by Sam Pearson
Archibald lay in his bed, staring up at the canopy above him. He could barely discern the pattern in the dimness of the room. Only a pale strip of moonlight came in through the window to help him see. His furnishings were mere shapes in the darkness, all meaning drained out of them by the coming of night. He sighed. In daylight hours, he seemed happy to those around him: he greeted servants with a smile, welcomed guests with good cheer and plentiful refreshments. But when darkness came, he felt as if his life slipped away into the shadows, made meaningless under the emotionless gaze of the moon.
Sitting up, Archibald swung his legs to the floor. Sleep would not come, and no amount of trying would help. The carpet felt soft and comfortable under his bare feet as he went over to his desk. He sat down, thinking to do a bit of writing. If he could get these strange feelings of worthlessness out onto paper, maybe he would be able to rest. Archibald reached for a candle, then paused, his eyes drawn out the window. Down on the ground, across the courtyard, stood old Jonathan, one of the guards. His sword was out, and he was peering into the shadows intently. A momentary thrill gripped Archibald. Would he get to see a thief caught, right under his very window? He left the candle unlit, and watched. His interest began to fade when a minute or so passed without event. Another sigh escaped Archibald. Nothing there at all. Jonathan apparently came to the same conclusion, and returned to his post, scanning the courtyard with watchful, but uninterested eyes. Archibald reached for the candle again.
A sharp, interrupted cry reached his ears, and he glanced again out the window in time to see Jonathan fall to his knees. Horror filled Archibald as his faithful guard, and friend of many years, collapsed to the ground. Curiously, his shadow seemed to remain standing. Archibald stared on, and drew in a sharp breath when the shadow leaned forward and began dragging the unconscious body into a dark corner of the courtyard. It was a thief. Archibald felt torn between fear and eagerness. Here was something to break the monotony of his life, even if it meant a potential loss of property. He looked again at the lavish furnishings around him, and felt nothing at all, no pride of possession, no jealousy that someone else might take it all away.
Archibald almost smiled with the excitement, then remembered poor Jonathan. The shadow in the courtyard had finished its work, and was now creeping toward the house. Only a slight deepening of the darkness showed where the old guard's body lay on the grass. All eagerness left Archibald, and he found himself caught up in anger and pity. Jonathan had always been a devoted servant, and had protected this house for Archibald's father long ago. He did not deserve such indignity, being knocked on the head and left to freeze under a hedge. What if his old bones weren't up to the strain? One night of burglary for this callous thief could mean sickness and death for an old man. It will not happen, Archibald thought, clenching his hands tight. It will not!
The faintest creak on the staircase alerted him. The thief! Archibald cast his eyes about his room quickly, looking for a place to hide. His bed loomed before him, with quilts draped all the way to the floor, but the thought of being caught in such a tight space made Archibald shudder. Behind the curtains? No, the moonlight would give him away. As he glanced towards the fireplace, a thought struck him. The door was locked; the only key was in his desk. Perhaps he wouldn't have to hide at all. The door clicked minutely, as if someone had gently pressed the handle. Archibald smiled. Locked, thief, he thought. Try another room. The smile faded when a new series of clicks and scrapes arose from the door. The burglar was picking the lock! With little time to be choosy about his hiding spot, Archibald stepped over to his last remembered option: the fireplace. It was large; he could enter it by stooping only slightly. He silently grabbed the poker, and only just in time. A final sharp click sounded out in the silent room, and the door swung slowly open.
A shadowy figure was crouched in the doorway, pocketing the picks it had used so successfully. It reached a hand out the floor, and its shoulders seemed to ease just slightly when it felt carpet. The thief crept into the room in utter silence, pushing the door back into place. Archibald did not breathe. He watched the shadow stand, moving across the room to the desk, and begin carefully pulling drawers open. Warmth flooded Archibald, despite the night's chill, and he stepped out of the fireplace. His movements mirrored those of the thief, stepping lightly, not making a sound. He crept up behind the figure, which was crouched again. Archibald saw the thief's hand move, holding an object up to the moonlight. Gold glinted in the pale gloom. Mother's ring. This... thief... was stealing Mother's ring. Archibald clenched his teeth, let his fury flow up into his arms, and brought the poker down hard.
