we will know within a day.”

They frowned but nodded since there had been a fire almost everyday. I slipped out and glanced at the ragged beggar that began to follow. I returned to the building and the man I had paid to watch. He grinned, “he has not come out.”

I nodded and handed him another two silver coins, “thank you for watching.”

He took them and headed down the street as I squatted just inside an alley but where I could still see the building. I was also watching the windows and saw when the man kept peeking out. I glanced at the men as they snuck up the alley and Gregor squatted beside me. He grinned, “the one starting the fires?”

I looked at him before nodding, “see the third window? He keeps peeking out and checking the street.”

He snorted, “silly beggar. There are a half dozen ways into that building that do not come from this street.”

I smiled, “and I am hoping he is the one I seek or another home will burn tomorrow.”

Gregor sighed, “you are not sure.”

I shook my head and he glanced back, “we could...”

I shifted to look at him, “if you interfere and it is not him do I take you?”

He sighed, “but he could be.”

I looked at the others as they glanced around, “aye and my house could be the next he burns.”

Gregor grinned, “so you are going to sit out here and watch.”

I nodded, “that is what I do most of the time.”

One of the others snorted, “we could...”

I looked at him and Gregor shook his head, “forget it. The thief taker is right.”

He looked at me, “how about we watch and you pay us if he is the one?”

I smiled, “you want to be thief takers? Very well, you work for me under my license. If and when I catch him I will pay you but you pay those that help you.”

He grinned, “deal.”

I nodded and stood, “I will return at dawn. He seems to like to move and start fires around then. Get wooden night sticks like I carry for yourself and for anyone else you use. A blade used at the wrong time or in the wrong way could mean the goal.”

I smiled as I started down the alley, “besides hitting the bastards a few times feels better.”

They chuckled as I left and made my way home. Gregor might be living in a shade of grey but he has always protected people. I did chores at home but my mind was on the fire starter and I could not sleep. When I slipped up behind the man watching the house he jerked but I caught him before he could yell.

He grinned, “Gregor will be here when the sun rises.”

I nodded as I looked at the building, “is anyone watching the back?”

He nodded, “two lads. One to follow and the other to come here.”

I squatted beside him and glanced down the dark street. It was predawn when the lad peeked out of the narrow alley and waved. I was up and moving as the other man stood, “get Gregor.”

I followed as the lad turned to hurry back down the alley. He peeked out as I caught up, “a man wearing a dark cloak came out.”

He started walking down the narrow back street and I followed. A minute later we caught up with the other lad who was looking down another alley. I glanced back at the sound of running feet and saw Gregor and the other watcher. I touched the lads as I went around them and started down the alley.

At the other end I looked around the corner to see the dark cloaked man slipping into a building. I glanced at Gregor and the other man when they caught up, “he just went into a building.”

I looked at the lads, “stay back but be ready to run for help if there is a fire.”

They nodded and I started walking as Gregor fell in. I listened at the door before carefully opening it and peeking in. I slipped in with Gregor and listened before moving to one of the doors. We checked each door before finding the one in the rear on the left unlocked. I started to open it and saw the man across the room and in the corner.

He has a large pile of wood kindling and paper and was striking a fire starter. I growled as I began crossing the room and he spun and leaped to his feet, “I was not...”

I pulled a stick and jabbed into his gut, “yes you were and now you will hang.”

Gregor caught him and yanked him around and into a wall, “why?”

He grabbed his throat, “why did you do it?”

I used a foot to make sure he had not started a fire. The man struggled and Gregor slapped him, “WHY!”

The man gasped, “I was paid!”

I caught Gregor’s shoulder as I moved up, “by who?”

He looked around and I let Gregor go, “give him to the gangs.”

He grinned as the man yelled, “solicitor Daniels!”

I caught him and spun him before slamming him into the wall. I yanked his hands back and started tying them as Gregor watched. I let him go, “now we walk him to the guard and make the report.”

He growled as he turned and shoved the man, “and the solicitor?”

