Authors: David Eddings
David and Leigh Eddings
BALLANTINE PUBLISHING GROUP
For the sisters, Lori and Lynette,
who have made our lives
much more pleasant.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!!!
P R O L O G U E
Now before the Beginning, there was no Time, and all was Chaos and Darkness. But Deiwos, the Sky God, awoke, and with his awakening, Time itself began. And Deiwos looked out upon the Chaos and the Darkness, and a great yearning filled his heart. And he rose up to make all that is made, and his making brought encroaching Light into the emptiness of his kinsman, the Demon Daeva. But in time Deiwos wearied of his labors, and sought him a place to rest. And with a single thought made he a high keep at that edge which divides the Light from the Darkness and the realm of Time from that place where there is no Time. And Deiwos marked that awful edge with fire to warn all men back from Daeva’s abyss, and then he rested there in his keep and communed with his Book while Time continued her stately march.
Now the Demon Daeva was made sore wroth by the encroachment upon his dark domain by his kinsman Deiwos, and eternal enmity was born in his soul, for the Light caused him pain, and the orderly progression of Time herself was an agony unto him. And then retreated he to his cold throne in the echoless darkness of the void. And there he contemplated vengeance against the Light, and against his kinsman, and against Time herself.
And their sister watched, but said nothing.
—FROM “THE SKY AND THE ABYSS”
THE MYTHOLOGY OF ANCIENT MEDYO
n defense of Althalus, it should be noted that he was in very tight financial circumstances and more than a little tipsy when he agreed to undertake the theft of the Book. Had he been completely sober and had he not reached the very bottom of his purse, he might have asked more questions about the House at the End of the World, and he most certainly would have asked many more about the owner of the Book.
It would be sheer folly to try to conceal the true nature of Althalus, for his flaws are the stuff of legend. He is, as all men know, a thief, a liar, an occasional murderer, an outrageous braggart, and a man devoid of even the slightest hint of honor. He is, moreover, a frequent drunkard, a glutton, and a patron of ladies who are no better than they should be.
He is an engaging sort of rogue, however, quick-witted and vastly amusing. It has even been suggested in some circles that if Althalus really wanted to do it, he could make trees giggle and mountains laugh right out loud.
His nimble fingers are even quicker than his wit, though, and a prudent man always keeps a firm hand over his purse when he laughs at the sallies of the witty thief.
So far as Althalus can remember, he has always been a thief. He never knew his father, and he cannot exactly remember his mother’s name. He grew up among thieves in the rough lands of the frontier, and even as a child, his wit had made him welcome in the society of those men who made their living by transferring the ownership rights of objects of value. He earned his way with jokes and stories, and the thieves fed him and trained him in their art by way of thanks.
His mind was quick enough to make him aware of the limitations of each of his mentors. Some of them were large men who took what they wanted by sheer force. Others were small and wiry men who stole by stealth. As Althalus approached manhood, he realized that he’d never be a giant. Sheer bulk was apparently not a part of his heritage. He also realized that when he achieved his full growth, he’d no longer be able to wriggle his way through small openings into interesting places where interesting things were kept. He would be medium sized, but he vowed to himself that he would not be mediocre. It occurred to him that wit was probably superior to bull-like strength or mouselike stealth anyway, so that was the route he chose.
His fame was modest at first in the mountains and forests along the outer edges of civilization. Other thieves admired his cleverness. As one of them put it one evening in a thieves’ tavern in the land of Hule, “I’ll swear, that Althalus boy could persuade the bees to bring him honey or the birds to lay their eggs on his plate at breakfast time. Mark my words, brothers, that boy will go far.”
In point of fact, Althalus
go far. He was not by nature a sedentary man, and he seemed to be blessed—or cursed—with a boundless curiosity about what lay on the other side of any hill or mountain or river he came across. His curiosity was not limited to geography, however, since he was also interested in what more sedentary men had in their houses or what they might be carrying in their purses. Those twin curiosities, coupled with an almost instinctive realization of when he’d been in one place for quite long enough, kept him continually on the move.
And so it was that he had looked at the prairies of Plakand and Wekti, at the rolling hills of Ansu, and at the mountains of Kagwher, Arum, and Kweron. He had even made occasional sorties into Regwos and southern Nekweros, despite the stories men told of the horrors lurking in the mountains beyond the outer edges of the frontier.
The one thing more than any other that distinguished Althalus from other thieves was his amazing luck. He could win every time he touched a pair of dice, and no matter where he went in whatever land, fortune smiled upon him. A chance meeting or a random conversation almost always led him directly to the most prosperous and least suspicious man in any community, and it seemed that any trail he took, even at random, led him directly to opportunities that came to no other thief. In truth, Althalus was even more famous for his luck than for his wit or his skill.
In time, he came to depend on that luck. Fortune, it appeared, absolutely adored him, and he came to trust her implicitly. He even went so far as to privately believe that she talked to him in the hidden silences of his mind. The little twinge that told him it was time to leave any given community—in a hurry—was, he believed, her voice giving him a silent warning that unpleasant things lurked on the horizon.
The combination of wit, skill, and luck had made him successful, but he could also run like a deer if the situation seemed to require it.
