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The last Echo.

by  JRoyan

Posted: Tuesday, May 31, 2016
Word Count: 4759
Summary: This is the first chapter of a fantasy novella I'm writing. It's a story of adventure with forbidden magic as its focal point. Let me know what you think. I have a thick skin, so no holding back :-)

Chapter 1.

     Mouse crouched down in the tight space behind the rain barrel at the corner of Canal Street. He tried, with difficulty, to make himself as comfortable as the cramp space would allow. His position gave the perfect view of The Hatchet Inn, while at the same time, keeping him out of view from anyone on the street. The old man, who Mouse had been told to follow by his guild, had entered The Hatchet an hour or so before. Mouse had seen the old man some time later, closing the wooden shutters of an upstairs room. Mouse settled down for the wait. The wall to Mouse's back was the rear wall of a bakers. It was slightly warm, no doubt from the ovens at the back of the building, some small comfort while he watched from his cramped location. 
     Mouse had been told two days earlier, to acquire an item from this man. He had been given a good, detailed description of the old fella. Greying hair with a salt and pepper beard; a nose that had at least one old break, and most notable, a walking stick with the carved head of a hawk as its grip. His hooded cloak would be a faded black and in the style of a Strettan merchant. Mouse had spotted him the moment he had entered the city, well the thief's guild's corner spotters had at any rate, they had swiftly passed on the information. 
     He would wait in position for nightfall; when the streets were quiet he would make his move. Dusk was upon the city and lamplight had started to show through the windows of the buildings. Clouds covered the sky and the night would probably offer only muted moonlight for Mouse to work by. 
     Mouse was one of, if not the best sneak thief in Tambrooke. Something his mother would have no doubt been mortified about, had she still been alive to care. The fact that he was one of the best, and only thirteen years old would have not impressed her much either. After leaving the orphanage only a year after arriving, Mouse had begged on the streets until the guild had picked him up. They quickly put him to work, first as a corners spotter and later, a cut-purse. He showed a strong aptitude for both. The orphanage had promised to be his new family, they didn't live up to their promises however. In reality it was nothing more than a dumping ground for the unwanted dung-burning-peasant-kids of the city. The Thief's Guild had promised the same, however as far as mouse could tell, they meant it. He had been eagerly welcomed into the fold, the guild master, a great bull of a man, often ruffled Mouse's hair roughly, like his father used to do in greeting when retuning home from the tannery. He even smelt like his father had done when retuning from work. His mother had called it "Malodorous" what ever that had meant. That smell made Mouse feel safe for the fist time since the fire had taken his home and family away from him. 
     Mouse quickly showed an aptitude for the subtle art of burglary, much to the guild masters delight. The master had almost ruffled his scraggly brown hair clean off after Mouse's first success at sneak thievery. He had winced in pain at the time but remembered the moment fondly. Mouse was slight of frame and agile, possessing the skill of near silent movement, when he took care too. His name, Mouse, had be given to him by his father for this very reason. Mouse used to move silently around the family home without being noticed by his parents, unless he wanted too of course, then he could be as loud and as noticeable as his obnoxiously annoying younger sister, if not more so. That however was many years ago now, another life.
     Mouse watched as the night wore on. The doors of the inn had swung in and out all evening. Mouse counted patrons in and out also. Rowdy voices and tuneless singing escaped into the night every time the lamplight spilled out of the open door. There was a chill in the air tonight. It was spring time now, however winter had refused to give up the night entirely it seemed. 
    Mouse kept particular close attention to the shutters of the room above the front door. The gap between the wooden slats had gone dark a while ago but the common room downstairs was still alive with activity. Mouse counted twelve patrons left in the Hatchet, not including the staff. The wall behind him had chilled now and he had started to get cramp in his legs. He massaged his carves and wriggled his toes to stave off pins-and-needles. The clouds had moved on now too, leaving a pale half-moon shining down onto the streets of the city. Although darkness was normally his friend, the half-moon light would be of help later when he finally made his move.  
     The streets became quiet about an hour before midnight, apart from the odd person walking by. A courting couple had strolled past giggling and chattering like children. Although the time was late Mouse at first had thought they were a couple of girls, until they past into view. One, to Mouse's surprise was actually a man. Lacy cuffs and a mincing walk, but a man none the less, their arms linked tightly as they sauntered by. 
