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Chapter I - The Terun Apprentice

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Halia knew it would be simple to steal the gems. They were hidden in a pouch around the Terun’s neck. All she had to do was cut the string, grab the pouch, and run. She was easily twice as fast as he was.
The Terun in front of her spun around and stared into the darkness. He was short, as all Teruns were, but he was also thin and well groomed, an indication that he didn’t work in the mines. Halia ducked behind a stalagmite.
There was nothing wrong with taking the gems. They didn’t even belong to him, but perhaps she should have alerted someone to the theft and hoped for a reward instead. She peeked over her shoulder, down the gently sloping tunnel. The Undercity guards probably would have assumed she was the Terun’s accomplice and thrown her into the dungeon. She couldn’t trust anyone but herself.
Halia’s stomach growled beneath her ragged shirt, sounding like an old rat scrounging through an empty cupboard. It had been more than a day since she’d eaten anything of substance. She stiffened his muscles, hoping the Terun hadn’t heard anything. After what seemed like an hour, he continued his ascent. Halia relaxed and crept toward him, remaining close to the tunnel wall while minimizing the sounds of her movement.
The Terun passed a couple of side tunnels without slowing. His home must be somewhere on the mountainside, and he was obviously anxious to get there as quickly as possible. He was a perfect target, distracted and laden with jewels. Halia slunk behind him, placing her hand on a small knife hidden beneath her belt. She could almost taste the sumptuous meal she’d buy with her newfound wealth, but her heart nearly stopped when two powerful hands slammed onto her shoulders and forced her to the ground.
“Look what I caught, Nerv,” said a gruff voice said. “There seems to be a young thief on your trail with her eyes on our gems.”
“I thought I heard a noise back there,” said Nerv as he approached Halia, laughing when he was three steps away. “This is no thief, Veld. She’s but a child, half a child from the look of her.”
“Child or not, she’ll warn the guards if we let her go.”
“Are you sure she saw us?”
“She knows what we did.” Veld squeezed her shoulders tighter. “Why else would she track you?”
“I won’t tell anyone about the gems,” said Halia. “I could have turned you in when you stole them last night, but I said nothing.” Tears streamed down her cheeks. “I only wanted to buy some food and clothing. Please don’t hurt me.”
Still holding her down with one hand, Veld unsheathed an axe from his belt. He brushed her neck with the sharp metal blade. Halia wriggled to free herself of his grip, but he dug his fingers into her skin. Each digit felt as hard as stone. For someone so small, the Terun was surprisingly strong. If she were bigger she might have been able to lift his entire body off the ground, but for now, she was at his mercy.
“Wait,” said Nerv, jumping forward. “Can’t she help us in the towns to the south? They’d trust a small girl more than you or me.”
“Yes, yes, I can help you,” said Halia. “I’ll do whatever you want.
Veld released her, waving his axe in front of her face. “If you turn on us, this blade will be the last thing you see.”
Unable to stop shaking, Halia stood with difficulty. Although she was still growing, she was already taller than either of the two Teruns. Her head was a tangled mess of long black hair, her skin and clothes were caked with dirt, and she was so thin that bones were visible beneath the skin of her cheeks, arms, and legs.
Nerv tossed her a piece of dried meat and turned up the passageway. Daylight was a bright speck in the distance.
“Let’s make haste,” he said, “or we’ll have the guards to deal with as well.”
“If any guards were following you,” said Halia between bites, “I wouldn’t have been here at all. They’re none too stealthy.”
 
It had been several weeks, but Halia had finally mastered her first skill. She rolled an open padlock between her fingers, feeling the curve of the cold metal against her skin.
“How can such a young child eat so much food?” asked Nerv, dropping an armful of dried mushrooms and hard biscuits onto a stone table at the back of the cave. “You eat more than both Veld and me.”
Halia hopped off a small ledge, held out the open lock, and smiled. Nerv examined the object and tossed it aside.
“And how do you grow so fast? I swear you were not this tall two days past.”
“Aren’t you impressed that I opened the lock without help?” asked Halia. “I could do it with my eyes closed, but it would take longer.”
“Yes, yes, you’ve done fine work,” said Nerv, “but there are more tasks for you to learn.”