A professional thief must, if he wants to keep eating regularly, spend a great deal of his time in taverns listening to other people talk, since information is the primary essential to the art of the thief. There’s little profit to be made from robbing poor men. Althalus liked a good cup of mellow mead as much as the next man, but he seldom let it get ahead of him in the way that some frequenters of taverns did. A befuddled man makes mistakes, and the thief who makes mistakes usually doesn’t live very long. Althalus was very good at selecting the one man in any tavern who’d be most likely to be in possession of useful information, and with jokes and open-handed generosity, he could usually persuade the fellow to share that information. Buying drinks for talkative men in taverns was something in the nature of a business investment. Althalus always made sure that his own cup ran dry at about the same time the other man’s did, but most of the mead in the thief’s cup ended up on the floor instead of in his belly, for some reason.
He moved from place to place; he told jokes to tavern loafers and bought mead for them for a few days; and then, when he’d pinpointed the rich men in any town or village, he’d stop by to pay them a call along about midnight, and by morning he’d be miles away on the road to some other frontier settlement.
Although Althalus was primarily interested in local information, there were other stories told in taverns as well—stories about the cities down on the plains of Equero, Treborea, and Perquaine, the civilized lands to the south. He listened to some of those stories with a profound skepticism. Nobody in the world could be stupid enough to pave the streets of his hometown with gold; and a fountain that sprayed diamonds might be rather pretty, but it wouldn’t really serve any practical purpose.
The stories, however, always stirred his imagination, and he sort of promised himself that someday, someday, he’d have to go down to the cities of the plain to have a look for himself.
The settlements of the frontier were built for the most part of logs, but the cities of the lands of the south were reputed to be built of stone. That in itself might make the journey to civilization worthwhile, but Althalus wasn’t really interested in architecture, so he kept putting off his visit to civilization.
What ultimately changed his mind was a funny story he heard in a tavern in Kagwher about the decline of the Deikan Empire. The central cause of that decline, it appeared, had been a blunder so colossal that Althalus couldn’t believe that anybody with good sense could have made it even once, much less three times.
“May all of my teeth fall out if they didn’t,” the storyteller assured him. “The people down in Deika have a very high opinion of themselves, so when they heard that men had discovered gold here in Kagwher, they decided right off that God had meant for
to have it—only he’d made a mistake and put it in Kagwher instead of down there where it’d be convenient for them to just bend over and pick it up. They were a little put out with God for that, but they were wise enough not to scold him about it. Instead, they sent an army up here into the mountains to keep us ignorant hill people from just helping ourselves to all that gold that God had intended for them. Well, now, when that army got here and started hearing stories about how much gold there was up here, the soldiers all decided that army life didn’t really suit them anymore, so the whole army just ups and quits so that they could strike out on their own.”
Althalus laughed. “That
be a quick way to lose an army, I suppose.”
“There’s none any quicker,” the humorous storyteller agreed. “Anyhow, the Senate that operates the government of Deika was terribly disappointed with that army, so they sent a second army up here to chase down the first one and punish them for ignoring their duty.”
“You’re not serious!” Althalus exclaimed.
“Oh, yes, that’s exactly what they did. Well, sir, that second army decided that they weren’t any stupider than the first one had been, so they hung up their swords and uniforms to go look for gold, too.”
Althalus howled with laughter. “That’s the funniest story I’ve ever heard!” he said.
“It gets better,” the grinning man told him. “The Senate of the Empire just couldn’t
that two whole armies could ignore their duty that way. After all, the soldiers
getting paid a whole copper penny every day, weren’t they? The Senators made speeches at each other until all their brains went to sleep, and that’s when they took stupidity out to the very end of its leash by sending a
army up here to find out what had happened to the first two.”
“Is he serious?” Althalus asked another tavern patron.
“That’s more or less the way it happened, stranger,” the man replied. “I can vouch for it, because I was a Sergeant in that second army. The city-state of Deika used to rule just about the whole of civilization, but after she’d poured three entire armies into the mountains of Kagwher, she didn’t have enough troops left to patrol her own streets, much less the other civilized lands. Our Senate still passes laws that the other lands are supposed to obey, but nobody pays any attention to them anymore. Our Senators can’t quite seem to grasp that, so they keep passing new laws about taxes and the like, and people keep ignoring them. Our glorious Empire has turned itself into a glorious joke.”
“Maybe I’ve been putting off my visit to civilization for too long,” Althalus said. “If they’re
silly down in Deika, a man in my profession almost
to pay them a visit.”
“Oh?” the former soldier said. “Which profession do you follow?”
“I’m a thief,” Althalus admitted. “And a city filled with stupid rich men might just be the next best thing to paradise for a really good thief.”
“I wish you all the best, friend,” the expatriate told him. “I was never all that fond of Senators who spent all their time trying to invent new ways to get me killed. Be a little careful when you get there, though. The Senators buy their seats in that august body, and that means that they’re rich men. Rich senators make laws to protect the rich, not the ordinary people. If you get caught stealing in Deika, things won’t turn out too well for you.”
“I never get caught, Sergeant,” Althalus assured him. “That’s because I’m the best thief in the world, and to make things even better, I’m also the
man in the world. If half the story I just heard is true, the luck of the Deikan Empire has turned sour lately, and my luck just keeps getting sweeter. If the chance to make a wager on the outcome of my visit comes along, put your money on me, because in a situation like this one, I can’t possibly lose.”
And with that, Althalus drained his cup, bowed floridly to the other men in the tavern, and gaily set off to see the wonders of civilization for himself.