I started walking and shoved the man again, “after we finish the report we go get him and bring him in.”

Gregor grinned and then chuckled, “I could get used to this.”

I smiled as we pushed the man out of the building, “there is a sense of satisfaction when you bring in the truly bad ones.”

He nodded as he took his turn at pushing the man. I gestured to the lads and tossed a couple of silvers, “it pays to be generous.”

I looked at Gregor when he snorted, “this one will bring in six gold pieces plus you get anything he has. When we take solicitor Daniels he will bring in another six gold pieces plus his belongings.”

He looked at me, “you really make that much?”

I smiled, “this is a special case. He has threatened the city and killed. Death brings a higher reward but always remember you need to prove your case.”

Gregor nodded and shoved the man again, “sounds reasonable.”

When we pushed him into the guard building he was begging and pleading. The commander looked at Gregor as he sat beside me and looked over my shoulder to watch as I wrote. He nodded and made a couple of comments and the commander grinned, “the thief taker school is open again?”

I sanded the parchment and slid it across the table, “I will have to retire soon.”

He snorted as he started reading, “the duke will... he was paid?”

I stood, “we will bring in the other one and the duke and magister can ask him why he did it.”

Gregor chuckled as he walked out with me and we headed towards the city courts. A clerk gave us directions to solicitor Daniels who had offices in a large building with several others. There were a half dozen large men in his outer office when we arrived. We crossed the large room while they watched.

I smiled at the young woman behind the desk, “is solicitor Daniels here?”

She returned my smile, “is he expecting you?”

I looked at the door into the next room, “he should be. I am a thief taker and here to arrest him.”

Her eyes went wide as the men stood and started for us. I sighed as I pulled my sticks and turned, “this is a death sentence case if you get involved.”

They stopped and looked at each other and I nodded, “even if you managed to stop us the guard would come and then you would hang with solicitor Daniels.”

I turned and started for the office door and Gregor chuckled as he followed, “that seemed to change their minds.”

I nodded as I opened the door and walked into the other room, “it works most of the time but not always.”

I looked at the bald man that came to his feet behind the desk. He glared, “what is the meaning of this!”

I gestured as I started around one side while Gregor went the other way, “I am a thief taker and here to bring you in.”

He snatched a dagger from the desk, “I have done nothing!”

I used my sticks to distract him by waving them as I talked, “you were named by the person starting the fires as the one who paid him.”

He sneered, “hearsay...”

Gregor slapped a stick into one side of his head and brought the other down on the arm with the dagger, “tell it to the ones that died or were burned.”

I glanced at the doorway where the large men stood watching, “anyone know why he paid to start the fires?”

The men growled as they looked at the solicitor and one nodded, “he owned one of the buildings.”

I moved to the solicitor as Gregor finished tying his wrists behind his back. I used a stick to make him look at me, “why?”

He glared, “I did nothing.”

I spun my other stick and brought it up between his legs. He screamed and started to fall but Gregor held him. I tapped his forehead, “why did you have the buildings burned?”

He spit and I looked at Gregor, “break his fingers.”

He grinned and Daniels screamed a moment later. I poked him in the gut, “why did you have the buildings burned?”

He was sobbing and shook his head and I nodded to Gregor, “you still have that gilding knife?”

Daniels jerked, “wait!”

I looked at him, “we are done waiting. You had people burned alive.”

He licked his lips, “it was old and costing me money. I needed one destroyed so I could build a new building. I had several offers for a new large house.”

I glanced at the men, “why burn all the other houses?”

Gregor slapped the back of his head and he flinched, “so no one would know or look at me.”

I gestured to Gregor, “take him.”

I searched the desk and then the room before finding his lock box. I broke it open and poured the gold and silver into a fancy coat. No one tried to stop us but a couple of men did spit on him. When we shoved him into the guard building the magister was with the commander and they both turned.

The solicitor began yelling that we were thieves and I absently slugged him in the back of the head, “shut up dead man.”

Gregor grinned as I pushed him towards a guard, “he owned one house and had the others burned so no one would think he was responsible.”