     Canal Street was a nice prosperous area of the city, all-in-all. Wealthy, with many shops and quality, skilled artisan workshops. An area considered safe to be about at night. Very unlike The Rots, where Mouse normally resided. It was not recommended to walk through his neck of the woods, day or night, if you could help it. A real snake-pit of charm. When he had started begging, Mouse had hung around Canal Street, only to be quickly moved on by the Red-coats. He had been repeatedly moved from street to street until he ended up in The Rots. This was where the guild recruiters had found him, half starved, cold and desperate. 
     After the girlish laughs of the couple had echoed out of existence, Mouse heard voices at the end of the street. He twisted a little to see, his back scraping the back wall, he was rewarded with a spasm of cramp. Men congregated on a corner, serious types, with swords. City Guard. The red cotton of their coats looking more brown than red in the darkness, their carried lamplight reflecting off their polished half-armour, glinting as they stepped from foot to food to stave off the cold, blowing into their clasped hands. 
"Great," Mouse muttered to himself, frowning from the shadows.
     The guards continued talking for a while before splitting into patrolling pairs and moving off, much to Mouse's relief. Their half-armour clinked as they moved down separate alleyways. The inn was down to seven patrons now. One of the serving girls had left giving Mouse hope that the inn would be closing soon. Mouse started to regret his decision to hide behind the barrel, it was becoming a little painful, with no room to relieve his bunched muscles. His usual spot would have been a high vantage point somewhere, a rooftop probably. But he was required to follow and execute the theft all in one. There had been no time for planning ahead. Had Mouse known the location the old man would be lodging, he could have done some proper planning. No matter, it wouldn't be long now. Five slurring men had just bowled out of the inn into the street and had staggered off together, their shuffling, scuffing footfalls and their drunken voices echoing off the crowding buildings and into the night. That left two, if Mouse had counted right. One more left shortly after, prompting most of the lights in the inn to be extinguished, however, pale light still came from the windows down below. 
     The remaining patron was ejected around midnight. His cursing was colourful and original. Mouse noted the phrases for future use himself. You never knew when a well-placed curse or insult might come in handy. The inn keep snorted, then slammed the door, almost knocking the drunkard of his already unsteady feet. More cursing followed. After the closed oak door received a long tirade of abuse, the man stumbled in the direction of the rain barrel Mouse was hiding behind. Mouse listened as the man came closer, staying as still and silent as he knew how. A meaty hand slapped onto the edge of the barrel, making Mouse's heart leap into his throat. He tensed, ready to flee if needed. There came a ruffle of clothing, and moments later, the sound of flowing water. Mouse frowned suspiciously...then the smell confirmed it! Mouse stayed motionless, while the man finished up, sighed, and moved off. Mouse reasoned it was time to make his move, the stink of the urine was enough to make Mouse want to change his current position anyway. 
     He surveyed the street before slipping out from behind the barrel. His muscles were stiff, so he stretched out, while keeping low, much like a cat would after a afternoons nap. His clothes were all dark grey apart from a tight brown leather jerkin, with a number of buttoned pockets at the front. The supple leather stretched as he did, but made no sound. Silence engulfed Canal Street. Mouse walked slowly towards the inn, keeping close the buildings to his left. With one more look up and down the street, mouse crossed the cobbles and entered an alleyway that led to the rear of the inn. 
     Mouse was not tall, about five feet, but he could scale most walls with ease. His small hands could find purchase in the minutest gaps in any stonework. He studied the inn's rear wall in the moonlight for mere moments before selecting his first handhold. He began to climb. He made short work of it and once up, he walked the wall's top to the small side buildings that hugged the inn. He vaulted onto its roof. He took a second or two to look and listen, swivelling his head slowly from side to side. He then continued up the roof, careful not to disturb the red clay tiles. The tiles were dry and his soft leather soles gripped well. In all his time as a thief he had never alerted anyone to his presence while on a job, and subsequently, never been caught. Any member of the guild who got caught and arrested would never work again in the city, even if they weren't hanged for their crimes. "There were no branded or one handed in the guild," Mouse had been told many times by the master. Losing a hand for theft was common, a brand on your neck was mainly for slaves but was often used a as way of getting information from prisoners. Either way, once caught the guild would abandon you, "with regret, of course," the guild master had said. This was why Mouse took as much care as he could while on the job. He was not about to lose this family too. 
