CHAPTER ONE

DOWN THE CHIMNEY

The man raised his fist again.

"No shirking," he said. "If you know what’s good for you."

The boy dabbed at his cut lip and then touched the wall. His fingertips were greasy with blood. The alley they stood in was narrow, but the moon shone down from overhead, glimmering on the stones of the wall. The sweet scent of selia blossoms filled the air.

"Hurry up."

"I need to get a feel for it first," said the boy sullenly.

Only a fool would climb without trying to understand a wall first. No telling what would be there. Ward spells woven into the stones. Holds and ledges that were illusions, melting away once your weight was on them. He leaned his forehead against the wall and closed his eyes. The stones were still warm from the day’s sunlight. And something else.

"The wall’s warded," said the boy. "It’s listening to us."

"So be silent."

The boy cinched the knapsack on his back tight and began to climb. He was the best of the Juggler’s children. The tiniest edge of rock was a foothold or a handhold to him. If he had been given a wall reaching up to the sky, he could have climbed it. Even up to the stars.

He listened as he climbed. Wavering focus could result in injury or death. Eight feet above the ground, he heard the first whispers of the ward spells contracting, weaving themselves tighter and waiting for the intruder. He froze into silence. He thought of the emptiness of sky, where even the wind blows in silence. He recalled a memory of night, mute with stars and darkness. The wards relaxed, hearing the same silence inside the boy. They became still, waiting for a real intruder, someone of noisy flesh and blood, not this shadow of a boy.

He climbed higher. Perhaps there would be some coins for the night’s work. Maybe the Juggler’s temper would hold good for a few days. After all, surely this was an important job. More important than purses stolen in the markets, or rings slipped from the fingers of ladies strolling the promenades. How else to explain the presence of the Knife? He was not one to bother himself with the Juggler and his pack of children.

It was a high wall, but it wasn’t a hard climb. After a few minutes, he reached the gutter and swung up over it. He crept up to the peak of the roof and peered over. An enclosed garden sprawled below. Moonlight shone on bushes and trees. From what the boy could observe, the house was built along the lines of a large rectangle–three stories in some places, four in others–with a tower that surmounted it all on the eastern end.

He took some rope from his knapsack, tied a loop around the chimney, and tossed the free end down to the alley below. It did not take long for the man to climb up. The boy eyed him as he crept over the side of the roof, hungry for any sign of weakness. But Ronan of Aum had not become the Knife of the Thieves Guild by being weak. The boy shivered and rubbed his palms down the sides of his pants.

Only a fool would have said no to the Knife. But the boy had almost refused when the Juggler had approached him earlier that afternoon. He had felt the no trembling in fear on the tip of his tongue. The Knife needs a boy to do a chimney job tonight, the Juggler had said. Up a wall, down a chimney, into a sleeping house. As easy as that. The boy knew he could not say no. Not with the Knife involved.

When did the Knife ever have need for one of the Juggler’s children? They were cutpurses and pickpockets. They were the whispers and breezes that ran through the marketplaces and the bustling streets of the Highneck Rise district where the lords and ladies came to shop. They were the children that came home to the Juggler with pockets full of coins and the lace handkerchiefs of ladies and the odd key ring or two. Some were climbers, like the boy, but that was done more in fun than anything else. Lazy afternoons in back of the Goose and Gold when the Juggler was snoring drunk on his bed. Scaling the wall there, with only the stableman to shout at them every now and then.

The Knife. The boy had seen him once before. One of the older children had pointed him out, a tall man walking into the Goose and Gold. The Knife. More blood on his blade than any man in Hearne. Slide up to you closer than your shadow. Slit your throat and be halfway to Dolan before you even knew you were dead. Steal the regent’s eyes right out of his head.

The boy watched the man creep up through the darkness, up and across the roof toward him. Not creep. Flow. It was as if the Knife was made out of liquid shadow. He flowed. And settled next to the boy against the chimney.

"The wards," said the boy. "They didn’t hear you?"

A scornful smile crossed the man’s face. He pulled the rope up after him.

"Do you remember everything I told you?" he said.

"Yes, sir," said the boy. How could he forget? The two of them had sat the boy down in a back room at the Goose and Gold and gone over every detail until he could have recited them in his sleep.

"In the room at the top." The Knife pointed at the tower rising from the far corner of the manor roof. "Remember, boy. Don’t open the box. If you do, I’ll cut your throat open so wide the wind’ll whistle through it."

"I won’t."

"Good." The Knife paused. "What’s your name, boy?"

"Jute, sir," he said. "At least that’s what they call me."

"Well, Jute. The night won’t wait much longer."

