The ancient man sitting by the blazing fire cradled a tankard of ale between his long, thin fingers as he surveyed the expectant faces before him. “Aye, so you want me to tell you a story then?” He gave a slight shrug which nearly dislodged the heavy plaid draped over his shoulders. With a small scowl he adjusted it back into position revealing, just for a moment, the weather beaten armour of cracked leather and rusted mail below. “Well, when you get to be as old as I am you have no shortage of stories to tell, true enough,” he chuckled softly. “I could tell you of the fabled lost cave of the Spider Queen that I heard myself for the first time when I was even younger than you mangy mob!”
His laughing audience of men and women filled the smoky interior of the dimly lit tavern in the centre of a village nestled below the Rainbow Mountains in the central Southlands. Most were simple farmers and labourers who gathered here in the Kings Arms every night to enjoy an ale and a gossip with friends and family. The appearance of the ancient mercenary several days earlier had provided them with the novelty of someone new to talk with, visitors were a rarity this far from the main trade roads and so he was constantly besieged for the latest news from the world beyond the narrow horizons afforded them. Their world stretched only as far as the edge of their fields and woods and few ever ventured more than ten miles from home throughout their lives. A visit to their neighbouring village, some six miles away, was seen as a journey to the edge of the world which held all manner of risk, adventure and unknown dangers.
The old mercenary chuckled again as he ran a hand through the chest length grey beard while the candles made his bald head seem to glow in their light. He shook his head. “No. Not that one,” he decided after he took a sip of his ale. “I’ll tell you a true tale instead. One that I know only too well for I was there at the time and saw much of what follows for myself.” His rheumy eyes studied the expectant faces before him as he said, “very well then. Fill your tankards with ale or that good cider you brew here in your fine village of Cotgrave then gather close and listen while I tell you the true story of the thief of Melnisgarten!”
“I doubt if you have ever heard of Melnisgarten have you? No, I didn’t think you would have. Few have, and that may be just as well when you consider what befell that poor land.” He released a long sigh. “Aye, once upon a time it was a fine country filled with happy people, people just like your good selves here in Cotgrave. It lies far from here on the very shores of the south coast virtually closed off from the rest of the world by the Dragonsback Mountains that seal it in to the north, east and west with only a few narrow passes over the high valleys haunted by all manner of fell beasts. Trolls, goblins and Dark Elves dwell there and only large, well-armed parties ever dare risk taking those routes. No, the only safe road to travel is to the south and that is by boat. There are a cluster of fishing villages below the five hundred foot cliffs that form the southern border accessible only by foot along twisting paths down the face of the very cliffs themselves. Not a place for the faint of heart I can assure you. Even I shook like a leaf when I was crawled down those rock steps I don’t mind admitting!”
For a moment he was silent as his thoughts drifted back over time before he shook them away. “Aye, anyway, it was that very remoteness that made Melnisgarten a peaceful place to live. Below the surrounding mountains the land measured only fifty miles east to west and little more than that north to south, but it was a fertile land of fields and woods that provided more than enough to feed the population with meat, grain and the fish from the sea. While the rest of the Southlands tore themselves apart in war after war, Melnisgarten existed in peace and quiet. They had no king there. No, they had a parliament made up of a spokesman elected from every town, village and hamlet in the land. These men in turn would elect one of their number to act as First Minister and he would serve for a year before stepping down. It was an unusual system of government, but is was one that worked for them and ensured that all in Melnisgarten had equal rights in the eyes of the law.”
“But something happened to change that, didn’t it?” one young woman said.
He smiled kindly towards her. “Aye, something happened right enough,” he replied sadly. “As I said Melnisgarten was a peaceful, happy place, but all it ever takes is one bad apple to spoil everything for everyone else. In this case it was an ambitious man who gave himself the title of Baron Greyshuck. Over the course of several years he gathered around him a force of men willing to do his bidding. He undermined the existing government and spread discord throughout the land until he was finally in the position where he could seize power. The elected representatives were turned out of parliament and sent back to their homes with a simple message: they could keep their position just as long as they did exactly what Baron Greyshuck told them to. Any deviation from his orders would mean they would be replaced, often with terminal force! To further ensure that his rule went unchallenged he recruited a force of mercenaries’ a thousand men strong whose only loyalty was to Greyshuck and his gold. These men did not see Melnisgarten as a peaceful, prosperous land. They saw it as open invitation to use it for their own pleasure and I regret to say that all manner of outrage was committed in those days by men without kindness or conscience to temper their acts.” He looked at the assembled faces as he added, “you are thinking: was he one of those mercenaries? No, I wasn’t although I was there. It is more than fifty years since Greyshuck rose to power and back then I was just a simple lad trying to make his way in life as best he could, but I never did anything that troubles my conscience I can assure you.”
