The town of Lansberg was every bit as squalid as I remembered. The stench of open sewers assailed me even before I'd got within a mile of the city walls. As I walked along the road I could see the impoverished huddle of buildings squeezed around the rocky outcrop. Perched on the highest point was the splendour of the King's palace, like a jewel atop a dung-heap. Except I think I've lost my metaphor somewhere, because to my mind King Edmund was the biggest turd in the whole town, and he was probably equally fond of me - ever since I'd paid one of my lightning visits to his domain, five years before.
My parents called me Corrine, although I'm known by a lot of other names. To some (the terminally twee) I'm the "light-fingered-lass'. The bards call me "the Queen of Magpies" - but that's poets for you. A lot of people call me "that thieving bitch'. I would guess King Edmund is in the last group. It wasn't as if it was a particularly nice crown, but kings tend to put sentimental value on such things.
Of course, there was now a price on my head in Lansberg. I try not to let things like that worry me, certainly not enough to keep me away from somewhere I really want to go, but Lansberg is such a miserable dump I wouldn't have set foot in the place again if it wasn't for the Events that had reached me the month before. The King had a daughter well into marriageable age, yet dozens of hopeful suitors had been turned away. No-one was good enough for the princess, until one rich noble finally proved himself worthy. He offered as bride-price a fifteen inch high statue of solid gold, encrusted with rubies and holding a diamond the size of a hen's egg. As soon as King Edmund set eyes on the statue it was love at first sight - who says royalty have no sense of romance?
The guards at the town gates let me through without a second glance, no doubt they thought me some farmer's boy, drawn by the glamour of the big city. Farmer's boys can have strange ideas like that; personally I've seen more glamorous pig-sties. If it hadn't been the same five years before I'd have felt guilty, thinking King Edmund had pushed taxes sky high to buy himself a new crown, but even back then the King had been extorting every last penny he could. The common-folk get a rough deal everywhere, yet King Edmund's domain stands out as one of the worst. The poor starve in the gutters, while the rich don't know what to spend all their money on, and then they wonder why thieves like me become folk-heroes.
I remembered "The Green Dragon" from my last visit. The beer was indifferent but the gossip was excellent. It was just around the corner from the guards" barracks, and a good place for overhearing useful things. Nobody paid me any attention as I sat in a dark corner with my tankard. It was a bit early in the day when I got there, only a few customers in evidence. So, while I waited for things to liven up, I spent my time wondering how much longer I'd be able to continue in my vocation. I could still pass myself as an adolescent boy, but the crow's-feet at my eyes were starting to show. Bar-room gossip is vital to a thief, however the only women who go into taverns are whores - I could disguise myself as one easily enough but playing the part convincingly might require that I go beyond the acting stage.
I'd got as far as considering the possibilities of a false beard when three guardsmen entered the tavern. As casually as possible I sidled over. Now, if my luck was in, one of them would say something like, "I see they've put that incredibly expensive statue in the north-east room on the third floor of the tower."
My luck was not in. After half an hour the main thing I'd learnt was that the new sergeant was a "right bastard'. The nearest thing to relevant information was that the princess's name was Alicia and the prospective bridegroom was Duke Broderic. Then a tedious minstrel came in and started warbling away, which put a stop on all conversation. It was absolutely no consolation that the song was about me and how I'd stolen the smile from the face of the high-priest at the great temple at Talmar. Which is ridiculous, even allowing for poetic metaphor. It's true I stole the man's regalia, but his repertoire of facial expressions had never included anything that might be called a smile.
Two nights later I had found out what I needed to know and was standing at the rear of the palace, where the cliffs were at their most sheer. I remembered the site fondly from my previous visit. The cliff soared vertically for a hundred feet and when the rock-face finished the walls continued. They obviously considered it unscaleable so hadn't set any sentries at that point.
Yet, in my experience, nothing is unscaleable. Climbing is my big secret. Alone in my room I practice hanging from the ceiling by my fingertips and balancing with one toe on the skirting board. I make sure nobody sees me enter somewhere, else there would be moronic bards singing about Corrine, the human fly, and then people like King Edmund would put bars on all windows, even when they looked out over hundred foot precipices. In truth I think I enjoy climbing more than stealing, although I get a kick from both, especially when I'm stealing from a money-grabbing bastard like the King of Lansberg. I don't want to try and pretend I'm on some moral crusade. I only steal from the rich because they're the only ones with money. I don't do it to redress the social balance, but I don't feel guilty about it either.
