The Flight of the Griffin by C.M. Gray

CHAPTER 1

An Uncommon Evening

The floorboard creaked under the sole of his felt boot – a calculated risk whenever entering a sleeping man’s room uninvited.

A breeze fluttered the loose linen curtain, and the sleeper stirred at the welcome respite from the hot sticky night. The prowler slowly exhaled the breath that was starting to burn in his lungs, every sense tingling, receptive to any change in the room or a sound from the street below.

The sleeper, thankfully, continued to sleep.

The street under the second-storey window was silent, the night given up to the occasional rounds of the city watch and those set on a darker business, the never-ending cat and mouse game that went mostly unappreciated by the law-abiding citizens of the sleeping city.

The summer had been one of the hottest people could ever remember, taxing the energy of the city’s inhabitants to the limit. Several of the more elderly citizens down at the port could be heard explaining that, ‘in their day’, the summers were often this hot, and indeed often hotter. Of course, these were the same group who would entertain the regulars at the portside taverns with tales of goblin hordes, ferocious sea serpents or the time the winters were so cold that the seas had frozen solid.

‘A man could have walked from here to Minster Island without ever seeing a boat or even getting his feet wet,’ was a much-repeated reminiscence. Whatever history really concealed, it was a hot summer, and this, a particularly humid night.

Pardigan watched the now softly snoring form and, moving his foot from the traitorous board, crept towards the cabinet that he knew held his prize. It was an elegant cabinet – its construction given over to more than mere function. Gracefully curved legs supported drawers and shelves that were fronted by a scrollwork of intricate designs. He inserted the blade of his knife between the edges of the middle left-hand drawer and felt for the hidden catch. If the information Quint had given him was correct, the false front should spring open. A prickle of sweat tickled his brow and he wiped it absently away. Glancing over to the still-sleeping form, he applied a little more pressure on what he hoped was the catch.

Nothing.

The merchant stirred, smacked his chops, exhaled wetly and then returned to snoring. Pardigan tried again.

Most people hated the fat merchant, known for his cheating ways and vile temper, so he and Quint had set about the business of planning to rob him with great enthusiasm. The break had come quite by chance when Quint had met the apprentice of a cabinetmaker who’d been happy to talk about the merchant, and the cabinet he’d helped his master build for him.

‘The shame of it is that the true beauty of the cabinet will never be appreciated,’ the apprentice had moaned. ‘Such a cunning mechanism my master contrived to conceal the hidden safe-box, nothing of the like have I seen before, nor I fear will I ever see again.’ He had been all too happy to describe and even sketch the piece for Quint who, of course, had shown great interest, marvelling at the skill of the cabinetmaker and, naturally, his gifted apprentice. Several glasses of elder ale had kept his new friend’s throat well lubricated, an investment in tonight’s escapade that they had both placed huge hopes in.

Up until this point, the information seemed to be good; the cabinet did indeed look like the sketch that he and Quint had spent so much time studying. Pardigan’s hopes had soared when he’d first set eyes on it as he was slipping over the windowsill. Right up until now that is, as his frustration grew. Because the Source damned catch simply wouldn’t shift – if catch it was. Pardigan was beginning to wonder if the real catch hadn’t been poor old Quint, whom the apprentice had conned into buying several glasses of elder ale on another blisteringly hot day.

Without warning, the warm still of the night was disturbed as the door to the bedroom opened with a creak, causing the hairs on Pardigan’s neck to stand up. He slowly turned, half-expecting to be staring at the tip of a crossbow bolt. Instead, a large grey cat slunk around the door, ran across and rubbed against his legs, purring as it sought attention. He ruffled its ears, before gently pushing the animal away. Without a backward glance the cat walked over and leapt up onto the bed. Settling comfortably against the sleeping merchant, it lay watching as Pardigan renewed his efforts.

He applied his knife once again. Nothing was happening with the left-hand side so he moved his attention to the right. An audible click echoed around the room, rewarding his efforts as the false door opened, wobbling the washbasin that sat precariously upon the cabinet’s top. The merchant turned over, groaning loudly and ejected the cat from the bed. It meowed, padded over to the open window and leapt to the sill. Ignoring Pardigan, it sat regarding the street below with a critical eye.

The merchant continued to sleep. He was back to breathing heavily, his fat sweaty chins bobbing with the effort of sucking in the warm moist air.

Pardigan returned his attention to the cabinet. Behind the false front was a small opening. Several moneybags had been carelessly tossed on top of some papers, a few old books and some rolled documents that had been stacked neatly above on two shelves.

Pardigan hadn’t had any real idea what he might find, but when he and Quint had been working out the finer details of the plan, they’d had plenty of time for speculation. Jewels, money and magical items had been on the hoped-for and expected list, but Pardigan now noted, with a certain touch of dismay, that there was a distinct lack of necklaces, rings and brooches in the safe. He turned over a few of the papers to see what they hid and wondered at the markings on them. He could read after a fashion, but only the local low-speak, enough to tell the difference between a bag of beans and a bag of rice. High-speak was for merchants and nobles.

He slipped several of the more promising-looking papers into his coat along with the moneybags, and then a small knife without a scabbard caught his eye. He picked it up. It had a blade about a hand’s span long and a plain blue jewel set in the pommel. He put it into his pocket and cast a last glance over the remainder of the contents. With a sigh, he gently reset the false front, watching the merchant’s face to make sure he wasn’t disturbed as the catch clicked softly back into place. Satisfied that he hadn’t been heard, he straightened and tested the new weight in his pockets. With a smile, he crossed to the window. The cat watched him approach then meowed in irritation as he brushed it from the sill. Taking care to mind the loot in his pockets, he straddled the windowsill and, with one eye to the street for the city watch and the other on the still sleeping merchant, made his way carefully to the ground.

Dropping the last few spans, he landed safely and offered up a silent prayer of thanks to the Source. Then, after casting up and down the street, he drew in his first real breath for what seemed an eternity and moved off towards the sanctuary of the poor quarter. Keeping to the shadows, he kept an eye open for both the watch and for any opportunist thieves that may be lying in wait for a rich victim like himself.

 

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