“So were you the thief you mentioned then?” the young woman again spoke out with wide eyes in a pleasant, rustic face.
The old man smiled merrily towards her. “No, he was another man but I was happy to call him a friend. His name was Ossian and he was known as the greatest thief of all time. It was said he stole the golden dragon’s tooth from mad King Jarnk, the sword of Attilos from the greatest warrior of those days. It was even said he could have stolen the Virgin Queen of the Eastland’s virginity during her very coronation if he wanted to, and she would never have even known it was gone! All I know for sure is that if he set his mind to something, he achieved his aim. Aye, Ossian was a real character to be sure but he could never have achieved the half of what he did without the help of his accomplice, and he claimed, lover. A fairer maid I have never seen than the lady Màiri. Her skin was as pale as snow, free from any blemish, her eyes as blue as summer skies and her hair like a field of golden corn.” The old mercenary gave a short laugh, “you can tell that I was little bit in love with Màiri can’t you? Alas she only had eyes for Ossian and no other could ever compete with her love for him, and his for her. Anyway, back to my story. At the time I found myself after much travelling in the city of Melnisgarten itself. To be fair it was not much of city when compared to our own capital city, Kelt, with a population of perhaps only 20,000 souls at the time with the homes, shops and alehouses gathered around a small castle in the very heart of the city. Even back then, Kelt had a population of more than 100,000 so Melnisgarten felt more like a town than a city to a Southlander like me! The castle in Melnisgarten had been the seat of government in happier times, but now was the lair of Baron Greyshuck. Once colourful banners had hung from its battlements but now it was the bodies of those who had displeased him which decorated its walls.”
He paused to take another drink from his tankard before wiping his chin and beard with the back of a kidney-spotted hand. “Aye, those were dark days to be sure. I had decided the best thing I could do was keep my head down, conclude my own business and make haste to leave Melnisgarten in my wake as quickly as possible. It was while I was taking care of that business that my path would first cross with Ossian. Two of greyshuck’s men had caught sight of the lady Màiri and were keen on using her for their own foul pleasure. I found Ossian in a back alley trying to protect her from them and without thinking about what I was doing I pitched in to help him. The mercenaries’ had their backs to me and never knew what had hit them! We left them lying unconscious in the mud and hastened away to the tavern where they had rented a room. There, over a good meal and several tankards of ale we became fast friends. To be honest, I would have crawled over a bed of fire to spend even a single moment in the company of Màiri, but Ossian and I found out we had much in common. Both of us hailed from the city of Kelt and had grown up only a few streets from each other. We were of the same age yet had never met before that day in Melnisgarten several hundred miles from home! Over the course of that night we told each other our story, where we had been, what we had done and shared more than one secret that we had never breathed to another soul. For the next few weeks we became the closest of friends and shared more than one mad adventure while avoiding running afoul of Baron Greyshuck or his men. I had by then concluded my own business and good sense told me it was time to be on my way to pastures new but still I lingered on in Melnisgarten. Aye, part of that was to do with my affection for Ossian, and more to do with my wish to spend just another day in the company of fair Màiri, no matter how foolish my love for her was!”
His eyes glowed with a mixture of sadness and joy at the recollections his story were provoking within him. “She never saw me as anything other than a friend though. Her heart belonged to Ossian, and Ossian alone. It was their love which was to prove their undoing though.” He released a long sigh through his nose. “Ossian may have been the greatest thief who ever lived but Màiri wasn’t. She was caught stealing a golden bracelet by some fat shopkeeper named Mendrum who threatened to hand her over to Greyshuck for justice. You can guess that this would have been a death sentence for her. The only hope she had was that Ossian would do something for Mendrum, so that he would say nothing about the alleged theft. I should add that Màiri claimed that Mendrum was lying. Ossian and I both believed her for she was no thief but we had not been with her at the time. I offered to silence Mendrum once and for all! My dagger had tasted the blood of evil men before then and was thirsty to drink again, but Ossian refused. Even when faced with threats he could not condone murder.”
The mercenary shook his head. “Perhaps if he had listened things would have worked out differently. Ossian and Màiri were summoned to a secret meeting by Mendrum, I was left kicking my heels in the tavern until several hours later Ossian returned alone looking ashen faced. Mendrum had locked poor Màiri away in an attic room within his home guarded by hired thugs. Her safety would only be guaranteed if Ossian was to do a job for that walrus Mendrum. The job? No less than steal the Black Books of Baron Greyshuck where he listed all those he considered his enemies and those he suspected of treachery. Every last person whose name was listed in those books knew that they were under suspicion and could vanish without explanation, or hope for mercy. Mendrum claimed that if the books were taken and destroyed then the people would, finally, be prepared to act against Greyshuck. Without the threat of the Black Books hanging over their heads they could breathe more easily and the dying embers of resistance would be fanned. Or so Mendrum claimed!”
