A daring and talented thief gets more than he bargained for when he steals a strongbox being delivered to King Carrinthas. Chased across the realm by the king’s relentless military captain, Aethorn becomes embroiled in a strange conspiracy and finds himself desperately seeking answers. What is inside the strongbox? What is the light of Kamadhi? What really lies within the depths of the Cursed Forest?
Meanwhile, Lady Melayna is held captive in the king’s court and soon discovers that not all is as it seems. For some reason, King Carrinthas is jittery and always looking over his shoulder, muttering: “They are watching – always watching”.
Young Aethorn slunk through the narrow streets of Brownflagon, looking for someone to pickpocket. He would lose his hands if he got caught, but some things were more important than limbs.
Suddenly, an opportunity presented itself. A spice merchant had left his stall unattended while flirting with the baker’s daughter, so Aethorn slid by and stole the bulging coin purse that lay there. Smiling to himself, he pocketed his bounty and slipped away unseen.
Aethorn always knew when to seize an opportunity. It was like an inner voice spoke to him and told him when to strike. There was enough gold in the coin purse to feed his family for a month, but Aethorn had more urgent business to attend to. He ran straight to the healer’s house and banged upon the heavy oak door.
A disgruntled old man poked his head out of the window, dressed in elegant blue robes. ‘What is it, boy?’
‘It’s my father, sir,’ said Aethorn, catching his breath. ‘Please help him – he’s got the plague.’
The healer leaned against the windowsill, his mouth tightening. ‘That is unfortunate – alas, for Cursed Zedezek causes much suffering.’
Aethorn pulled out his coin purse and thrust it into the healer’s gnarled hand. ‘Please come and see him, sir. Can’t you heal him?’
The old man examined the coin purse with great suspicion. ‘Who’s gold is this, boy?’
‘My father’s,’ Aethorn muttered. ‘Please sir – it’s every coin we have.’
‘Very well, child,’ said the healer, pocketing the gold. ‘I cannot promise miracles. But I will see your dying father.’
Aethorn breathed a sigh of relief. He waited for the healer to emerge from his home, then led him through the plague-ridden streets of Brownflagon, a maze of thatched wooden buildings that creaked whenever the wind blew. The healer winced as they trudged through mud and streams of raw sewage, avoiding the beggars that reached out to them with blistered hands. Victims of the plague were huddled in alleyways, covered in hideous purple boils, with far too many children amongst their ranks.
‘Here we are,’ said Aethorn, stopping halfway up one of the smaller streets. He took the healer inside his home and guided him upstairs.
Aethorn’s father lay in bed, coughing and wheezing, his skin riddled with monstrous purple boils.
The healer took one look at him and shook his head. ‘I am sorry, child – there is nothing to be done.’
‘But there must be something –’
The healer threw up his hands in exasperation. ‘Pray to Blessed Loriah! Pray that his suffering will end swiftly.’
Aethorn’s mother looked up from her silent vigil, suddenly realising that there were other people in the room. ‘Aethorn – where have you been?’
‘Nowhere,’ he told her, but he knew that she did not believe him.
Once the healer had departed, his mother smacked him across the back of the head. ‘What have I told you about stealing?’ she cried. ‘Do you want them to catch you? Do you want them to chop off your hand? Or worse –’
‘I know what I’m doing,’ said Aethorn, his head now throbbing. ‘My instincts are always right.’
‘Promise me, Aethorn,’ his mother begged. There was a pleading look in her watery grey eyes. ‘Promise me that you’ll stop.’
‘But how else will we survive?’ Aethorn protested. ‘I’m too young to find honest work.’
‘We’ll find a way,’ his mother said. ‘I can’t lose you as well as your father. I just – I can’t let that happen.’
Aethorn’s father died during the night. He was delirious towards the end and did not even recognise his wife and children. ‘Ah, I see now,’ he kept on saying. ‘By the light of Kamadhi, I see!’
Nobody knew who or what Kamadhi was, but every time the word was uttered, Aethorn felt a powerful jolt within him. He tried to ask his father what it meant, but it seemed as though his spirit already inhabited the heavens.
The following morning, Aethorn was charged with looking after his two brothers and three sisters. He took them out to play while their mother grieved, but none of them felt like playing and wandered aimlessly through the dirty streets. Aethorn’s mind was elsewhere, trying to recall his strange and colourful dreams about Kamadhi, but they had already slipped from his grasp.
‘I’m hungry,’ said one of his sisters. ‘Do we have anything to eat?’
Aethorn sighed. He regretted giving the coin purse to the healer. ‘No, we do not – our pantry is empty. But if you leave it with me, I shall provide us with a feast.’
‘How?’ Brackley demanded. But then realisation dawned upon his small face. ‘No Aethorn – Mother said you shouldn’t –’
‘Fear not, brother,’ Aethorn assured him. ‘When have I ever failed you?’
Brackley was reluctant to let Aethorn go, but he agreed to watch over their siblings. Aethorn patted him on the shoulder and promised to reward him with something tasty.