The man tossed the free end of the rope down the chimney. Jute clambered up onto the chimney ledge and then lowered himself into the shaft. Narrow, but not impossible for someone as thin as he was. It was obvious no one had lit a fire below in months, for it was the end of summer now. Only a dusting of soot coated the walls.

Jute climbed down into darkness. Wary. Listening. Tense with the effort of both focusing and trying to ignore fear at the same time. He rested halfway down the chimney, with his back wedged against one wall and his feet pressed against the opposite. The moon peered down at him through the tiny square of sky far above.

Down again.

After a while, the moonlight failed, and he found himself in complete darkness. The chimney must have jinked, he thought. Somehow it bent, and I didn’t notice. For a moment he found it difficult to breathe, but he shut his eyes tight and that made things better. Hand over hand on the rope, feet feeling for stones in the wall to aid his descent. Down he went, until the chimney widened out and his toes touched the ribs of an iron grate below him.

Jute listened for a while, his eyes closed. But there was nothing to hear, except for the snuffle of a mouse as it skittered along a wall somewhere off to his left. He opened his eyes. He blinked, for the room seemed as light as day after the darkness of the chimney, but it was only the moonlight streaming in through the windows. He tiptoed to the door in the far right corner of the room. Just where the Knife had said it would be. He pressed his ear against the door and listened. Nothing. Except something was behind the door, or somewhere in that direction, listening to him.

He froze. The back of his neck prickled. There was a difference between something–a warding spell, a person–listening for whatever it might hear, as opposed to something listening to him. This thing, whatever it was, was listening specifically to him. That meant it had already identified him.

He had attempted to explain the idea to Lena once, right before she had tried breaking into the bakery in Highneck Rise. Wards are listening spells, mostly. Wards listen all the time. To everything–the wind, the ticking of clocks, people, songbirds, other wards. But a ward can also choose to listen to individual sounds. "Like if you walk through the tavern," he had said. "I can pick out the sound of your feet from among the other sounds. I begin to listen specifically to you because I have identified your sound. Once a ward has identified a sound it listens to that sound for a while, according to whatever rules are woven into the ward spell. If the ward then decides the sound is a threat, then it activates."

Lena had nodded and, later that day, snuck off to Highneck Rise without telling him. The lock on the back door of the bakery hadn’t been difficult, but a ward had activated as soon as she had crossed the threshold. Her face was still scarred from the burn.

Jute closed his eyes, listening. The thing somewhere past the door wasn’t hostile. Curious, perhaps, and something else he couldn’t identify. It was listening specifically to him. Sweat trickled down his back. A tiny voice in the back of his mind suggested turning and leaving. But he couldn’t. Turning back meant climbing up the chimney to the man waiting on the roof.

Jute slipped through the door and into a dark hall. Once inside the hall, the door at the far end and then up the stairs, the Knife had said.

The door opened and stairs rose before him. They wound around and around, higher and higher. Moonlight filtered down windows cut in the stone walls, softening the darkness into shadow. He was higher than the rest of the manor now. Looking out, he could see the roof stretching away below him. He thought he could make out the dark blot of the Knife crouched beside the chimney.

Up the stairs, boy. Up the stairs and into a small room. That’s where the box is.

The sensation of the thing listening to him strengthened. It knew him somehow. He was sure of it. The voice inside his mind suggested again the wisdom of fleeing, but turning away was not an option. The man waiting at the top of the chimney was reason enough, but another reason trembled to astonished life inside Jute. If truth be told, he was not even sure of his own name. To find someone–something–that knew him would be more valuable than the richest purse he had ever stolen.

The stairway curved one more time and came to a door. A warning whispered from the door: a ward woven into the iron handle. He could hear the spell wavering through the air in search of whatever drew near. Instantly, he willed himself into silence, thinking of the quiet moon in her empty sky. The ward subsided back into sleep.

The handle turned under his fingers, and he was inside. Moonlight shone through windows. The city sprawled around him in every direction. Like stars in the night, lamplight gleamed through chinks in the shuttered windows of houses. Overhead, the stars gleamed like lamplight. But Jute had no eye for any of this.

On a table in the middle of the room sat a box.

Somewhere in that room. It isn’t a large place, so it shouldn’t be difficult to find the thing.

Of course not. There’s nothing else here. Only a table, a chair, and a box.

It was the box that called soundlessly to him, so clearly that he turned in fright, thinking someone had spoken his name. Several thoughts floated through his head, reminding him of the Knife, of instructions, of the Juggler, but he quashed them down. His nose twitched like a dog’s. The pull was strong. It certainly wasn’t a ward. Ward spells never pulled at people–at least, not any ward he’d felt before. Wards pushed people. Pushed them hard in deadly ways. This was like someone tugging at his hand.