     The next stage was to get to the main building’s roof. This was made easy by the thick iron down-pipe that the gutters drained into. Gutters were a new addition to the higher class areas of the city. You wouldn't find them in The Rots. Mouse loved them. Not for their ability to corral the rainwater into rain barrels, but for the way it made his job a lot easier. Tonight was no exception. He used it much like a ladder. Hand over hand with his soft leather padded feet to the wall. A slight overhang to negotiate and he was up on the main roof of the Hatchet. He quickly climbed to the summit and over the ridge. 
     His view of the street was total now. In fact his view to the entire west side of the city was pretty good. Moonlight reflecting off the sea of rooftops receding off into the distance, like cresting waves on a dark ocean. Specks of random lamplight cascaded all the way down to the city walls. The brassieres were burning, equally spaced, showing the curve of the western wall, as it continued on to encircled the city. Not a sole could he see or hear, the streets nearest Canal Street were deserted and silent. As Mouse had suspected the half-moon light was enough to navigate by and he moved confidently to the edge. 
     He had worked out his position in relation to the adjacent building and guessed where the old man's window would be. When he was sure, he lay on his belly and started to lower himself, feet first over the edge of the roof. This part never failed to get his heart racing. The feeling of empty air around his feet as they dangled out into the night was nervy to say the least. He extended, pointing his toes downward until he felt the window ledge that he had hoped was there. That was the a tricky part over. He lower himself further, planting both feet on the ledge. Mouse wiped the sweat from each palm in turn on his trousers, making sure to have one hand gripping at all times. It was naturally tight for space on the window ledge, but Mouse was able to crouch down enough to peer through the gap between the shutters; through the windowpanes, into the room. 
     He saw very little in the darkness of the room from the moonlit darkness of the street outside. He did however notice the window was unlocked and the shutters only had a simple loop-and-hook holding them closed. No one expected burglars at this height, Mouse assumed with a grin. He produced a thin length of metal from one of the pockets in his jerkin. He quietly lifted the hook through the gap and sett it aside. After tucking the simple tool away he opened one shutter. There was no wind tonight, thanks-be-to-Maker, so the shutter would stay open against the outer wall, no need to fix it in place. He turned his attentions to the window. Although not locked he needed to unlatch it and pull it open towards himself. No small feat when there was only five inches of window ledge to manoeuvre on. Again Mouse used a small metal tool from his jerkin pocket. This one had a hook at one end and was perfectly designed for just this job. Not only did it lift the latch but also held it in place as Mouse, ever so slowly, opened the window toward him. 
     The sound of slow, soft breathing could be heard from within the room. Mouse took a second to compose himself; took a few deep breaths of his own, then entered. 
     With the moonlight creeping in and the lamplight from the hallway coming from under the door to his left, Mouse could make out his surroundings well enough, after a few short moments. His eyes adjusted. He looked around the room. There was not much furniture in the room at all. A circular table, no bigger than a large bar tray with two stools pushed under it, a few odd and ends scattered on its top. A singled doored cupboard against the furthest wall, its door slightly ajar, part of some clothing hanging out preventing it from closing fully. The fire place had burnt cold to his right. A large rug lay centrally in the room, thick by its look and with tassels splayed out at two ends. Against the wall with the window, a chest of drawers stood, nothing atop it apart from a small mirror on a stand. Mouse’s focus drew to the single bed in the far right corner. In it lay an old man, asleep. 
     The room was silent apart from the rhythmic breathing of the sleeping man. His chest rising and falling, the only thing moving in the room. The low level of light offered little detail of the man's face but Mouse could see the walking stick resting against the bedside table; the outline of the hawks head just noticeable. This was the man alright. Now for the item he needed to get. Was it too much to hope that the book that he had been told to steal would be in plain sight. 
