by Hannah Bruders
as published in The Windy Hill Review
The night air felt thick against Weed’s face as he glanced up at the moist gleaming stones around him and leaned back against the cold rock wall of his target’s home, trying not to twitch as passing wagon clattered. The nightly fog had settled over the aged crumbling streets of the city, but the alleyway seemed as bright it had when he had arrived at high noon. He huddled further into the tattered cloak he wore over his clothes and blew on his cloth-covered fingers as he tried to bring some warmth back into them. He stilled his fingers as they twitched towards the heavy metal hooks hidden up his sleeves and tried to ignore the lead heavy weight of the roll of lock-picks in his pocket. The thin leather satchel on his back, filled with rags, seemed to pull at his shoulders as he waited. The windows above him had gone dark hours ago, leaving him to sit and wait as time oozed by, slow as old honey off a spoon. He should have saved those roasted chestnuts he had bought for dinner. Although he probably should have saved the last of his coins, he had needed something hot to eat after a day of nothing.
A bright metal clang filled the streets and Weed jumped, his heart beating like a wren’s, as the central clock tower tolled. He struggled to slow his breathing as he counted the chimes. One, then two clangs sounded, and the silence resettled itself over the deserted narrow streets. Weed stood, filling his lungs with the sharp scent of wet stone and unhooked his cloak. Leaving it to pool on the cobbled floor of the alley along with his thin boots, Weed slipped his hooks into his hands and, after glancing towards the glow at the alley entrance, he turned to face the wall before him. He reached up and hooked the sharp point of a hook onto the edge of a damp limestone brick and pulled himself up to catch his second hook onto the wall, a few inches above the first. He repeated this, over and over, on and on, till his shoulders burned and twitched, worst than they had done when he was training, and his cloth-wrapped toes clung to the minute dips between brick and mortar.
After an eternity, he paused in his ascent to glance around and felt his mouth break into a wide smile as he saw his third-floor goal just an arm's length away. The moonlight glowed on the thick waxed parchment that covered the window and gleamed off its ledge, making the window look like the shining entrance to paradise. With another heave and a muffled grunt, Weed scrabbled up onto the stone ledge and, balanced precariously with one hand holding the window frame. Carefully perched, he gently pressed his ear against the screen and shut his eyes, listening. His heart thumped and the wind hissed around him, but there was no creak or rustle to be heard. Weed slid his dull battered hook under the sealed paper and worked it around the seam between the paper and the sill. The paper parted like silk under a knife and Weed smiled as he lifted the paper screen up, just enough to let him pass through, and slipped into the dark parlor room.
The smell of wax, wood, and dust filled his nose as he crouched on the floor. He bit his lip and held his breath as heat slowly slipped back into his wrapped hands and feet, making them tingle and burn, and stared into the blackness around. A creak made him tense, but he couldn’t move yet, not while still blind.
Slowly, he started to make out the faintest of shapes, appearing before him like wraiths from the mist. Most of the shapes were long and low, but some looked like small mountains with flat peaks and others like tiny lumps piled in rows. Then he started to see glints of cold metal and, liked a magic picture, the strange forms before him resolved themselves into fabric covered benches and tiny round tables covered in textured brocade. Shelves darkened to walls, filled with trinkets that glittered and gleamed.
He breathed out and straightened, pulling his knapsack from his shoulders. Gingerly he picked up a goblet, golden in the window light and studded with colored stones. It felt light and fragile in his fingers as he rubbed a thumb over the spiraling stem of the cup. He shook his head, after all, he couldn't afford to be distracted and forced himself to wrap up his first prize and pack it away. A delicate sculpture, a twisted silver rod, and a tiny ornate metal box filled with dried leaves were tucked in under the goblet. As Weed worked on wrapping an elaborate plate he glanced around, his eyes lingering on the plush fabrics and smooth white walls that were so different from his tiny dark garret room. The strange glass covered portraits on one table drew him and he idly glanced over the collection as he picked up a candlestick.
He felt a tingle run down his neck as he looked at the toothsome smiling faces of people he had seen this morning on the streets. The ruddy face of Durge, the head of their family store, grinned at Weed. Old Thelna, with her gifts of clothes to the poor, stood near the front. Little James, Helna the Kind, and others, all with familiar faces that he saw every day, stared at him, crowded around each other like a mob about to turn ugly, and he found himself gripping the candlestick like one of his hooks. With a jerk, he tore his gaze away from those eyes and slithered towards the yawning doorway across from his window entrance. He needed to finish this job. Neither rooming nor food was cheap.