Halia sifted through a pile of similar padlocks on the ledge. “Nothing of value would be protected by one of these flimsy things. Where are the more complicated locks? I’m ready for them.”
“Not yet.” Nerv led her away from the ledge. “Come with me.”
Halia kicked the open padlock across the floor.
“We’ll get to the good ones soon,” said the Terun, bringing a grin to her face. “But first, you must learn how to climb.”
She followed him along the trail to a steep section of the mountain. Halfway up the cliff, a hunk of meat hung from a wooden pole that had been pounded into the rocks.
“That explains the banging noises,” she said. “I would have come outside to investigate, but I didn’t want to interrupt my practice.”
“I thought I was too far from the cave for you to hear,” said Nerv, smiling at her. “Your ears are quite strong.”
She gazed upward. “As is my appetite.”
“Would you care for some of that meat as your next meal?”
“All of it.”
“Then you must fetch it with no ropes or tools. Take care when you climb—”
“This should be easy enough.” Halia jumped onto the side of the mountain and scrambled upward like a spider. “I climbed trees all the time when I was little.”
“Rocks are not like trees,” said Nerv.
Halia had barely cleared the top of the cave when a stone loosened under her foot, sending her tumbling to the ground. Scraped and bleeding, she brushed the dirt off her legs, looked up at her goal, and grabbed onto the mountainside again. Maybe it wouldn’t be as easy to climb the mountain as she’d thought, but she’d succeed nonetheless. She had overcome far more difficult obstacles than a few loose pebbles.
Nerv put his hand on her arm. “Test the stones first and then add your weight to them.”
He reached up and yanked on a small outcropping at Halia’s eye level. At first, the rock didn’t budge, but as the Terun continued tugging, the rock moved slightly. A moment later, it crumbled into hundreds of tiny pieces.
“If you were up there,” he said, pointing at the meat, “you’d be dead now. Don’t risk your life for a bit of speed.”
“I’ll do as you say,” said Halia. “Many good thanks.”
She swept the remaining fragments off the mountainside before moving upward slower than before, testing each handhold and foothold. When a rock crumbled in her fist, she steadied herself with her other limbs. A hearty meal would soon be hers.
 
The next few months were more demanding than when Halia had been alone and hungry, but Nerv was always ready to give advice and encouragement. After completing an unusual assignment one morning, she was about to enter the cave when she heard Nerv and Veld talking about her. She remained by the opening, just out of sight, and peeked in. They might have been planning a surprise because of her recent progress.
“Where’s the child now?” asked Veld.
“I sent her on a quest to find some coins I hid on the trails,” said Nerv. “It should take her an hour or more.”
“She has keen eyes. We might have less time than you think.”
“That may be so. Should I check on her?”
“Not yet.”
Veld crouched near the ledge at the back of the cave, jammed his fingers into the floor, and lifted a flat stone. Beneath the hidden panel was a small wooden chest secured by a Terun padlock, similar to the one Nerv had taught Halia about the day before. Veld removed a key from a string around his neck and unlocked the chest full of gold and gems.
“Is this not all we need?” asked Nerv.
“We need much more,” said Veld. “Four or five chests like this one.”
He dug his hands into the treasure and let the gems trickle through his fingers.
“Four more chests would take years of work.” Nerv backed away and leaned against the ledge. “I don’t want to wait that long.”
“It won’t take long if we move our work to Zairn.”
“There’s no gold on the farms,” said Nerv. “The fourth ring has no more than old shops, and naught but guards live in the third ring. Zairn is not worth our time. At best, we’d lose a hand when caught.”
“I have a plan for the big town.” Veld dipped his hand into the chest again, scooped out a fistful of gold, and tossed the coins to Nerv. “Get some new clothes for the child, and buy cloaks with deep hoods for all of us—the best silk you can find.”
Nerv caught most of the gold and knelt to pick up the rest.
“We should let her go,” he said, hiding the coins in his pouch. “She does not share our dream.”
“The child owes us a debt. She can go once she’s paid us for our aid.” Veld returned the chest to the secret area beneath the loose stone. “Have you not taught her our ways?”