Before the day was over Gregor had his people strip Daniels office and his home. Everything was sold and used to help the people that had lost their homes. We split the reward and the money from the lock box. Gregor had also gotten me to agree to teach him.

Chapter twenty

Rape and pillage

I was sipping tea in the kitchen before doing my afternoon chores. Ashton was wolfing down his lunch while Maria, Ann and Sarah whispered together. I glanced at the back door and the knock before standing and crossing to open it. Gregor looked at me with a grave face, “I need help.”

I gestured and let him come in and moved to pour hot water into another cup for tea. He waved that away and I turned, “what is it?”

He glanced at the ladies, “a new gang is in the city. They find a home, force their way in and rape the women and pillage the home before leaving.”

I looked at Maria and she shook her head and waved towards the door. I smiled as I went into the other room and returned with my night sticks. Once the door was closed behind us I glanced at Gregor, “have you checked all the fences?”

He nodded, “nothing and none of the informants know who they are.”

I thought as we headed towards the city and turned to change directions. I looked at Gregor, “have they killed anyone?”

He shook his head, “rape and assault and house theft.”

I nodded and smiled, “did you get your license?”

He grinned, “thanks to your recommendation.”

We walked into the stockyards and warehouse district that was for the inland merchants and he grinned, “you think they are sending it somewhere else?”

I nodded, “but there are a lot of eyes on the docks.”

He snorted, “yeah.”

The man I was looking for was raking out a corral. I gestured and held up a silver piece and he glanced around before walking to the fence, “sir?”

I snorted as I tossed the coin, “have you seen a group of ragged looking merchants shipping a lot of household goods out of the city?”

He slipped the coin into his purse and spit, “well... over to Mr Kamlim’s there is a rough lot. Would not call them merchants, more like they is sneak thieves and back alley cutthroats.”

I smiled, “they are sending out household goods?”

He nodded, “seen a few fancy chests and tables.”

I looked at Gregor who pulled out another silver coin and tossed it to him. We walked away and after getting direction found the old warehouse and stockyard for Mr Kamlim. I grinned as I leaned against a building to watch a few rough men, “now we need to catch them in the act.”

Gregor snorted but nodded and looked around. He slipped away and was gone for an hour before returning. He handed me a warm sausage roll, “I have a few people standing by to follow and help.”

I took a bite as I watched the stockyard, “you mean some of the men that had their women raped and were beaten.”

He shrugged, “I told them if they wanted to help they could only bring wooden clubs.”

I grinned but did not say anything as we ate. A few times a man or pair of men would walk by and Gregor would gesture and they would nod. Just after it got dark and the streets emptied, the men around the warehouse went inside. They came out a few minutes later and one started leading them through the streets.

We followed and I noticed others behind us but they stayed back. We went into the part of the city with large manors and a few small estates. I held Gregor back at a corner as the group of men stopped. I nodded as they started for a manor and split up and turned, “you take the back and I will come in the front.”

I glanced at the large crowd of men trying to hide in the shadows, “you can bring your helpers in now.”

He grinned and turned to wave as I started for the front of the manor while pulling my sticks. I strode forward quickly when I heard the scream and kicked the broken door open. A man spun as I kept going and yanked out his dagger. I brought a stick down as I continued walking and slapped the dagger to the side.

My other stick lashed out and into the man’s head and he twisted as he went down. I walked over him as the crowd of men charged through the door behind me. The men in the large living room spun and the man trying to rape a woman came to his feet. The crowd crashed into them and I shook my head as I went tp pull the woman up and to the side.

She clung to me and kept crying as her attacker and the others were beaten. I looked at Gregor when he came in, “get control of them and make sure none escaped.”

He nodded as I caught a man and pulled him close, “stay with her.”

He hesitated but finally nodded and I pushed her towards him before heading towards the stairs. There were two men at the top of the stairs. They had daggers out and their faces were white. I started up and shook my head, “drop the daggers or I will let the mob have you.”

