A Thief in the Night
Author:David Chandler

A Thief in the Night - By David Chandler

Prologue

In a place of stone walls, attended by his acolytes and warriors, the Hieromagus knelt in the dawn rays of the red subterranean sun. Both sorcerer and priest, he wore a simple garment decorated with jangling bells. The sound of them was meant to draw him back to the real world, to the present, but for now he silenced them. For now, he needed to remember.

The ancestors spoke to him. For those long lost, forgetting was a kind of death. They pulled desperately at him, trying to draw him into memories of ancient forests, of a time before the first humans came to this continent. Before his people were destroyed, driven away, forgotten. He saw their great battles, saw the works of magic they created. Saw the small, tender moments they shared and the guilt and shame they tried to put behind them. He saw kings, and queens, and simple folk in well-patched clothing. He saw Aethlinga, who had been a queen—the seventy-ninth of her dynasty—but who became something more. A seer. A diviner. Back then, in the depths of time, she had become the first Hieromagus. Just as he was to be the last.

His body twitched, his eyelids in constant motion as if he were dreaming. A serving girl mopped his forehead with a piece of sponge. He tried to wave her away, but lost in reverie, he could only raise a few fingers a fraction of an inch.

“I came as soon as I saw the sails. I knew you would want to see this with your own eyes,” the hunter said. Together the two of them climbed to the top of a forested ridge that overlooked the southern sea. One tree, an ancient rowan, stood taller than the rest. Aethlinga was old and frail but still she climbed the branches for a better look.

Out at sea the ships stood motionless on the curling waves, their sails furled now, their railings thick with refugees. Less desperate than they might have been. They had reached their destination. Down on the shore, boats were landing, long, narrow wooden boats crammed with men. Hairy, unwashed, their lips cracked and cratered with scurvy. Their faces gaunt and grim after their long voyage.

Iron weapons in their hands.

“What are they?” the hunter asked. “They look a bit like ogres, but . . . what are they? What do they want?”

The Hieromagus’s lips moved, eight hundred years further on. “They want land. A place to make a new start. What are they? They are our death.”

It was very difficult to tell, inside the memory, where the Hieromagus ended and Aethlinga began. He had seen this particular vision so many times. Remembered it, for simply to recall was a sacred rite. This was the history of his people. The thing that could never be forgotten.

Later, when the first skirmish was over and the men from the boats lay bleeding and cold on the sand—but others on the ships still stood out on the waves, watching—Aethlinga went to a private grove deep in the forest. A place where the ancestors wove through the tree branches, whispering always. She had her own sacred memories to recall.

But now she turned her face to a pool of water, a simple looking glass. She looked into her own eyes. Formed her own memory. “I know you will see this,” she said, and she spoke a name.

She spoke the true and secret name of the last Hieromagus. This memory was for him.

“I need you to remember. Not the past this time, but the future. Look forward and find what is to come. I have glimpsed it as well, and you know I would not ask this, were it not utterly necessary.”

The body of the Hieromagus, so far away now, convulsed and shook. The serving girl drew back in fear that he would lash out and destroy her. It had happened before.

Some memories were less pleasant than others, and this was the worst of all.

Except—this one was not a memory at all. Instead it was foresight. For one like the Hieromagus, who saw past and future all at once, the distinction had little meaning.

Looking forward he saw the knight. He saw the painted woman. He saw the thief. As he had so many times before. Always before he could put their images out of his head. Tell himself it would be many years before they arrived.

Now they crowded in on him as if they were shouting in his ears. He could no longer push them back, nor did he seek to. He only endeavored to separate them, to let them each speak in turn.

“Some demons are smaller than others,” the woman said, and it was her, though the images were gone from her skin she was the same one, and then a twisted hand crashed across her cheek, knocking her to the ground.

Her, the Hieromagus thought—her—it was the one he sought, but in the wrong time—she was cut loose from him still, but so close, so—

A man with the features of a priest, but the eyes of a murderer. This one only smiled, and did not speak. This one showed only the teeth of a predatory animal.

He dared not look on that one too long, even in memory.

Two knights with the same name, one dissembling, not a knight at all. He was something else entirely, something hated, and yet he was the key to liberation. A draft of burdock root, certain oils most precious, blisswine. An elfin queen throwing herself across a bed in the attitude of a whore.

Closer now—closer, but fragmented. The Hieromagus beat feebly at the floor with his fists, trying to force the memories—the forebodings—into proper shape. Into an order he could understand. He must see the path. He must choose for his people.

Three swords, deadly swords. Something worse, something far worse, a weapon of incredible potential. Two men pushing a barrel up an incline of stone.

Yes. Yes, he had it—

A flash of light. A burst of energy, searing and brilliant. Molten stone flowing down a corridor.

There, that was the future he sought. The one he’d glimpsed so many times, only to turn away in fear. The one he’d convinced himself was still a long way off.

This time he must watch the images all the way through. See it all.

“Malden!” the painted woman called out to her lover, desperate, watching him walk toward utter and certain death. The sword in his hand would be of no help.

So close now. After so long. So many years of dreading what was to come. Of trying desperately to find a way to forestall it. When it could never be prevented.

The human knight leaned down over them, his face warped by hatred. Spittle flew from his lips as he barked at the bronze-clad warriors. “You’re going to die. Every last one of you will die! It’s less than what you deserve for what you did to Cythera!”

The hatred—the death that was coming—the tumult—

“He knew,” the painted woman said. Her voice thick with loss, with dread at the sacrifices that had been made. “The Hieromagus had seen the future. He saw this, all of this. He knew that what he’d seen could not be changed. That this was the only way for his people to survive.”

The eyes of the Hieromagus opened like window shutters being thrown back.

“No!” he screamed.

No.

He saw the dead laid out in heaps before him. He saw himself, the Hieromagus saw through his own eyes, crawling over a pile of bodies, his feet treading on the faces of the ones he loved.

No . . . not like that. It couldn’t come to that, to so drastic a turn. And yet . . .

It would. It must.

The painted woman was correct. What was foreseen could not be changed. And there was only one way forward now. No turning, no detour was possible, though the way was choked with death and destruction.

He opened his mouth to speak. It was hard, so very hard to get the words out. He felt so very far away.

“They’re coming,” he said, and the warriors and acolytes stirred, traded terrified glances. Grasped hands in hope. “Very soon now, they will return for us.”

Much muttering, much grave discussion followed in that place where the underground sun burned red. Yet the Hieromagus heard none of it, for his memory was not yet done. There was more to see.

Back in the sacred grove, Aethlinga watched the visions with him. Her face, so slender and beautiful, was deformed by fear and the sorrow for what was to come. For what was to come to him.

“Be strong,” she said. “I know what we ask of you. There is no justice in it—but you were born to perform this task. This bitter cup is yours to sip alone. I am sorry.”