“I was all for storming Mendrum’s house, rescuing Màiri and slaying the fat oaf but Ossian would not hear of it. Even the thought of his beloved being put at risk reduced this proud man to a weak kneed puppy. No, he was resolved to do all he could to save her and if that meant stealing these books, then that is what he would do even though they were held in Greyshuck’s castle guarded by a thousand heartless mercenaries’! There was nothing I could do but offer him what assistance I could. That was little enough to be honest. He was the thief, not I. In the end I could do no more than accompany him the next day as he scouted out any possible weaknesses to be exploited in the castle’s defences. The walls, with their grisly hangings stood fifty feet high, the gatehouse was guarded by never less than twenty heavily armed and armoured men. Short of sprouting wings I could see no way to enter it, but then I was not Ossian! He saw the one weak spot, the one chink in their armour. By one wall stood a small foetid pool where the castle sewer emptied out. Just visible through the stinking weeds and rushes he saw a barred tunnel only inches above the stagnant surface of the pool. It was here that he resolved to gain entry. I thought him mad but he was determined. That very night we crept through the dark streets of the city until we had reached the edge of the open ground surrounding the castle. There we waited as patrols bearing torches came and went until Ossian had worked out how long he had between their patrols. He stripped down to his skin, smeared himself with mud and placed his clothes and tools in an oilskin to protect them from the water and filth. With a final word of encouragement from myself he was off and slipped into the pool as silently as an otter.
All through that night I sat there and watched and waited for him, all the while expecting to hear a hue and cry raised from within, but as the sun began to rise I was forced from my perch and returned to the tavern with a heavy heart. That was the last I saw of him for two days.”
“Those two days were as long as any day I have ever known. Each minute seemed to last an eternity and I was trapped in a web of indecision. I have no idea how many times I found myself gazing at that accursed castle, or found my feet had led me to the street where Mendrum’s house stood. More than once I almost lost all control and came close to attacking it in some mad delusion that I could rescue Màiri from her imprisonment!”
“It was late on the second night since he had entered the pool as I sat forlornly in my room at the tavern that Ossian returned. I had never seen him so exhausted or unkempt, which is no surprise when he told me all that happened.”
He set the tankard down on the worn tabletop before him and rested his hands on either side of it as he shook his head in recollection. “This is what he told me and it still grieves me to recall it. Once in that stinking pond he managed to prise open the bars sealing the tunnel to discover it only wide enough to allow him to squeeze his way along it pushing his oilskin before him. It was just as well he could not see what he crawled through, the smell was bad enough with just enough space to keep his face above the reeking water and filth which surrounded him. It took him most of that night to find a route out of that sewer, a narrow pipe stretching upwards. It was the narrowness which allowed him to wedge his way up until he reached an iron grill which was locked. Happily locks were no obstacle to a man such as Ossian. He had that lock open in the blink of an eye and once out of the pipe found himself in the dungeons of the castle. The cells contained only the dead and the dying, clearly Greyshuck once he had thrown a man into those grim cells forgot all about them until their rotten corpses were dragged out weeks or months later! Ossian unlocked one such cell where only the dead lay and there cleaned himself as best he could safe from prying eyes, and dressed himself. By now he could go no further for he knew that dawn could not be far away. All through that endless day he hid himself in that cell, he had taken the precaution of locking himself inside it lest any gaoler think to check on the welfare of his guests. His precautions were not required though as not a soul thought to bring food or water to any prisoners who still lived.”
“Ossian sat there in silence while time passed by with only a long dead man for company until he estimated it was time to move forward. He unlocked the cell and made his way onwards. Time after time he was forced to hide himself as servants and guards came and went as he explored the castle but finally he found what he was looking for; Greyshuck’s private chambers. Here he was forced to use of all his skills as a thief to find and disarm an endless series of traps and alarms before he could breathe a little easier and explore the rooms given over exclusively for the baron’s pleasure. The tyrant himself was not within, clearly he kept late hours for darkness had long since fallen.”