Soldiers patrolled the busy marketplace, keeping a sharp lookout for any lawbreakers, but Aethorn was not deterred. He knew he could trust in his instincts, so he weaved in and out of the stalls and patiently waited for an opportunity to arise.
Merchants haggled with the wealthy market-goers, trying to seduce them with charm and guile. The town crier stood upon a barrel and reported worrying tidings from afar.
‘The men of Ghoris are on our doorstep!’ he shouted. ‘If the heathens take Blackbridge, then Brownflagon will be next –’
‘Silence doomsayer!’ warned one of the soldiers. ‘The men of Andulin shall prevail. Enough of your nonsense!’
The soldiers were clad in thick ebony armour with broadswords hanging at their sides. They were the protectors of Andulin, but they were also Aethorn’s enemies, standing in the way of his family getting fed.
‘Beware the Cursed Forest!’ proclaimed the town crier, quickly moving on to other news. ‘The God of Death dwells there, cursed be his name!’
‘Zedezek,’ Aethorn muttered. He was not afraid of this God. Many cowered in his shadow, begging to be spared, but when death stalked the town so mercilessly, Aethorn did not see the point in praying.
Suddenly, there was an almighty commotion. ‘Guards!’ cried the silk merchant, as a man crashed away from his stall. ‘Stop the thief!’
The soldiers drew their swords and gave chase to the culprit, who was making off with a roll of fine silk. Everybody watched as they bolted out of the square.
‘The fool,’ said Aethorn, shaking his head. He crouched at the edge of the marketplace and glanced around at the stalls, which were temporarily unguarded. If he was quick, he could take something before the soldiers came back.
The nearby jewellery stall caught Aethorn’s attention. The merchant there was helping a woman to try on a gold necklace, his wares exposed and ripe for the taking.
Aethorn took a deep breath and primed himself for what he was about to do, yet a horrible feeling snagged at his stomach – it was not safe to proceed. He waited for a few moments, convinced that this was the perfect chance to strike, but his uneasiness did not go away.
‘Why do I doubt myself?’ Aethorn wondered. He took another look around the marketplace and could not see any soldiers or vigilantes. The path was clear.
Despite his unease, Aethorn edged towards the jewellery stall. He needed to provide for his family now that his father was gone, otherwise Zedezek would claim them all.
‘My lady, you look absolutely divine,’ said the merchant, admiring the woman in her necklace.
Aethorn slid past the stall and pocketed a silver bracelet.
‘Thief!’ somebody bellowed. It was the town crier stood upon his barrel. He pointed at Aethorn with a crazed look in his eye. ‘Quickly – someone stop that boy!’
Dread filled Aethorn’s heart. He fled from the marketplace as fast as his small legs would carry him. A few soldiers sprang forth with drawn swords.
‘Surrender yourself, boy!’ they ordered. ‘Kneel in the name of your king!’
Aethorn ignored them and sprinted through the winding streets of Brownflagon. The soldiers struggled to keep up with him. After several minutes, he managed to lose them by hiding beneath a broken-down cart.
Lying in the mud, Aethorn cursed himself for his stupidity. Why had he ignored his inner voice? It had always served him so well in the past and yet he had let arrogance cloud his judgement.
Two soldiers marched past his hiding place, their ebony armour clinking loudly. Once they were out of sight, Aethorn scrambled to his feet and cautiously made his way home.
When he entered the parlour, his mother gaped at him and knew that something terrible had happened. ‘What have you done?’
‘I’m sorry,’ muttered Aethorn, bowing his head.
‘Where are your brothers and sisters?’
‘They’re out playing,’ Aethorn told her. ‘Brackley is looking after them.’
Suddenly, there was an unfriendly knock at the door. Aethorn and his mother glanced at each other in fright.
‘It can’t be them,’ cried Aethorn. ‘I shook them off – I know I did!’
The door burst open and several soldiers rushed in, pointing their swords at Aethorn. He gazed down at their sharp black edges and gulped.
‘No!’ his mother cried. She pulled him out of harm’s way and placed herself before the blades.
‘Stand aside, woman,’ one of the soldiers commanded. ‘Your son is a common thief. Let us take his dirty little hands.’
Aethorn’s mother shook her head. She picked up a carving knife and swung it around at the intruders. ‘Be gone, you devils!’
The soldiers descended upon her with their swords. She screamed as they hacked into her, but her carving knife kept on swishing.
Aethorn fled out of the back door, sobbing as he splashed through filthy alleyways. Somehow, he managed to stow himself aboard a merchant’s cart heading out of town.
Guilt consumed Aethorn as the cart trundled away. What would become of his brothers and sisters? There had been no time to find them and he probably would have put their lives in danger by doing so. They would be devastated when they found out that their mother was dead.
Aethorn blamed himself entirely for what happened. He had made a foolish error and he hated himself for it. From that day forward, he vowed that he would always follow his instincts, no matter where they led him.