It’ll be the length of your forearm. Made of black oak and fastened with a catch and hinges of silver. If that isn’t enough for you, there’s a carving on the top of it. A hawk’s head staring at you, with the moon and the sun rising and setting behind him.

The hawk’s head gazed at him from the box, the eyes frozen in an unblinking stare. The carving was so lifelike that it seemed the bird was only resting, ready to spread its wings and fly free.

If you open the thing, it’ll be my knife in your gullet. Just stow it in your bag, and back up the chimney with you. Don’t stop to think, boy. Best not to think.

That was the trouble.

He didn’t stop to think. His hand reached out, and the catch flipped up. The lid sprang open. Lying on a cushion of threadbare velvet was a dagger. It was an ugly thing, black and battered. Set within the handle was a gemstone. The stone was cracked and blackened, as if it had been subjected to great heat. It was hard to tell, but Jute suspected it might once have been red.

He shivered. It was the dagger that was aware. A questioning, delicate touch feathered around the edges of his mind. Curiosity, and then something else. Satisfaction.

Jute sat back on his heels in astonishment. How could this thing–this dagger–have anything to do with him, know him?

If you open the thing, it’ll be my knife in your gullet.

He touched the blade and snatched his hand away. A smear of blood stained the iron. Surely the edge looked as dull as a spoon! Scarlet welled from his finger. He sucked the salt of it into his mouth. The awareness brushing his thoughts vanished. There was nothing. Only an old, cheap-looking dagger. The stone in the handle was probably just glass. And yet he could have sworn, right when he had felt the sting of the cut, someone had whispered in his ear.

If you open the thing, it’ll be my knife in your gullet.

Sweat sprang from Jute’s forehead, and he shivered. He shut the box. His hands shook. The hawk no longer looked lifelike. It was a crude carving at best. He stuffed the box into his knapsack. His teeth chattered.

What have I done?

Jute fled from the room. He ran through the doorway and down the dark stairs. Behind him, he felt a soundless wave of menace explode and roll down the steps after him as the ward triggered. He lunged forward. His heart thumped within his chest. Heat surged against his back. He ran so fast that his feet barely touched the stairs. Down and down, curving around and around, until he grew dizzier with each step he took. He risked a glance behind him, but there was only shadow and silence.

Jute crept back into the room with the fireplace. He took one despairing look around the room, but there was nothing to do except climb back up the chimney. The knapsack swung from his back, and the box inside seemed to grow heavier the higher he went. He had to rest for a moment, wedged between the chimney walls, for the dread inside him had welled up until his hands were too weak to hold his weight on the rope. But then his scalp prickled, for a whisper drifted down from above him.

"Jute. Come up, boy. Come up."

Trembling, Jute continued. The opening of the chimney came into view, first as a smudge of night, then widening into a square of sky speckled with stars. The shape of the man’s head peered down. Jute could make out the black spots of the man’s eyes.

"Do you have it?" said the man.

"Yes," said Jute, trying not to let his teeth chatter. His hands ached on the rope.

"Did you open it?" said the man.

"No!" said Jute, feeling the sweat bead cold on his skin.

"Hand it here."

"Let me come up first," said the boy.

"Hand it up."

The man leaned down into the well of the chimney, one arm extended. He snatched the box up and examined it in the moonlight.

"Well done," he said, turning back. "Come up, boy."

Jute pulled himself up to the edge and a blessed view of stars and the city sleeping around them. He could smell the selia blossom on the breeze. And then, almost carelessly, the man’s hand touched his shoulder and Jute felt a sting that dulled into nothing.

Time slowed.

Numb.

A needle gleamed in the man’s hand.

"Nothing personal, boy," said the man. "We all have our jobs to do."

And he pushed Jute.

Gently.

He fell.

Down and down.

Down into darkness. Which blossomed with bursts of light as his head struck the chimney walls. Stars in the night sky. His silent sky. And then nothing.

Nothing personal, boy.

The eastern horizon blushed into purple, even though sunrise was another hour away. The moon retreated over the sea to the west, gazing down on the city of Hearne with her silver eye. Another eye gazed down on Hearne. High in the sky soared a hawk. Nothing escaped his attention. The bird circled wider. The wind bore him up. A scream of defiance and exultation burst forth from his beak. He soared higher into the emptiness of the sky.


(The rest of The Hawk and His Boy is available for free on Amazon for Kindle, as well as other ebook sites such as Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo and Sony. The Hawk is the first book of the Tormay Trilogy, an epic fantasy written in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.)

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