     Mouse took the greatest of care with his footfalls as he moved further into the room. A creaking floorboard now would be as effective as a shout it the silence of the room. Mouse had always trusted his luck when sneaking about, it had served him well in the past. He had always been able to move with stealth, but he had never really understood how he could walk on floorboards without them creaking, like they were prone to do for others in his trade. Maybe because he was lightweight? His peers had always cursed floorboards as a natural enemy of the sneak thief, but Mouse had never been betrayed by them, even in the oldest and most run-down houses he had visited. He was just lucky he guessed and put it to the back of his mind. He stepped closer to the round table to the left of the rug. Nothing but a mug, loose coins and playing cards laid out in a Full-Troop hand, the highest hand in The Game of Kings. There was a faint smell of coffee in the air, from the mug possibly. The coins were small so Mouse left them. The sound of coins might wake a rich man, the sound of money being close to their hearts and all that. He had no idea if this man was one of wealth but aired on the side of caution. Beside that was not why he was here. The book was the prize. A book about two hands tall and one wide, that was how it had been described to him by the guild. Blue leather backed, apparently, with a crest of some kind emblazoned in gold on the front. In this low light the blue would look black, Mouse reasoned but at the moment he could not see any books in the room, let alone a blue-black one. The bed side table would have been the best bet for a book, right? Bed-time-reading maybe? But no, nothing but the hawks head rested on that table.
     Mouse scanned the room, frequently looking back at the sleeping man to make sure he was remaining as such. His breathing had been steady the whole while and his chest rouse and fell slowly with his long drawn out breaths. While checking the old man, Mouse noticed the leather boots under the bed. They stood side by side next to a small cloth bag. Mouse went onto all-fours and crept towards the bed. Again the boards under him behaved and he stretched out a hand to take the bag from under the bed. The old man's breathing stalled. Mouse froze, hand still outstretched. Only his eyes moved upwards to look at the old man in the bed. Time stood still for a few of Mouse's increasing heartbeats. The old man snuffled, snorted softly and resumed his slow breathing. Mouse realised he had stopped breathing himself and started again slowly, still motionless, arm still outstretched. 
     He waited a few heartbeats more, then ever so gently pulled at the bag from under the bed. It came quietly. One of its straps became hooked to the heel of one of the boots. Mouse stopped pulling the moment he felt the resistance. The bag was out far enough for him to open it anyway. There was something inside the bag very much like the size of the item he was looking for. He crossed the fingers in his mind as he uncrossed the cords that synched the bag closed. He slid a hand inside, all the while listening to the breathing just above his head. His hand felt soft leather and the hard ridge of a spine of a book. Mouse afforded himself a smile. Maybe this job was going to be an easy one. He slowly removed the book from bag. The leather that bound it felt smooth and, as he had expected, on the front was indeed a crest in gold leaf embossed into the soft leather. A sun and moon in one sky. A small strap and lock held the book closed. Mouse was not planning on reading it anyway. He could read. his mother had taught him that much, but he had little time for books nowadays. This book however was worth the trouble of finding it. Three gold crowns for the book. The guild were no doubt be getting double that amount but Mouse would get his cut. Three gold would go towards helping Mouse get what he wanted most. He wanted to move out of The Rots. Move to a better part of the city. Out of the streets with streams of filth running through them and the constant threat of a chamber pot being emptied overhead, with little or no warning. Three gold was a good start towards it. No book was worth that much, to Mouse's mind, but he wasn't going to argue at the price he was going to collect. 
     It was time to leave. He stood slowly, holding the book in his left hand. The old man's breathing had continued to steadily draw in and out without change. Mouse looked upon the old man's sleeping form. Many lines traversed his forehead, thinning, greying shoulder length hair laid loose on the pillow. His liver-spotted hands rested on his chest. Mouse should be leaving, but instead found himself staring at the crow’s feet at the corner of the man's eyes...the man's open eyes!  Mouse leaped back in shock. He instantly turned and bolted for the window, kicking one corner of the rug up, almost falling, the book still held firm in his hand. 
"Stop!" the old man croaked as Mouse crossed the distance to the window. 