The climb up to the palace wasn't even that hard, compared to some others, and the window would have let in someone twice my size. Slipping through the palace was almost too easy; King Edmund didn't pay enough wages to get competent guards. Before long I was in the throne room and there wasn't a soul in sight. There was an alcove to one side of the room with a iron grid padlocked in front. Through it I could see the statue. It was tasteless and overblown, as you might expect - no artistic merit. It might as well have been a square sign saying "I cost a lot of money'. It was in the form of an buxom nymph, with a dress picked out in rubies, holding a huge diamond over her head. Sometimes I feel a bit sad, knowing many of the things I steal get melted down and destroyed, but getting rid of that nymph would have done the world a favour.
The padlock presented no problems to my lock-picks. I soon had the grid open and was reaching inside. But the second I picked up the statue I knew it was wrong. It was far too light and the diamond felt soapy, like paste. It was a trick, I thought. Then I heard the footsteps and saw the light increase. I corrected myself - not a trick, but a trap, and I had walked right into it. It was especially galling that they hadn't even bothered to use real bait.
I put on my best display of nonchalance and turned around. Entering the room was the King, and a dozen men-at-arms, and a few nobles, and assorted officials, and a couple of pages carrying candles. It was only to be wondered that the King hadn't brought his favourite artist along as well to draw the scene for posterity.
I smiled and said brightly, "Ah, sire. I'm pleased you're here. Do you know this statue is a fake? Duke Broderic is trying to defraud you out of your daughter, and him one of the landed gentry. It's awful, you can't trust anyone these days." It was the best I could manage for humour. I know it wasn't really funny; it certainly didn't amuse the King.
Edmund glared at me. "Bravado to the last. You think you are so clever."
Actually, given the circumstances, it was the last thing I was thinking about myself, but I was spared the need for further idle chatter by the appearance of a young woman, who rushed into the room, wide-eyed. It now only needed the cook and the cat and the entire palace would have been there.
"Father. What's happening?" the new arrival said; from which I assumed her to be the princess Alicia.
"It's nothing my dear. We have just caught ourselves a thief." the King said, grimly.
"Is she the one who stole your crown?"
The princess's eyes fixed on me. I gave a little wave by way of acknowledgement. She was pretty enough, but personally I would have considered her a poor exchange even for the fake statue. She was playing at being daddy's little girl, right down to the put-on lisp. I would have aged her at sixteen, going on six.
King Edmund's expression grew even more vengeful at the mention of his lost crown. He turned to the men-at-arms and pointed in my general direction. "Take this thieving bitch down to the dungeon."
I was too disheartened to feel satisfied that I'd correctly guessed the King's pet name for me.
My cell in the dungeon was about twenty foot square; dark, damp and cold. The earth floor felt slimy. It stank. A sliver of mid-morning light squeezed through a tiny barred slit by the ceiling. But by the standards of the ordinary people of Lansberg it would have provided luxury accommodation for a family of twenty, although a domestic room probably wouldn't have included the chains and manacles that were attaching my wrists to the walls. (Or maybe it would - just because you're a peasant doesn't mean you can't have unusual hobbies.) During my career as a thief I had been in even worse dungeons, however on those occasions I'd had my spare lock-pick hidden in my boot and a wire file sewn into the hem of my shirt. Some swine of a bard had since put those details into a song which King Edmund had evidently heard. Before the jailers locked me in the dungeon I had been stripped and subjected to an unpleasantly personal body search. They had left me in replacement clothes that looked and smelt as if they had recently been used to swab the kitchen floor. I was stuck with the feeling that things had not quite worked out the way I'd wanted, and they were likely to get worse.
On the next day I was due to be tried and executed. I couldn't really complain that the verdict was being treated as a forgone conclusion, although I think a bit of suspense adds to the drama of a trial. I knew Lansberg had several imaginative methods of public execution. Someone had once told me the one specified for theft and I was working very hard at trying not to remember the details. By way of distraction I was examining the locks on the manacles when the cell door was pushed open.
During the course of the morning several local notables had come to gawk at me; this time it was princess Alicia herself. The jailer was clearly unhappy at leaving her alone with me but she ordered him to go and waited until the door had been shut before speaking.
"The statue was a trap set for you." I swallowed my reply, but I do hate the way people pass on important information when it's too late to be of any use. The princess went on. "It was Duke Broderic's idea. Father was so angry at you stealing his crown that he said if the plan worked Broderic could marry me. But he's an ugly disgusting old toad."
I guessed she was referring to Broderic rather than the King, but felt in either case it was an excessively flattering description of the man.
"If only you hadn't been caught." Alicia concluded, her tone almost matching my own feelings on the subject.