He continued through the quiet house, pilfering silver and gold as he ghosted from room to room. His knapsack grew heavy as he slipped past the door to the servant’s quarters and up the carpet covered stairs, through doorways and corridors, until he reached the bedrooms.
With his feet sinking into the lush carpet, he entered the first room and paused in the black doorway, listening and watching. A stream of thin window light gleamed off the multitude of paintings that hung on the walls, turned a towering wardrobe and bookcase into watchful sentinels cloaked in shadow, glowed off a portrait resting on a bedside table, and pooled around a huge bed piled high with more blankets than Weed had ever seen in his life.
He slid further into the room, his eyes drifting along the walls and over the furniture, as he slunk through the shadows. A hint of sound tickled his ears, but it was whisper soft, just the faintest of breaths. Weed didn't give the sound much thought until he heard a harsh cough and the sudden loud rustle of heavy fabric. He froze, and a shiver crawled down his back like the skittering of spider legs, as a small groan came from the blankets piled over the bed and a tiny woman sat up.
Weed crouched in the shadows, his heart racing, as the tiny woman sighed and rubbed her wrinkled raisin-like face with stick thin hands. Her long cloud-white hair seemed to float around her head as she pulled herself up from the blankets like a zombie newly awakened from death and Weed swallowed a scream as the woman, no doubt the mistress of the house, looked around her room.
“Is someone there?” The old woman called in a voice that sounded like rust. Weed felt his stomach attempt to swallow his lungs as he crouched, unmoving, in the shadows and stared into that tiny face as its bulbous eyes, as white as pearls or bone, stared into his. He felt the first traces of sweat run between his shoulders and down his sides. The old woman sat with her head cocked to one side, still as stone.
The woman rubbed her face again, finally closing those eyes.
"Just your imagination. There's no one's there." Weed almost missed the woman soft words as she seemed to collapse like a broken marionette onto her pillows. As the tiny lady reburied herself under her pillows, and the muscles in Weed's back started to relax, he saw her bony fingers reach towards her bedside table. He watched as she fumbled across the smooth flat wood of the table until she found the carved frame of the portrait resting on it. Her fingers closed over the frame, so tight he could see her knuckles pale as she lifted the little painting from its resting place and pulled it under her covers. The blankets rolled like the sea at the port and he heard a faint keen. This tone, high as a bell, slowly grew louder and louder till it broke into a wet gasping sob.
Weed listened as this sob continued, growing louder then quieter in turns. When at last it slowly faded into hitching gasps and then into the slow breaths of uneasy sleep, Weed's legs had long ago surrendered themselves to pain. His chest and eyes felt oddly numb. As he drifted out of that room on silent aching feet, and down the stairs, he found himself rubbing his ribs with a hand that shook. His training held though and he retraced his steps through the building, as silent as a cat's paw.
Finally, he reached the sitting room that had served as his entrance into this den of riches, but now his knapsack seemed to cut into his shoulders. He stared at the room and found his gaze lingering on the holes he had left, like missing teeth, in the shelves, and on the tables as his hand clenched on its own. He felt strange, like he had been filled with cotton balls, as he slowly dragged the full bag from his shoulders and upended it onto one of the fabric-covered benches. Metal and gems glinted at him as they bounced against the fabric and he looked down at his loot.
He turned away from the pile and stepped towards the window screen, wincing as the cold air nipped at his ears and nose. Feeling like a cat hanging from a tree branch, he twisted around till he faced the window and slipped off the ledge inch by endless inch. His fingers had gone numb as he clutched at the cold stone. He glanced down at the cobbles below him, and his throat felt dry. He found himself uttering a small prayer. Then he let go.
He dropped to the ground with a grunt and a roll, just like he had been taught. His feet ached and his hands stung as he lay on the pavement, looking up at the mist obscured the sky. Hurriedly, he sat up and swallowed the high-pitched laugh he could feel building in his throat as he pulled on his waiting boots and old cloak. Fully clothed and slightly warmer, he slowly shuffled out of the alleyway and into the wind that whistled through the narrow streets. He pulled up his cloak hood, huddled down against the wind and started to walk. He bumped into a tall man in fine clothes who had been loudly singing as he stumbled along. Weed wrinkled his nose at the bitter reek of fermented strawberries and picked the man's pockets as they passed each other.