     Mouse gripped the window frame with his right hand and lifted a leg, foot onto the ledge. He tried to haul himself up but something was wrong. His right hand was stuck, stuck firm against the window frame. Mouse was dumbfounded, his face grimaced as he looked at his hand, he could see nothing holding it in place, but it was held firm all the same. He dropped back down and pulled at it frantically. He spun his head around to see the old man, now out of bed and in the centre of the room, stood in a white knee length nightshirt. He held his stick in one hand while the other, outstretched, was gripping what appears to be thin air. There was a slight look of strain on the old man's face, his right fist quivering a touch. Mouse looked closer at his own right hand, crushed against the wooden frame, the wrist white with pressure. Mouse forced himself not to panic. His wrist felt like he had an invisible manacle holding it in place, however the feeling around his wrist was not the cold grip of iron but the warmth of tightly clenched fingers. He tugged madly at his wrist, dropping the book to put two arms to the work. It shifted slightly, his wrist lifting away from the wood, just a little, only to be forced back with a thud. He looked again at the old man. The strain on his face was clearer now and he began steadily walking towards Mouse. 
"They said you were good," the old man said, in a confident but quiet tone. If he was surprised or concerned with the thief's presence, he didn't show it. Rather looking at the boy in front of him appraisingly, thoughtful even. "And they were also right about how stealthily you move," he continued. "Now, how do you think you do that, eh?"
     Mouse ignored the question and started to panic, still all the while wrenching at his hand. He was caught! The fear of being arrested and taken to the city dungeons by the red-coats was outranked by the fear of loosing his newly found family in the thief's guild. If arrested the guild would abandon him for sure. He didn't want to be alone again, he couldn't...he wouldn't! He tugged anew, as hard as he could. 
     When Mouse didn't reply the man in the nightshirt continued, "They told me all about you, Mouse. They said how good you were, how soundless you could be. I had to see...hear it for myself of course."
     Mouse bit this time, turning, sweat poring down his face now. "They?" It came out in a whisper. 
"Your guild, my boy" the old man said, matter-of-factly "You can't really trust murderers and thieves to tell you the truth, but in your case they proved to be accurate." The old man gestured to him with his stick. "I guess the gold I paid was enough to make honest men out of them, ironically it means they betrayed you of course, but as I said, murderers and thieves."  
     Mouse paused in his efforts for a brief second. The guild, his family, had sold him out, but why? Mouse's face fell, then came the pain behind the eyes, the pain that tears normally followed.
"They were quite right, you know. I didn't hear a thing as you broke in, not a thing. I may be old but my hearing is is as good as a hang on...that isn't right, is it?"
     Mouse shifted uncomfortably, eyes moving between the old man and his inexplicably stuck hand, tears building. "What have you done to my hand?"
     "Never you mind about that. Let me be the one asking questions for now," the old man said, never raising his voice beyond a whisper, arm still outstretched, hand gripped in a fist, as if throttling an invisible goose. "Now, I need you to relax, stop thrashing at that window frame and calm yourself down a moment."
     Mouse's mind whirled in confusion. On the brink of blubbering, he felt sick. His heart was a riot in his chest and he was stuck fast unable to escape. Calming down was the last thing his body wanted to do. Panic, fear and frustration boiled up in Mouse. His guild had betrayed him, after everything they had promised him, like the orphanage had promised and delivered only nightly beatings and days in service to the Monks of the Maker. Like his mother and father who had promised to always be there for him and his sister! It all boiled over, and came out of his mouth in a terrific, screaming cacophony of noise! The scream was loud! Louder than any boy of thirteen should be able to muster, his back arching with the effort as the sound erupted from his mouth. It sent the old man back a two step before he raised one large grey eyebrow in surprise at the outburst, then stepped forward again, a puzzle look now deepening his wrinkles. 
     His scream did nothing to loosen his wrist from the wood. Mouse stood, sweating profusely, gasping for breath. 
"Now lad, you didn't need to do that," the old man said flatly, shaking his head. "Just wanted a quiet chat is all. And you go start screaming the place down in the dead of night," he huffed, clearly agitated now. Movement could be heard from out in the hallway. How could there not be, the noise was loud enough to wake the dead. There came a banging on the door to the room. 
"Are you alright in there, sir?" came a gruff voice from the hallway. 
"Yes, yes, I'm fine," the old man replied. "All is fine," he added unconvincingly, shaking his head after he said it, presumable hearing how suspect it sounded in his own ears. 
"What's going on in there? Let me in, right now," the voice commanded. 
     Mouse looked at the door and then directly at the old man. Mouse started tugging anew with everything he had left. Suddenly, quicker than any old man should be able to move, the old man shot forward, bringing down the carved Hawks head at the end of his stick. Mouse felt the thud on his head, then felt no more.