Those were magic words and they quickly let the daggers fall. I reached them and turned them before pushing them to a wall. I tied their hands behind them, “is there anymore of you?”

They did not say anything and I turned them to the stairs, “GREGOR!”

One jerked and looked back at me, “we were only following orders!”

I shook him, “when you raped the women? Or when you robbed them?”

He looked away as Gregor appeared at the bottom of the stairs. He grinned as he started up, “anymore?”

I nodded, “we will need to search.”

I waited before pushing the two in front of me as I headed down the hall. I pushed them into each room in front of us and was not surprised when a club struck one. It was the last room and the man that was hit went down. I shoved the other man into the rough looking character beside the door and followed with Gregor trying to squeeze past.

I let him go first and he yanked the prisoner aside as he jabbed a stick into the other man’s stomach. I caught the prisoner and watched as Gregor slapped the other man and lashed out and down into his knee with a stick. The man was holding a wicked dagger and dropped it as he screamed and fell.

Gregor did not show mercy as he knelt and yanked the man onto his stomach and pulled his arms back. We pushed the prisoners in front of us as we headed back downstairs. When they saw the bloody whimpering men that were tied up it came out. Trailmaster Clarkson had hired these men to break into houses and steal all their belongings.

Gregor had a few men wait and bring the drivers of any wagons when or if they came and the crowd helped bring the rest to the guard building. The night watch commander blinked when we shoved the men in and I smiled, “they were caught in the act of raping a widow. The charges will be multiply rapes, house breaking, assault and theft.”

I glanced at Gregor, “you get to write the report before we go get the trailmaster.”

He grinned as he shoved one of the men towards a guard. I sat and talked with the night watch commander while Gregor wrote out the report and the crowd of men stood by the door waiting. The city guards were catching a lot more thieves and criminals now that they had some training. Strangely a lot more of the poor or homeless were doing better too.

Once Gregor was done I stood and we left and started back towards the stockyards. He grinned when we got closer and saw large freight wagons out with horses harnessed as if they were ready to leave. The drivers took one look at the crowd of men with us and held up hands and backed away.

Trailmaster Clarkson was a very large man and turned with a scowl, “what is the meaning of this?”

I pulled my night sticks, “did you really think you could get away with raping women and pillaging the homes?”

Gregor growled, “turn around and put your hands...”

Clarkson yanked out a large knife and lunged to slash. I snapped a stick down and struck his wrist but he was moving back and acted like he had not even felt it. Gregor moved to pull his sticks out and I went right. Clarkson pulled another knife as he looked back and forth. He jerked back when the rock flew past us and struck him in the face.

A moment and a dozen more followed the first one. He yelled and tried to back away and turn and that was when we struck. I knelt and lashed out and into his knee and Gregor brought a stick down on one of his hands. The knife in it spun away as he turned and lunged toward Gregor. I blinked as one of the men in the crowd swung a long handle of a pitchfork.

It hit Clarkson in the head as Gregor rolled back and away and came to his feet. Clarkson staggered and I started to move in. The crowd had other ideas and I was knocked aside as they rushed him with clubs. I looked at Gregor as the other knife was knocked from his hand and the crowd of men began to beat him with the clubs.

I straightened and glanced at Gregor who grinned and started around towards me, “so... how is the country life?”

I grinned as I put my sticks away and glanced at Clarkson as he fell, “not bad. The food is good but the work can be demanding.”

Gregor chuckled, “not to mention the smell of all the animals.”

I smiled and he glanced at the crowd to bellow, “keep him alive so they can hang him!”

They actually did hang him, mostly because of the huge crowd attending the trail and demanding it. Those that were not hung got sent to a work farm for life.

Chapter twenty one

Country life

I watched as Ann and her new husband left and turned to Maria, “think she will be okay?”

She snorted, “yes.”

She slipped her hand into mine and glanced towards Ashton chasing one of the sheep, “him I am not so sure about.”

I grinned, “actually I was looking at that empty land beside ours. I think we can help him...”

Maria laughed as she pushed me towards the new barn I was building in one field, “get to work and finish the barn.”

