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Authors: James Matlack Raney

Jim Morgan and the King of Thieves (7 page)

BOOK: Jim Morgan and the King of Thieves
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The pain in James’s feet scorched his every step, but he never ran so fast in his entire life. With dread, however, he quickly realized it was still not fast enough. The wolf nipped at James’s heels then broke off to his side. In the shafts of moonlight the beast glided through the trees alongside James before streaking on ahead. James hoped for only a moment that it had given up for some other prey – until the feral creature burst into the clearing before James, skidding to a stop.

James gasped for breath. There was no strength in his body to run again. The wolf stalked forward, wet slobber dripping from its
jowls. James closed his eyes, the images of his life flashing in the darkness like the leafing pages of a picture book, Aunt Margarita, Phineus, Jeremiah, the manor, his pony, Hudson, and finally his father. He wondered what it would feel like when the wolf bit him. He dared crack his eyes open just as the wolf crouched to spring.

But in that instant, as James stepped back, he felt an unseen hand snatch his ankle and heard two snaps like whips. The wolf yelped like a pup and James’s legs whipped out from beneath him, his head smacking the ground. James suddenly found himself hanging upside down, and for the second time that night, everything went completely black.

James woke with a throbbing head. The world was upside down - everything that was, but the wolf, which hung suspended in midair as James did. A biting pain dug into James’s ankle. He looked up to find a coil of rough rope tied to his leg, the cord having worn through his socks, cutting into the soft skin of his leg, and hanging him from the top branches of a tree. James tried to pull himself up to reach the knot and loosen himself, but he was too weak for the task. He let his head fall back down - and found an upside-down man’s face staring into his own.

James screamed and thrashed in the air until the man’s hand shot out and gripped him roughly by the throat. James’s scream squeaked instantly into a muffled choke.

“Silence,” the man said in a thick accent that was not of James’s country. “If you are qviet, I vill cut you down. If not…I vill cut your throat.”

“That seems fair enough,” James rasped. The man released him with a small shove, sending James swaying back and forth in the air like a pendulum. After a moment of swinging the tension in the rope went slack and James tumbled to the ground in a miserable heap.

“Ouch!” he said with a yelp. “You could have done that–”

The man let his long knife gleam in the moonlight.

“–softer,” James whispered.

The man ignored James and went to the wolf. He didn’t offer the animal the same deal as James, and after he had killed the beast, he let it down and slung its body over his shoulder, carrying it to the edge of the little clearing.

“Hey, wait!” James shouted to the man. “Don’t leave me here!”

The man said nothing and kept walking. So James clambered to his feet and rushed to follow, limping badly from his blistered heels, tired soles, and ragged ankle.

“You could slow down a bit there!” Once again James’s words came back unanswered, and the pitiless man refused to slow his pace even a little. James studied the hunter as well as he could in the dark. He was swarthy and short, dark curls pouring out from beneath a red rag tied over his head, a dark mustache and beard lining his thick mouth. He was obviously strong, the weight of the wolf seemed not to bother him in the least nor hinder the speed of his gait.

This was unfortunate for James, for as well as having even shorter legs than the squat man he followed, his body ached, and his head still swam from being hunted, struck twice, nearly drowned, almost eaten by a wolf, and hung upside down for a good portion of the night.

After what felt like miles, the sweat pouring down his face, the pain burning like a fever, James could go no farther. “Now look,” he gasped through ragged breaths. “This is most inhumane, my good man. We really should take a break.” The man still gave no answer. “Can’t you see that I’m hurt?” James demanded to the man’s back. “I’m bleeding, you cur! I can’t go on!” And with that, James collapsed in a heap on the forest floor.

At this the man finally stopped, turning to look down at James.

“Finally come to your senses, you brute?” James snapped.

But the man just smiled and shrugged, then kept right on walking. James was incredulous. How could this man be so cruel? Couldn’t he see that James was hurt?

“Are you daft!” James called after him. “Don’t leave me here like this!” But the man acted as though he heard not a word. With no
choice left to him, James finally got up once more and staggered after the man, whimpering and limping the entire way.

At some point James stopped thinking about the cruel foreigner he followed and even about the pain that clawed at his feet with every step. His tears dried into a stiff mess under his eyes and on his cheeks. His mind wandered through myriad bizarre memories and thoughts. He remembered his aunt pinching his cheek, but in his mind she pinched it so hard that it bled. He remembered old Phineus shaking his head and the nurse getting sacked, but for what he could not recall. He remembered Hudson leaping forward to defend him.

But of his father, the memory was distorted, Lord Lindsay sitting at his desk in the study, his whole body taut, face slicked with sweat, holding out the box to James, but James refused to touch it.

“My son,” James’s father strained to say the words. “Keep it safe!”

The visions played over and over in James’s mind until finally he realized he had stopped walking. He was in another clearing, but this one lit by a roaring fire, the salty-sweet smell of cooking meat filling the air. Many more men and women of the same dark hair and skin as the wolf hunter sat about the fires. They wore bright silks of red and blue, and they sang songs in words James had never heard, and danced dances that were not of this land.