The figure groaned. The first strike had hit his shoulder; the next had grazed his skull. He had put up his arm then, and a crack had echoed in the still room. He lay now, hood fallen back, the moonlight revealing him to be a young man, with dark uncut hair and a short, stubbly beard. Archibald loomed over him, steel poker held high. He saw the fear in the thief's eyes, and the pain. The man's arm looked broken. The chill of the night air suddenly came upon Archibald, and his anger drained away. He staggered to his bed and sat, still clutching the poker, staring in horror at the injured stranger on his floor.
The thief struggled to pull himself up, but fell flat again. He looked over at the bed, and Archibald wondered if he now appeared to be the threatening figure in the shadows. The young man gasped, then spoke.
"What will you..." he said, then took a painful breath before continuing. "What will you do with me?"
Archibald did not answer at first. He looked at the suffering he had caused, and thought of Jonathan lying in the grass. I'm no better, he thought. Shaking himself, he looked straight into the eyes of the young man. "Your name." Archibald's voice sounded firmer than he thought it could be, under the circumstances. "Tell me your name." The thief peered quickly around the room. Looking for an alias, no doubt. Archibald put a little anger into his tone. "I didn't hit your head hard enough to make you forget even that. Your name!"
The injured man started, then sighed. "Tellis," he groaned, and put his head gently down on the floor. "You can... tell the Hammers that, so they can... keep proper records. My name is Tellis." Tellis closed his eyes, and whispered his name into the darkness. Archibald watched him, listening to the despair in the young man's voice. It sounded as if the thief was clinging to his name when all else had gone wrong for him. And what went wrong for him before tonight? Archibald wondered. A man does not choose to be a thief, if he can find a better way of living. Pity stirred in Archibald, and he felt unsure. By all rights, Tellis' freedom was forfeit. He had brutally attacked Jonathan, trespassed, and attempted to rob this house of everything of value. The thief shifted, and gasped when his hurt arm moved. Archibald could have done little worse to pay him back.
Archibald stood, and leaned over the injured man. He picked up the golden ring from where it had fallen, and held it in his palm. "This belonged to my mother," he said, provoking silence from Tellis. "She left it to me when she died. It is to be my wife's, when I marry." Archibald looked into the other man's eyes, which were full of pain and confusion. "You meant to take this from me," he explained, "so it is only fair you know its worth. You've also taken from Jonathan, the guard outside. At his age, he may not ever recover from this night." Archibald crouched down. "And I've taken from you, as well." He put out a hand. Tellis only stared for a moment, then slowly reached out with his good arm. Archibald helped him to his feet, supporting him when a wave of dizziness threatened to topple the thief.
When Tellis was steady, he looked at his intended victim. "I don't understand," he said, clutching his broken arm. "You know the law. You could kill me, and no one would care."
Archibald nodded. "That is precisely why I won't."
The two of them made their way down the stairs, Tellis regaining balance and strength with every passing minute. They walked side-by-side across the courtyard. When they reached the rear gate (unlocked; Tellis had been through it earlier), the thief turned. He stared at the figure before him: a man dressed in a silk sleeping robe, barefoot, with the weak frame and strong bearing of a nobleman. He shook his head. "This isn't what I expected tonight," he said, with a smile half-marred by pain.
"Nor I," said Archibald. "Get that arm fixed." He gestured past his gate, to the sleeping city beyond. "You won't last out there very long without it."
The other man nodded. "Thanks, I will." He turned to go.
The thief stopped without turning.
"If a young man by that name stops by in the daylight," Archibald said, "I might be able to find him some safer work. I can't do much to change how people must live in this city, but I can help that much." There was a pause. He couldn't tell if Tellis nodded or not. Then the dark figure stepped through the gate, intermingled with the shadows of the night, and was gone.
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