I laughed and walked towards the thick beams reaching up into the air. Large supporting beams crossed to hold the upright beams in place. There would be plenty of room to store hay or animals during the winter. I was even planning to build a large chicken coop on one side. It was late afternoon before I straightened and glanced around.

I had one entire wall up, held in place with cord and rope while I worked on another. I looked away from the city and frowned as the three men stared over the stone wall at one of the cows. I followed the wall to the closest gate and saw another. I glanced at Ashton before I started towards the group of three men.

One of the first things that struck me was that their clothes were in good condition and they looked well fed. They were looking right at me as I walked towards them and one said something that made the others grin. I stopped by the wall, “you men are on my property.”

They stood and vaulted over the wall and one pulled a large knife, “we came to collect a few cows farmer.”

I smiled, “I think you should leave.”

They laughed as they surrounded me and I reached back and pulled my sticks. I lashed out and to the left as I jabbed towards the one in front of me. He jumped back but the one to the left was to slow and the stick slammed into the side of his head. I moved that way as he fell and the one on my right started to move in. He yelled and spun when the rock hit him.

I brought a stick down on the hand and wrist of the man facing me as he lunged and tried to stab me. He screamed as the knife was knocked from his hand. I jabbed the end of the other stick into his stomach and brought the other around and down on his head. I spun to see the last man stalking towards Ashton who kept throwing rocks.

I shook my head and looked towards the man by the gate but he was already running away. I knelt to tie the other two men as the one going after Ashton yelled and fell and sank into a deep mud pit. Ashton laughed as he moved closer and kept throwing rocks. I stood and walked towards the man, “go get a rope.”

Ashton nodded and turned to run towards the coils of rope by the new barn wall. The man continued to struggle until he was finally free which was when I struck the knife in his hand away. I growled and he sullenly turned and I yanked him back and down to his knees. I tied him and when Ashton returned I pulled him to the other two.

I pushed them to the barn and threw the rope up and over a cross beam. I tied the rope around the first man’s neck as he yelled and struggled. I stretched it tight and tied it before repeating it with the other two. They stood beside each other and I nodded to Ashton, “run to the gate and let the guard know we have three men that tried to rob us.”

He grinned and nodded before swaggering away. I ignored the men as I returned to working on the frame of the other wall. They shifted and muttered and cursed until the guards showed up. They started telling them I had attacked them on the road and pulled them here. I smiled as I gestured to the three knifes, “attempted theft, armed assault of a noble and...”

I gestured to the muddy one, “stupidity for chasing a boy in his own pasture.”

The guards grinned and started to take the rope off as I looked at Ashton, “go see if Maria has a parchment and a quill.”

He ran for the house and I looked at the three men, “if I were you I would find honest work.”

After I finished the citizens complaint they were pulled away. I looked at Ashton, “go find all those tiny bells you wanted to put on the chickens.”

I had him use string and set trip wires with the bells at the gates. Somehow I knew it was not over, the one that had ran away would be back and he would bring others. I took a nap after dinner and then slipped out and into the dark beside one of the stone walls. It was close to mid of the night when I heard the tinkle of bells.

I heard several men hiss and smiled as I stood and pulled my sticks. There were a dozen men in the group at the gate. In the moonlight I saw the clubs and long knives they were carrying. They opened the gate and started for the house and that was when I went after them. I struck without warning as I caught up to those in the rear.

I hit one on the head and lashed out into the side of another man’s head. They both went down as I kept going and struck the next man in the forehead when he turned to look back. I was not pulling my blows and he dropped as I swung to the side and hit another in the temple. The group slowed and several turned to look back.

I moved into them and jabbed into a gut and then brought a stick down on his head when he bent over. I stepped to the right and slashed out and into the face of another. He screamed as he went down and I started for the next as they finally realized I was attacking them. The next man slashed with a large butcher knife and I brought a stick down on his wrist.