"I'm sorry, your highness, if my carelessness has inconvenienced you." I usually find irony goes right over the head of royalty, but Alicia seemed to pick up on it. She flushed slightly and looked at me directly for the first time.
"Do you know what they are going to do to you tomorrow?" she asked.
I wasn't sure if it was a rhetorical question but answered anyway. "In general terms."
"The sentence will be death by..."
I cut her off. "Why don't we let it come as a big surprise to me tomorrow?"
Alicia was silent for a few seconds. "Aren't you frightened?"
I shrugged. Actually I was scared shitless, but I wasn't going to give anyone the satisfaction of letting it show.
Alicia's eyes fixed on the floor as she said, "I don't want to marry Duke Broderic." I wasn't viewing my own future with any great joy but, before I could think of a suitable remark, Alicia looked up and said, "If I help you escape will you let me go with you?"
I managed to stop my jaw from dropping, but it was a few seconds before I could reply, "That's the best offer I've had all day." Which was true; there wasn't much competition. The suggestions I'd had from the jailers had been as predictable as they were unwelcome.
"But can I go with you?" Alicia insisted.
I studied the princess. Not having daddy around put years on her. She now looked as if might even be in her early twenties, and her behaviour had obviously shot up to that of a twelve-year-old playing at adventures. She returned my stare, waiting for an answer.
"Oh... yes. Of course." I said. It was ridiculous, but it wasn't as if I had anything to lose.
Alicia beamed. "Right. I'll be back in a couple of hours."
"Sure. I'll probably be around here somewhere."
Alicia rushed out. I didn't have any great hopes. She was probably going to bake me a cake with a file in it - if she could do anything as practical as cook.
The princess returned shortly after lunch. One of my noble visitors had been so impressed by my scintillating repartee that he had sent me a superb meal of stuffed pheasant with a bottle of vintage wine. Which goes to demonstrate the unworldliness of the aristocracy; it probably never occurred to his Lordship that the jailers would pinch it and leave me with mouldy bread and rancid soup. I hadn't been able to bring myself to eat any, so I was feeling a little less cynical at the thought of a cake, but Alicia didn't have one, with or without a file. What she did have was a key which unlocked the manacles. I admit I was astonished. It was a huge step forward, although I still felt Alicia was a few locked doors short of a dramatic rescue.
Alicia whispered to me, "Hide behind the door. I'm going to call my maid-servant, Madella. When she comes in you can hit her over the head and knock her out."
It always amazes me how royalty can be so off-hand about cracked skulls in the lower classes, however I didn't have time to think about the noblesse oblige and all, since the unfortunate Madella immediately trotted into the cell.
Now, I've never liked hitting people (with a few well-deserved exceptions) and a blow to the head is nothing like as reliable as stories make out. The victims are rarely knocked out cleanly. They are far more likely to either be dead, or still conscious and understandably annoyed. So instead I put my hand over Madella's mouth to stop her shouting out and was attempting an arm-lock, when the helpful maid-servant saved me the bother by fainting - she must have had her corset bound too tight.
By the time Madella came around I was wearing her clothes and she was gagged and manacled to the wall. Her eyes were wide with terror, so I whispered, "Don't worry, I'm sure they'll realise you're not me before things get too nasty tomorrow." but she didn't seem to take much reassurance from my words.
Before we left the cell Alicia completed my disguise with a blonde wig - I didn't see where she got it from and decided not to ask. I still didn't look much like Madella, but fortunately the jailers were too busy with the remains of my bottle of vintage wine to notice.
We stopped by a door to the palace courtyard, blinking in the bright sunshine. There were few people about and I was looking towards the gateway, evaluating my chances, when Alicia passed a large hat to me. I wasn't too sure about it fashion-wise, however it did have a gauzy black veil. "We're going hunting with my hawk. People will think the veil is to shield your eyes from the sun." Alicia said. She didn't need to add that it would also shield my face from view.
Alicia set off across the courtyard with me trailing behind. My spirits soared at the sight of the waiting horses, only to sink again when I saw the side-saddles. I hate them, I always feel as if I'm about to tip over backwards. Things were further complicated by the presence of one elderly knight called Sir Justin, a young page called Toby, and four nameless men-at-arms. Of course a princess wouldn't be allowed to go gallivanting about on her own - she might get lost and be forced to ask directions from some ordinary people. However, as our small cavalcade rode through the streets of Lansberg, I had to admit that the situation was getting better by the minute.