“It was a slow start, but she learns quite fast now. Few grown men know such things.”
“Good now,” said Veld, heading for the exit. “We leave in one week. Teach her what you can these next few days. Trust me; I won’t risk our hands in Zairn.”
Halia intended to dash away before Veld saw her, but she froze when a large ogre blocked her retreat. The stocky creature swung a stone club at her, missing by inches as she fell backward and screamed. Nerv and Veld charged out of the cave with their weapons drawn.
“Leave now,” Nerv shouted at the ogre.
“The beast must die,” said Veld.
The ogre hesitated, allowing Halia to scramble away and get a better look at the powerful creature. Its upper legs were almost as thick as Nerv’s body, and its arms weren’t much thinner. It might have passed for an oversized human, but its eyes and tongue were dark green. The ogre growled, revealing a mouth missing most of its teeth, and swung at the Teruns.
Veld ducked the club and lunged with his axe, digging into the ogre’s arm. The creature held on to its weapon as it wailed in pain.
“This one’s old and weak,” said Nerv. “Let it go.”
“Don’t fall for its tricks,” said Veld, swinging again. “Now that it’s found our home, it will come back at night to eat us. It might bring friends, as well.”
The ogre blocked the axe with its free arm and pounded Veld with the club. The Terun staggered away, clutching his side. Nerv stepped in front of the ogre and waved his axe.
Halia grabbed a large rock in one arm and climbed the mountainside. When she was well above the ogre’s reach, she dropped the rock onto its head. The ogre swung its club at her, smacking the side of the cliff below her feet. While the creature was distracted, Nerv hacked at its leg, digging into the scaly flesh.
The ogre roared again and tackled Nerv, crushing him against the ground.
“Nerv,” shouted Halia. “Can you hear me?”
The ogre’s body covered the Terun. Halia leapt off the cliff, hoping her mentor could survive the crush of such tremendous weight. She didn’t want to be alone again.
Veld crawled closer, buried his axe in the ogre’s neck, and helped Nerv squirm out from beneath the enormous bulk. Halia put her hand behind Nerv’s head for support, but he seemed to prefer the feel of hard rock against his skin.
“You did well,” he said, out of breath but otherwise unharmed.
“Did you see us in the cave?” asked Veld.
He was really asking if she’d seen the gold and gems.
“I was just returning with Nerv’s coins when the ogre surprised me,” said Halia. “Luckily I was close to the cave, or I might have been its dinner.”
She faked a shiver.
“Many thanks for saving my life. I don’t know how I could live without friends like you.”
“Of course,” Veld said, bringing the bloody axe closer to Halia.
If he didn’t believe her story, he might carry through with the threat he’d made in the Undercity tunnel.
“Come,” said Nerv, taking her hand. “We have clothes to buy.”
 
“Pull down your hood,” said Veld. “It’s not good to show your face.”
Halia covered her head with the hood of a gray cloak, which obscured her view of the city. Nerv was ahead of her and Veld was behind as they crossed the stone wall into the fourth ring of Zairn. The Teruns pulled their cloaks against their bodies and hurried along the crowded street.
“There are more people in this ring than in all of Terun City,” she said. “This is the most amazing place I’ve ever been. Each time we return, I see something more exciting than before.”
“You can live here when our work is done,” said Veld.
“I don’t want to leave the mountain. My home is with the two of you, as long as we don’t spend too much time underground.”
Veld pushed her forward. “Keep your mind on the task.”
The tall spires of an old castle rose above the rest of the city. Zairn was laid out in seven concentric rings around the ancient castle. Sturdy walls of stone separated the rings, the outermost of which spread far inland to encompass farms and small villages.
“Is that where we’re going?” asked Halia.
“There’s naught but old stones in the first ring,” said Nerv, keeping both his head and his voice down. “Our goal is—”
“We’ll be there when the sun has set,” said Veld, bumping into Halia when she stopped outside the door of a swordsmith.
A dull red glow lit the inside of the shop, where a dozen silver blades leaned against the wall.
“Look at those swords,” she said. “If I knew how to use a weapon, I wouldn’t be afraid of anything.”
