In my youth, my best friend had been my hero; I aspired to join him in greatness above all things. He was the one who took care of me and our best friend after all of our parents died of the wasting sickness that claimed half our city one summer. We shared the home her family owned, and pooled our resources, three orphans with only one another, and nothing else in the world. Someone from the castle might well have put us to the healing temples, where many of the orphans went, but they’d have split us up, and we had already lost enough; we didn’t want to lose one another.
To keep food on our table, she worked with a baker, while I did all manner of odd jobs and my friend made himself an apprentice to a cooper, but it was never enough, and when she got sick, I struck out to find extra work as well, to pay for healing draughts and visits from the priests, to patch the roof and buy food and keep everyone safe. My work wasn’t nearly as reputable; I was too young to apprentice most places, and too weak for a lot of manual labor. I was quick, though, deft and willing to risk a lot, to get what I needed. The first time I brought home fresh bread and a small wheel of cheese, everyone was hungry enough to eat first and ask questions later. That night, however, he questioned me until I had to tell him the truth — I had stolen it, because we were hungry, and it was there.
The next day collectors from the guild came by, and had a brief chat with me, about how there was ‘a way’ that things must be done, and how I was going outside the natural order of things. I listened with big eyes, like children do, but when they left, we ate like kings from what I’d taken that day, and spoke fearlessly about the guild itself. Time went by — it passes, no matter what else is going on — and the three of us were never comfortable, but we made do, and we were even happy, for awhile. As it had to happen, I was caught stealing, again, and the Guild pinned me down in an alley, and a collector came in, to teach me a lesson. They knew nothing of my fey origin, however, and I slipped between his fingers and taunted him as I escaped. “You’ll never catch The Swift!” I teased — what made me taunt him, I’ll never know, but in doing so, I damned my friends, and when I climbed back in the window at home, to share in my bounty, I found her nursing his wounds — the guild had sent another set of collectors to the house, and when they came, they didn’t bother to ask anything else; they just beat him to within an inch of his life.
I was the one who went to the thieves then, and asked them to spare my friends — I was laughed out of the den and when I dared to try again, I was beaten until I vowed I would never steal again unless I was allowed to join the guild. They kept a watch on me, and when the winter grew cold, and the food grew scarce, and she was still sick, I was offered a place within the guild once more. I declined, begging off, until he came down with the sickness, too, and could not rise from his bed. He lost his apprenticeship, and we no longer had any real way to feed ourselves. Worse than that, they both needed restorative tonics, and herbalists don’t heal anyone for free.
I couldn’t escape it — I went to the guild and told them what I needed, and what I would do. The leaders arranged for a job, and that very night, I broke into an herbalist’s shop, and was ready to escape with an armful of medicines and silvers, when someone lumbered in from the back to stop me. I tucked two precious vials into my pouch and made to climb out the window I was nearest, but it was locked, and I was forced to turn and fight. It was dark and cramped, and I did my best to make it quick. Between my dagger and the quickness inherent in my blood, I escaped without a wound, but the fat-bellied shopkeep was not as lucky. I struck a light to see if I had finished it — if the shopkeep would be able to call for guards as I was trying to leave, I would need to silence him. In the dim light, however, I discovered I had not fought off the shopkeep, but his wife. It wasn’t his fat belly, but hers, round with a child that would never get its first cry.
Sickened by this turn, I left the money and the expensive materials scattered where they’d fallen, and left her there to die, and returned to my home, clutching the vials inside the pouch, the only thing I cared about, covered in blood and terror.
When I arrived at home, I opened my bag to find only shards of the vials. I shakily poured the few drops that remained in the bottom half of one of the glass pieces, between her mouth, and his.
While her skin began to turn pink, and a peaceful sleep slackened her pained limbs, his flesh grew grey and clammy. I needed another vial, but by the time I gathered my wits and went back to the shop, the town guard was investigating the break in — the shopkeep had called them in when he discovered his wife missing. All was lost — there was no way to bring medicines back now. As the sky lightened, signs of her illness faded, and I knew she would be safe, but he was succumbing to the fever.
When the guild came for their share of the take, I had nothing from the shop to give them. They threatened, thinking I had decided to keep it for myself. They cajoled and they wheedled and when they finally accepted that I had nothing, they took action, meaning to cut my throat. He, weak as anything, demanded they stop, while she threw herself in front of me. Not to be deterred, the biggest of those they sent out to collect beat me until I couldn’t stand. They took her, bound her and one man simply threw her over his shoulder and walked out the door. As for him– they didn’t even let the fever finish; they slit his throat and let him welter where he lay.
Come and stand before the guild leader, they said. Beg for her life, and yours, if you’re man enough. I wasn’t nearly man enough, but I went anyway, intending to barter for her life. “I’ll do any job you ask,” I promised. “I just want her safe.” A deal was struck — we would stay with the Guild, for now, while I trained, learned new techniques and taught those I knew. We would be fed and housed, and in the end, I would use all I learned for their good, and she would be set free, knowing if she ever revealed Guild secrets, she’d have her tongue cut out. I had an easy enough time of it, preparing to join, growing my hair out, perfecting my skills. In joining the guild, prospective members are told they are not allowed to cut their hair until they’re sworn in — and at that point, the guildmaster will hear their oaths, then cut a lock from their hair — keeping it for his chain. ‘Taking his cut’ they called it, and the braid was called a thieflock. That strange tuft of hair someone can’t quite tuck behind their ear very neatly — it was often hidden by the longer hair the thief had gotten used to, by then, but it was sometimes used as evidence to knights that someone was a guildmember. On the day I was to swear fealty to the Guildmaster, I overheard an argument between two other thieves — lowlives who had filtered into the den, barely kept their dues, and were less thieves and more beggars and murderers. They were fighting over who’d get my friend after I was sworn and couldn’t leave — incensed, I wrung the information out of them, and went to the Guildmaster.
As I recounted what I’d learned, the man didn’t even look ashamed. He explained carefully that I was an investment, and my gifts were going to be used, and if I didn’t like it, perhaps I’d like a gaoler’s cell and then a long walk to a short drop? There was nothing to be done for it, unless I thought we could both outrun the Guild — something no one had ever done. So I was held to service by the promise that if I didn’t, I would be turned in for the murder of the herbalist’s wife, while my friend would be ‘kept safe’, and by that, she would be the Guildmaster’s kept woman. She acquiesced, knowing she would be kept either way, but if I’d fought, I’d likely be no better off than our dead companion. When the time came for me to be sworn, she braided my hair back, the lock behind my ear, and stood beside me in the small line of boys who had come to stand before the Guildmaster. She held my eyes and whispered prayers to me while the Guildmaster heard my oaths, and ‘took his cut.’ To remind me, in specific, just how much I belonged to the Guild, he took not only the thieflock, but the tip of my left ear as well, and named me ‘The Swift’ for all the Guild to hear.
While I bled, she was taken to the Guildmaster’s rooms.
Having lost everything, and under threat of being discovered as a monstrous murderer, I have done as asked ever since. The humans making up the guild are treacherous and without mercy, but I have already outlived several of them; they’ve taught me well. I have lived as The Swift ever since, as well, and the fey I was has been erased from the outside world. My friends were the only ones who’d known my real name — and both of them are lost to me now, too.
Leave a Reply