The spot chosen for falconry was some miles outside the town walls, on a patch of rough scrub-land at the edge of a forest. The hawk was released, then everyone milled around aimlessly. I watched the rest of the group; Sir Justin was engaging Alicia in a conversation about grouse, the men-at-arms were all looking deeply bored, and Toby was surreptitiously picking his nose. I wondered if Alicia had ideas about me knocking all of them on the head. I turned to look at the nearby trees. If it wasn't for the wretched side-saddle I might have fancied my chances in making a bolt for them.
Suddenly my attention was recalled by a squeal from Alicia. "Oh no. Mr Squawk has got caught in that tree! Oh look, he's hanging there!"
I stared at Alicia in disbelief. She had a peregrine falcon called Mr. Squawk? No wonder it had decided to hang itself in a tree. The poor bird was probably ready to die from embarrassment. And that wasn't the only problem I had with the princess's words. I followed the direction of her outstretched finger but could see nothing, and high overhead was a stationary black dot that looked suspiciously like a falcon.
Without directly contradicting Alicia, Sir Justin was trying to express a similar point-of-view, but the distraught princess would have none of it. She became increasingly emotional and at last exclaimed, "It's awful that you won't try to rescue poor Mr. Squawk. I'll have to go and save him myself."
She started to descend from her horse. At which point Sir Justin seemed to realise that he had no option but to humour her and stomped off towards the tree, accompanied by the men-at-arms. I don't travel much in courtly circles, but seem to remember hearing that it is considered the height of bad manners to tell royalty they are suffering from delusions. I'd never seen the value of the protocol before.
There was just Toby who'd been left minding the horses. Alicia looked down at him. "Oh, go and help as well. It's all right. Madella can hold the reins."
What small boy needs to be told twice to go climb a tree? In fact, much the same could be said for soldiers in their twenties and thirties. The men-at-arms looked as if they were enjoying themselves for the first time that afternoon, but their progress up the tree was frankly pathetic - if that was their best attempt at climbing it was small wonder they thought the cliff-face below the palace didn't need guarding.
Alicia spoke to me out of the corner of her mouth. "Right, let's go, but slowly at first."
We set off at a casual amble and had gone twenty yards before the first hesitant shout came. "Er... your highness. Er... where are you going?"
"We're going to water the horses. But stay where you are, you must rescue Mr. Squawk." Alicia called back while we ambled on a few more yards.
"Your highness, you must wait. I'll send someone with you." Sir Justin was sounding nervous.
I glanced back. He was still dithering in the tree, and now we had a fifty yard head start, and we were on horses and they weren't. The odds were looking extremely good. At last the confused knight made up his mind and began to scramble down. Alicia gave a cry and urged her horse into a gallop and I charged along close behind. It wasn't easy, side-saddle and pulling six other animals behind me, but for the first time I allowed myself to remember that the maximum penalty for theft under Lansberg law involved the removal of several vital organs, with red-hot pincers playing an unfortunate part in the proceedings. The thought was remarkably effective in keeping me on my horse.
We didn't stop until we were at a small glade by a stream, several miles into the forest. Alicia was delighted with herself; she had even packed supplies in the saddle-bags of the horses; food, knives, blankets and two sets of loose-fitting men's clothes. While we changed she kept up a stream of chatter, it seemed as if she'd memorised every song there was about me, which was partly her father's doing. The King had made a point of hearing them all to get as much information as he could - information such as where I kept my spare lock-pick.
I completed dressing by pulling on a sheepskin jerkin. Alicia had a bit further to go since she was, presumably, not used to male garb and she had been slowed down by talking. She was currently saying, "I've got some jewels in the packs as well, I thought we could sell them at the next village and buy anything else we needed."
Of course! What peasant wouldn't have the ready cash about to buy a few diamond earrings, and they would look so fetching when mucking out the cow-shed. Alicia might have some good ideas about getting out of dungeons, but she didn't know the first thing about life outside the palace. The horses would be much easier to sell, and I had seven to dispose of. I hadn't tried to dissuade Alicia from getting changed, but it was nearly time to enlighten her about the way I saw things developing.
I strung the reins of the seven spare horses together and tied them to the saddle of the mount I had selected for myself. Alicia finished tying her boot-laces and watched me, slightly confused.
"Um... Corrine. Which horse am I going to ride?"
"Whichever one your father brings out here for you." I answered and glanced over. Her slight confusion had blossomed into full-scale bewilderment. I went on. "You're staying here. Don't worry. They're bound to send a rescue for you once Sir Justin gets to the palace. They'll be here in a couple of hours, and in the meantime you can amuse yourself making daisy chains, or something."
"You can't leave me here." Alicia said in alarm.
"Oh yes I can." I replied.
"But you said I could go with you." Something of the six-year-old's whine had returned to Alicia's voice.