“Swords are not to be used by a child,” said Nerv. “And there are lots of flaws in that steel. Men don’t know how to forge blades.”
Veld shoved her again. “Don’t stop in the street or we’ll have to come back next week. There’s less than two hours left.”
“Haven’t we stolen enough gold?” asked Halia. “It doesn’t seem right to take more than enough to keep us fed and clothed.” She fingered her cloak’s hood. “This material is good quality. Maybe we can stop these thefts and get by with something less fancy.”
“We need more,” said Veld, nodding toward the end of the street. “But this will be our last time if all goes well. Move now.”
Before reaching the gate to the third ring, Nerv left the busy street and led them north along the old stone wall, past a deserted alley, through a field overgrown with tall grass, and across a small stream. They stopped at a section of the wall where indentations appeared at irregular intervals from the ground to the top. In the past, its sheer face might have been unscalable, but now it looked as easy to climb as the mountainside.
“The third ring holds the town guard,” said Nerv. “They must not see us slip by. When you get to the top, peek once and climb down.”
Halia approached the wall. It was twice her height but far shorter than anything on her training excursions. High above, the sky grew darker. Night was coming. She reached for a small pouch on her belt, but Veld latched on to her arm and pulled her down to his level.
“Use my dust,” he said, pouring gray powder from his own leather pouch into her hands. “It’s made from a rare stone to help your grip.”
“Many good thanks,” said Halia, clapping her hands to free any loose particles.
Veld’s powder seemed no different from hers, but the difference might have been too subtle for a human to detect. She felt for a good handhold, hoisted herself off the ground, and was soon waiting on the other side for her two friends.
 
With only the waning crescent moon to light the way, Halia stayed close to the Teruns, wondering how they moved so quickly through the dark. Occasionally, they paused in the shadows as a group of soldiers carrying bright lanterns marched down the street. What could be so important to steal that would make this their last time? From the size of Veld’s hidden treasure, which had tripled in the past month, it shouldn’t have been necessary to complete the mission.
Nerv stopped at a mansion that looked more like a fortress than a personal dwelling. The nearest wall was solid brick, except for a pair of steel-reinforced windows near the roof. The front door had been carved from a slab of marble so large a giant couldn’t have broken it.
Two guards in chainmail stood motionless on either side of the entryway. Each carried a hefty sword at his side and a round shield over his back. If they weren’t protecting something of great value, they wouldn’t have been so heavily armed. Veld might have been telling the truth when he said this would be their last time, but it would also be their most difficult.
The three snuck to the back of the house, where it was even darker than the street side. The rear wall had a single window, not much larger than the ones in front.
“There must be an easier target than this mansion,” said Halia when she was sure the guards couldn’t hear her voice. “There’s no escape if we become trapped inside. The only window is too high to jump from.”
Nerv turned to her, stumbling on a loose stone in the soil. “We—”
“We have no choice,” said Veld as he tossed a grappling hook up to the window.
The metal claws caught the sill.
Veld tugged the rope and said, “You go first, child.”
Halia climbed the rope and slipped through the window into a small room. As soon as her feet touched the floor, metal clanked against wood. The grappling hook was gone. She waited a minute, thinking it must have come loose accidentally, but when no other sounds came from outside, she shuffled to the window and looked down. Only Nerv returned her gaze; Veld was nowhere in sight.
“Why do you stand there? Send up the rope,” she called in a loud whisper.
Nerv didn’t respond.
“Is this another test?” she asked. “What would you have me do?”
With a final glance at her, Nerv disappeared into the night. Halia was alone and stuck in the upper floor of the mansion, her heart thumping against her chest. If she jumped down, she’d break her legs and be caught. Her only chance was to leave through the front door after distracting the guards.
She tiptoed out of the room into a hallway illuminated by flickering lanterns. Calmed by the soft light and the fancy surroundings, her breathing steadied, her limbs stopped shaking, and her mind cleared. There wasn’t anyone else in the house. Perhaps the master was attending a ball in the castle or having an exciting voyage across the sea.