“Oh …” James said aloud, “Gypsies. How nice.” Then he collapsed and all went dark.

EIGHT

ames woke with a start in the dark, kicking about wildly until he heard the creak and groan of wooden wheels on a bumpy road and felt the rough wooden floor tilting and jostling beneath him. A light rain pattered the canvas above James’s head and everything about him smelled deeply of steamed cabbage. He was in the back of a covered gypsy wagon.

James shook his head to clear the cobwebs. He had been dreaming he was back in his father’s study, and in the nightmare, his father had been reaching out to him, trying to tell him something important, something about a treasure and the letter in his little box. But Aunt Margarita and the horrible man with ink-black hair were suddenly chasing him, all the while Hudson was shouting, “Run, Jim! Run!”

Though James was now awake, the dream still haunted his mind, and his feet still throbbed from the night before. Looking down, James found his shoes removed and his feet wrapped in cloth. He pulled back on one of the bandages, but the blisters and sores were freshly scabbed and they burned like fire when he tried to remove the cloth. Tears of pain rose up behind James’s eyes. To keep from crying, he forced himself to look around and focus on where he was and what he should do next.

James’s eyes slowly adjusted to darkness beneath the wagon cover, revealing all manner of bizarre artifacts and seemingly worthless junk piled about him: heaps of rags and bundles of sticks beside skeins of silk, broken lanterns and rounds of candle wax, strange stringed instruments and pipes, tambourines and drums, and, hanging to the side, even a monkey in a cage. James inched closer to the monkey, who appeared to be enjoying a small nap on his perch. James tapped on the side of the cage.

“Hello little monkey,” he whispered. “I imagine you do some tricks or something.” He tapped a little harder, but the monkey was sleeping like a rock. James felt he deserved a little entertainment in light of all the horrors he’d been through, and in a jolt of frustration, he slapped the cage and barked “Wake up!”

The monkey flew awake, immediately launching itself against the side of the cage with a screeching howl, clawing and biting at James’s fingertips. James cried out in surprise, falling back against the side of the wagon into the pile of rags and sticks with a clatter. Only, the sticks weren’t sticks at all. They were bones, and the rags were the skins of wolves, their yellow-white skulls staring into James’s face with empty eye sockets. James screamed again, scrambling to the middle of the wagon floor, the screeching monkey on one side and the pile of bones and skins on the other.

A slow cackle, dry as sand, rattled from the front of the wagon. James sucked in a startled breath. The front of the wagon was darker than even where he sat, and he saw no shape or form in the shadows. “Who’s there?” James whimpered. “Show yourself!”

“I vas here the entire time, young sir,” said the dry, laughing voice. “’Twas not I who failed to show myself, but you who failed to see me.”

“I didn’t fail anything!” James pouted. “You were spying on me!”

“I vas vatching you, young sir,” the voice said again. “As I vas all night.”

James looked back down at his bandaged feet. “You did this?” he asked.

“I did.”

James peered into the darkness. He could now barely discern the outline of the figure hunkered in the corner. “I still can hardly see you.”

“So be it,” the voice said with a sigh, and the sound of a match striking against the wooden floor accompanied a bright orange flame, illuminating the face of an ancient crone. She looked as old as the mountains, her nose large and hooked like a sharp cliff, and her skin dark and craggy from a life lived in the open air. A few wild and brittle gray hairs poked out from beneath the edges of an old, faded red scarf tied about her head. The skin on her long fingers and frail arms clung directly to her old bones. She laughed in her gravelly voice again. “Have you never before seen an old voman, young sir?”

“Of course I have!” James said indignantly, trying to hide the shock on his face.

“How your feet feel?”

“They hurt!” James snapped. “How do you think they feel? Your friend last night, a right brute he was by the way, tromped me through the forest like a bloodhound with not one rest or stop. And that was after he dropped me from his wolf trap nearly twenty feet in the air right on my head! I’m lucky I didn’t break my neck!”

The old woman said nothing, only staring silently at James for a long moment. James sniffed. If she were expecting any thanks from him, she would find herself waiting for a long time. Saving his life was the least any self-respecting person could have done, and she had done a pitiful job on his feet, he thought unhappily.

“You dream last night?” the old woman said, changing the subject.

“No,” James lied. The old gypsy laughed.

“You are a liar, for I heard your dreams. You call for father. He gave to you a secret, yes? A secret in a box? You would know the secret, but the voman chased you avay before you learn, the voman, and the cold man vith the hair like a crow’s wings.”

“I…I said all that aloud?” James stared at the old crone with wide eyes, for that had truly been what he had seen in his dream.

“Not all…I heard your dreams. I heard them, and I saw them.” The woman smiled a crooked smile and pulled something from behind the folds of her wrinkled and tattered dress. She held the spherical glass on the tips of her claw-like fingers, glimmering in the candlelight, casting rainbow droplets on the canvas, on the floor, on James’s face, and in his eyes.

BOOK: Jim Morgan and the King of Thieves
5.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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