“The Black Books were found in a hidden niche in one wall of the bedchamber protected by further traps and alarms all of which Ossian managed to find a way past. I doubt if there was another man anywhere in the Four Lands who could have managed it, but Ossian did! That was how good he was. The three books of names turned out to be no larger than those shopkeepers use to keep their notes in, we had thought they were sure to be massively tomes with iron clasps rather than these nondescript pocket-books! Still they held life or death for hundreds of Melnisgartens’ citizens within their pages. Thanking the Creator he had found them Ossian wasted not a minute longer in retracing his steps. At this hour of the early morning the castle was much quieter and Ossian managed to reach the dungeons without any real difficulty but as he stripped himself he heard men coming and was forced to hide himself once more in a cell with a dead man. Outside he could hear the gaoler beating some poor soul within an inch of his life before tossing him into another cell. He never so much as even glanced into the cell where Ossian nervously hid. Finally the man left but by then it was too late for Ossian to leave by the pipe, there was no way he could escape from the pond in broad daylight and he had no desire to spend a day lying in the stagnant water waiting below for darkness to return. So once again he spent a day in that cell forced to breathe in the stink of a dead man which was scarcely better than the foulness of the sewer awaiting him later.”
The old man hid a smile at the looks on the faces before him, all were clearly imagining the horror of the scene facing Ossian and the choice he had faced. Spending a day lying in others filth or sharing a grim cell with a corpse was not a choice anyone would gladly face. He took up his tankard and frowned slightly to discover it was empty. A fresh tankard was quickly supplied and he went on.
“Aye, so my friend sat there in darkness all through that day until he estimated it was time to make his escape. That was a thing about Ossian, he could judge the passage of time in utter darkness as well as any other man could working in his field below the light of the sun. With his clothes, tools and, of course, those three precious books all safely sealed within his oilskin he let himself out of the cell and lifted the grill to the pipe. Down he went into a darkness more complete than that within the cell until he lay full length in the water and filth of the tunnel. Once again he squeezed his way along its length until he reached the barred exit. Beyond he could see the lights of the city reflected on the stagnant surface of the pond and knew he was almost safe. Only the risk of the patrols now stood between him and freedom. He made his way beyond those bars and now hid himself within the weeds and rushes until he judged the time had come to escape.”
“Finally he could reach the shelter of the houses where he found a horse trough to wash the filth from himself and then dress again. From there he now joined me to show those damned books that had caused so much trouble. All that was left to do was pass the things on to Mendrum and retrieve poor Màiri from his clutches!” He shook his head once more. “If only life was that simple!”
“Ossian took the books and set out for Mendrum’s house a moment later with me by his side should he have need of my sword although he was sure that I would have no need for it. Together we stood before the man’s dwelling and hammered on his door until the house was roused from slumber. The door was finally opened by one of Mendrum’s hired thugs who unwillingly allowed Ossian to enter, I was only allowed to follow once I had been disarmed. Now with half a dozen of these large, well-armed men serving as escort were we taken to see Mendrum and Màiri to discover the truth behind the whole sorry tale.”
“In a finely appointed hall we found the fat merchant sitting behind his table with Màiri tied to a chair in another corner, what stopped Ossian rushing to her side was the fact that Mendrum was dead! His throat had been slashed open. Sitting calmly beside him was a middle-aged man in the finest clothes money could buy. It took us both a moment to realise that it was Baron Greyshuck himself who faced us. The whole thing had been a set-up. Mendrum had been used by Greyshuck to find the most skilled thief in the land in order to put his own security to the ultimate test. Now that he knew it could be breached heads would roll. Mendrum’s had just been the first of many in the days which followed. Why he had been killed I never learned. Ossian was now relieved of the books but found out that his skills would cost him more than he had hoped to pay. There would be no freedom for either himself or Màiri. Greyshuck had taken a fancy for her as the fairest maid in Melnisgarten and would have her as his own. Ossian was presented with a fresh choice to make. He could become responsible for Greyshuck’s security in order to make sure that no’one else could ever find a way within the walls of the castle, or he could join Mendrum with his throat cut! Poor Màiri was also given a stark choice. Become Greyshuck’s mistress willingly and Ossian and I would be allowed to live, or unwillingly and consign us to death.”
He released an endless sigh. “What choice did she have? Allow herself to become a tyrant’s plaything and spare the life of the man she loved or refuse knowing that it meant his death! And what choice did Ossian have? If he agreed there was always the chance he could retrieve the situation and save both Màiri and himself from Greyshuck. To refuse would mean that chance would never come and he would consign Màiri to a life without hope of rescue. In the end they agreed to the cruel terms offered them.”
“What happened next?” the young woman asked urgently.
“What happened next?” the old man replied with a small smile. “Well that is a story for another night.”
First published as part of The Fellowship of the King magazine.