Arbor Vulpa was giving serious thought to the idea of becoming annoyed. Normally he prided himself on his ability to keep his emotions in check, a vital skill for any thief with ambitions beyond brief bursts of petty larceny and long spells in the Carcer, but his current situation was insistently tickling the ever-thinner skin of his patience.
He had been walking through the forest for more than an hour, his steps silent amid the rustle of leaves in the wind, the scurryings of small creatures in the dark and even - Arbor indulged a small and bitter laugh at the thought - the distant howling of a wolf. And all this in a space which should have been filled not with trees and beasts and leaf-litter but with the solid furniture and heavy tapestries appropriate to the highest tower of the Palace of Days.
At this very moment, he should be making his way to the tower's lower levels, skipping lightly past the many wards, springing traps and picking locks with a devilish smile on his lips, always making his way closer towards the glittering prize at the tower's centre. Instead, he was standing in the middle of an impossible forest, his feet quietly burying themselves in the mud of a track which should not be there. And now there was this ...
|(image from an original by thesuperaliceflickr)|
It was a cottage, or rather the remnants of a cottage: its timber frame was cracked, its one small window was obscured by an old nest and the thatch of its roof divided its time between being moss-ridden and altogether absent. It was a small monument to time's victory and hope's death, which added to Arbor's dislike of it. More disquieting, the cottage sat at an angle upon the ground; propped up at its middle on what appeared to be the skeletal remains of two gigantic, not quite human, arms, which stretched out from below its doorway as if trying to grasp some fleeing guest. Arbor had an urge to kick something.
"Not the cottage: you might wake it. Or its mistresses, which would be worse".
Arbor was too experienced a thief to spin round. Instead of tensing he let his body relax and instead of turning he towards the speaker he chose words of his own, selecting a voice that mixed honey with a hint of sharp spice.
"You know", he said, "I really wasn't expecting to meet anyone here".
And now he turned, sundial slow, to see who had joined him in the forest. It was a man: slim rather than thin and somehow long rather than tall. His tunic, cloak and trousers were all dark, just as were Arbor's clothes, lending the pair of them the air of talking shadows. The stranger's dark hair was shot through with white and his eyes were wolf's-hide grey. There was something in the way he held himself that suggested he would not be easy to fight or to run from and he loped past Arbor towards the ruined cottage with confident ease.
"I wonder why she brought it here?" the stranger began, "No choice, perhaps, or maybe ... ". The thought drifted off with the breeze and the stranger cupped his chin and examined the two long arms. "Monkey, I should say, though I've never known what type".
Arbor couldn't help himself. "Large?" he offered.
The stranger offered him a small smile. "That I'll grant you. It hardly matters in any event". He moved back towards Arbor. "What's important here is you". There was another smile, this one not altogether kind. He placed a firm hand on Arbor's shoulder and another on his arm, guiding him a little from the cottage, towards a little, open fire which Arbor was sure had not been there a moment before.
"Let's sit", the stranger said.
Arbor hesitated; since entering the Tower of the Heart the balance of his life had been tilted much more heavily against him than he was used to, and now he sought to add at least one consoling weight to his own side of the scales.
"I realise it's awfully impolite to ask", he began, "but I did wonder whether you might perhaps be planning to kill me".
The stranger shook his head. "Oh no, I'm planning to help you", he said. Arbor relaxed a little. The stranger poked at the fire, then turned his face back towards the thief, "Let's leave the killing you to others shall we?"
[UPDATE: Part III of this tale can now be found here]