Several ornate doors lined the hallway. Each one could have been hiding uncountable riches, but more important to Halia was a curved staircase leading to the lower floors. She made her way down the marble staircase, wondering what she was supposed to learn during this test. If Veld had wanted her to steal something, he should have told her before he left, and if he’d wanted to teach her to escape, the task would be much too simple. She’d hide in a room near the front door, make a noise loud enough for the guards to investigate, and dart away when they were busy searching for her. It was a perfect plan—except for the dog.
The loud barking startled Halia, causing her to tumble down the last few stairs. The two guards barged through the front door, swords drawn, and cornered her before she had a chance to recover.
“I told you I heard something,” said one of the guards. “We have a burglar.”
The other guard laughed. “This is nothing more than a child—a young girl, no less.”
“What did you think would happen if you tried to steal from this house?” asked the first guard.
“I didn’t steal anything,” said Halia, shaking. “I thought this was…my house.”
“I doubt that.” The first guard joined in his comrade’s laughter. “No children live in the third ring.”
He grabbed her arms and yanked her to her feet, practically holding her in the air. In a single move, he cut the pouch off her belt with the tip of his sword, flipped it into the air, and caught it with his other hand.
“There’s nothing in there,” said Halia, “except powder for my face.”
She waved her hand in the air. “To keep the bugs away.”
The guard squeezed the pouch. “I doubt that, as well.”
He emptied its contents into the same hand that held the sword. A glint of red light sparkled from his palm. He was holding an enormous ruby attached to a thin silver necklace.
“The Eye of Glynwold,” said the second guard. “We’ll be heroes when we return this stolen jewel. Where are the others?”
Halia was truly surprised. “I’ve never seen that necklace before.”
“The captain vowed to capture you if he were forced to track you to the end of the world,” said the first guard. “After all those expert thefts, how could you have been so foolish as to break into his own house?”
Instantly Halia knew what the Teruns had done, but she had no time to think of revenge. A swift blow to her head sent her into unconsciousness.
 
“But you escaped,” said Xarun.
“I wouldn’t be here otherwise.” Halia tossed a piece of wood onto the dwindling campfire. It had been more than a dozen years since she met Nerv and Veld, but it felt like days.
“It wasn’t easy to escape, especially after they tortured me,” she said. “They tore the skin off my back with whips and threatened to remove my fingers one at a time. I told them about Nerv, but they didn’t believe Teruns would teach me such closely guarded techniques. I’m lucky the captain underestimated my abilities when he realized there had to be accomplices, Teruns or otherwise. I managed to keep my life as well as my hands and feet.”
She wiggled her thin fingers at Xarun and grabbed another branch. Her straight black hair ran down to the center of her back, brushing against the ground when she bent to pick up the wood.
“The guards chased me from the city into the forest, where my life was constantly in danger. Because of those traitorous Teruns, I was forced to sleep in streams to keep my scent from predators. Leeches feasted on my blood at night, and I ate them for breakfast. I’ll retch if I keep thinking about it.”
“Forget those Teruns.”
“I can forget Veld,” said Halia. “He never liked me and I never liked him, but Nerv pretended to be my friend. He was one of the few people I looked up to.”
Xarun gave a hearty laugh. “Teruns are tiny.”
“You know what I mean,” said Halia. “He’ll pay for what he did to me when I was a child.”
“He’s probably dead.” Xarun stood and stretched.
In the darkness, he could have passed for one of the evil mountain ogres, taller than most men, covered by tufts of black hair, and heavily muscled, but Halia knew him to be a devoted friend. More than once, he’d risked his life to protect others, including a few strangers. She passed beside him on her way to the fire and patted him on the shoulder, standing nearly as tall as he was.
“That would be a disappointment,” she said.
Xarun removed a hefty axe from the sheath on his back. The double-bladed weapon looked as if it could split a boulder in half with a single blow. A pair of intricate dragon wings etched onto each blade made the axe look even more fearsome. Xarun rested the weapon against the cliff. A thin layer of clear wax covered the ebony handle, polished until it was almost as shiny as the metal.
“Go to sleep now.” He curled up below a rocky overhang, yawned, and closed his eyes.
“Nerv is somewhere in these mountains,” said Halia, “and I know he’s alive. It’s been many years, but I’ll finally have my revenge.”
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