I shook my head and said, "For one thing, I didn't say how far. And secondly, if you knew more about life, you'd know not to trust the word of a thief."
"But, my father..." Her voice trailed away.
"I'm sure daddy will forgive you if you smile nicely at him. And look on the bright side - now I've escaped you won't have to marry Duke Broderic."
"He'll make me marry someone else. Father has said he's had enough of me refusing all the suitors. He's threatened to..." She broke off and then said, pleading. "Why can't I go with you?"
I faced her and said, "Because you're an infantile princess who thinks this is some sort of game. And even if I thought you were serious you'd be a handicap and my life can be quite difficult enough as it is. I've got no use for a little girl, playing at adventures."
"I am serious. And I'll try to be useful. I'll do anything you want."
"Good, because I want you to stay here." I said, turning back to adjust my saddle.
"I mean it, I'll do anything." Alicia's voice dropped. "I'll even share your bed if you want."
It was the tone as much as the words that brought me up sharp. I looked at her. "What?"
Alicia's eyes showed her uncertainty, then she said, "It is true what they say about you, isn't it; that you take women as lovers, rather than men?"
Oh yes; the songs do say that. Some of the bards get quite excited by the idea and really let their imaginations run wild, although over the years I've given them a fair bit of material to work with. I pursed my lips and then said. "Yes, it's true. But I only sleep with women I deeply respect as an expression of a meaningful relationship, not as part-payment in return for services rendered." I think Alicia caught the irony in my voice, though I'm not sure if she realised the barb of the joke was aimed at myself and I didn't have the time to waste with explanations, even if I'd wanted to.
I put my foot in the stirrup, about to get onto the horse, but Alicia sprung forward, caught hold of my shoulder and pulled me around. She kissed me full on the lips; but quickly, not passionately, as if she was trying to prove something to someone - maybe herself. I looked into her eyes. Genuine tears glinted there, and fear, and a lot else besides.
Suddenly all sorts of things about Alicia made sense; why she had helped me escape; why she had learned the songs about me; why she didn't want to marry Duke Broderic, or any of the other prospective husbands. It wouldn't matter what they were like, there wasn't any man Alicia would want. I looked away from her, rested my arms on my horse and stared, over the saddle, at the trees beyond.
If you listen to the bards you'll hear a range of options about my ancestry. In most of the songs I'm either the daughter of a prince or a peasant, although in some of the more imaginative ones I'm the result of a brief liaison between a shepherdess and the god of thieves. In fact, I'm from a respectable family of merchants. When I was thirteen a local landowner asked for my hand in marriage. I was the oldest of five sisters, so my parents were keen to start off-loading us. My mother spent days telling me (in decreasing order of truth) about the landowner's wealth, his good-looks, his intelligence. When the coaxing didn't work my father tried threats. When they didn't work he started putting the threats into effect, which is when I decided to run away to the neighbouring city.
I'd had hopes of making my own way in the world, learning a trade. I must have been even more naive than Alicia. I soon learnt that the only profession open to me had a long-standing tradition, but was not one I fancied. Wife or whore, the only place a woman could earn her living was in a man's bed, and I've always thought "whore" the cleaner option, you only had to sell your body, not your soul. After two weeks in the city I was penniless and starving, so at first I stole food to keep myself alive, then I started stealing money to buy food, and then I carried on stealing because I'd found I was good at it. They wouldn't let a woman be a tinker, a tailor, a soldier or a sailor, but they couldn't stop her being a thief.
I looked back at Alicia. She was a princess but, at the end of the day, she had exactly the same career options as any other woman. I shook my head at my own stupidity. Letting Alicia go with me was insane, but you don't get the best stories from acting sensibly and I never could resist a good drama - small wonder the bards love me.
"All right." I said, "You can come. Take the horse at the end."
For a moment it looked as if she was going to try and kiss me again, but I stopped her. It was something we would have to sort out. I've been in the same situation enough times before to recognise all the signs. Alicia thought she was in love with me - but she wasn't. What Alicia wanted was a woman. I was just the first woman she had ever met who she could imagine might want her - but I didn't. I find juvenile infatuation a turn-off. However it wasn't the most pressing of my problems. Even if they hadn't discovered Madella yet, Sir Justin would be well on his way back to the palace and soon someone would be organising a pursuit.
I hopped up into the saddle and looked down at Alicia. "If you're sure you want to come we've got some hard riding ahead. It would be a good idea if we were a long, long way from here by sunset."
Alicia nodded and climbed awkwardly into a normal saddle, and then, side by side, we rode off through the forest.