He screamed as the bones broke and then I hit him in the side of the head and he dropped. The last five were trying to back away as I stalked after them. I knocked a club away and smashed the hand holding it before jabbing into the man’s gut. I lashed out to the side to smash a knife welding hand before turning back and to strike the vomiting man on the back of his head.

I yanked him into two men rushing me and let them trip and fall before moving in. I hit both in the head as they tried to push the unconscious man away and get up. Two men were left and one was cradling his hand. I went towards him and seemed to ignore the other man and he shifted and moved to attack me.

I side stepped and turned as I brought a stick around and down to hit his wrist and the knife he was lunging at me with went spinning away. I stepped closer as he cursed and he lunged suddenly with his arms out wide. I let him grab me and brought a knee up hard. He grunted as he was lifted off the ground and I turned and shoved him into the other man rushing us.

They collided and I went after them and hit one in the side of the head and lashed out to strike the other in the forehead. They both went down and I looked around at all the men on the ground, some unaware and others moaning. I began tying hands and then yanking them up and taking them to the unfinished barn.

I used rope around their necks and over a beam before I sat down with a sigh. I leaned again another beam and closed my eyes as they struggled and started yelling. I nodded and napped until the sun rose and then went to the house. I woke Ashton and had him get dressed as I went back outside.

When he came out I sent him to get the guards and began to do the morning chores. I was carrying the fresh milk to the tunnel when two guards arrived. They waited as I put the milk away and came back to lead them to the men. It turned out most were workers on a large farm not to far away. The one that was not was the brother of the landowner.

He was the one to tell the guard that they had been sent by his brother. I wrote out the complaint and let the guards take the men and asked that the sheriff send someone to the farm owner. After they left Ashton helped me finish framing the walls. We were working on the frame for the roof when a large man walked through one of the gates.

He was carrying a large club like stick as he started for the barn. I glanced at him and shook my head before turning to climb down. When the man reached me he did not stop to talk or speak, he lashed out with the club. I stepped back and bent backwards and it went past. I shifted and pulled my sticks, “that was the wrong thing to do.”

I started moving to the side as he brought the club back and I brought one stick up to deflect it. I stepped in and jabbed into his gut and he grunted as he tried to bring the club down. I turned and stepped back and the club missed. I lashed out and into his face and his head snapped back as the nose broke and blood went everywhere.

I kept circling as he growled and swung the club again. I knocked it up and moved closer as I swung the other stick and hit his wrist. I lashed out as the club fell and hit the side of his head and he staggered. He shifted and leaped towards me and I had to drop the sticks. I caught him and went over backwards and rolled as I pulled on him.

He went over me and I ended up on him and slugged him several times before I rolled off and to my feet. He shook his head as he slowly started to get to his feet. He stalked towards me as I circled and when he rushed me I side stepped. I grabbed one hand and twisted as I turned before I brought my other fist down on the elbow.

He screamed as it broke but twisted and jerked free. He let the broken arm hang as he glared and moved towards me once again. I shook my head as I tried to circle but he moved into me and his good hand snapped out. His hand grabbed my shirt and he started to yank me closer when I snapped a kick out and down.

The heel struck his left knee and he twisted and screamed as it broke. He let me go as he fell and I looked at him on the ground. He tried to get up but the pain was to much and he glared. I squatted out of reach, “you are an arrogant bully. This time you will see the inside of the prison mines. With the statement from the workers you sent it will be a very long time before you are free.”

I stood and gestured to Ashton who was holding a pitchfork, “get the guards and tell them to bring a cart.”

He grinned and nodded before he set the pitchfork aside and ran out. After the guards carted him off I took a walk to his land. It was run down but had more than a little potential. There were no women or children and I doubt they had done anything but steal or rob from their neighbors.

A check in the city and I found out the taxes had not been paid in several years. I ended up buying the land and the section beside mine. I added the section beside mine to my holdings and slowly helped Ashton build the other into a home over the next few years. Mostly I am just a noble farmer now with many children.

I do keep my hand in with the thief taker guild Gregor runs. Once in a while I get one or two strangers that think a farmer would be a good target to steal from.

The end
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