Rubel knocked on the solid wooden door as firmly as he could. So what his knight was gone? Islen would still be there, and he would have his sorceress again. But it wasn’t Islen who opened the door, it was her mother. She was so young, wearing a colorful dress and a smile.
“Rubel!” She tried to pinch his cheeks but he took a step back. “So nice to see you!”
“Where’s Islen?” The boy looked over Mrs. Porters shoulder. “Is she in?”
“No, oh Rubel I’m sorry.” She gave him an apologetic look. “Islen married the baker’s boy a few months ago and they moved in upstairs.”
Rubel didn’t know how to respond to that. First his wizard, then his knight, and now even his sorceress was gone. But the worst part was the baker’s boy. Rubel remembered a long time ago when the bakers boy had beaten Rubel up and pushed him to the ground. Rubel had thrown a rock at him, and it cut the boy above his eye. He went crying to his father and Rubel was forced to apologize as the boy smiled at him from behind the adults backs. No one had understood. “Where’s Baily?” He asked. The dog hadn’t come bounding out to meet him.
“Baily’s no longer with us, Rubel. He choked to death on a bone last year. I’m sorry; I know how much you loved him.”
This just didn’t make sense. Rubel knew things would change during his journey at sea, just not this much. It was two whole years at sea; two whole years of waiting to get back to all of his friends. He was the thief, but he was nothing without his wizard, knight, sorceress, hound and demon. Or was he? He could still be a thief. And he didn’t know for sure if Varkias was there or not.
“Would you like to come in for a cup of tea, Rubel?” Mrs. Porter looked concerned. And maybe she should have been. Rubel was only 15, and he’d just lost the majority of the people he cared about. His grandfather had drowned, Quinton had disappeared, Dyme had moved away to start a glass working business, Islen had married and Baily had died. It just wasn’t fair for all of this to be sprung on such a young man.
“No, ma’am. I’m fine.” And then he turned around and bounded away. The streets were full of people, but Rubel barely noticed. He just needed to get to the forest. It was a sanctuary for him, a quiet cove where no one would follow. Granted, it was dangerous (which was probably part of the reason no one followed) but there was the Angel’s tree, which had a perfect place where Rubel could sit and dream. And a tree couldn’t fall into the water and leave you forever. A tree couldn’t move away or get married. The tree couldn’t disappoint Rubel.
But he wasn’t completely right. As Rubel drew closer to the tree he could tell something was wrong. The branches which should have been in full bloom were bare, and there was a smell of decay surrounding it.
“Oh god, no.” Rubel whispered to himself as he reached out to touch the tree.
The Angel’s tree was dead.
Rubel wanted to cry. He wanted to curl up in the dead tree and cry. But he couldn’t. A thief doesn’t need sympathy. A thief doesn’t cry just because he’s alone. And maybe he wasn’t.
“VARKIAS!” Rubel cried. The imp had to be around somewhere. “VARKIAS, IT’S ME, RUBEL! I’VE COME BACK!” But there was no response. The little man with bats wings didn’t come soaring down to greet him with a smile, in fact nothing happened at all. The forest remained still, the tree remained dead. And then Rubel saw something. A silhouette crouched on a branch.
“Varkias?” Rubel clamored up the tree towards the figure. It was indeed Varkias, but something wasn’t right. The imp had turned to metal. Rubel didn’t know imps could do that, but it kind of seemed like something an imp would do if, say, you left him there for too long waiting on a branch for a friend.
And that was truly it. Rubel was all alone. Somehow absolutely everyone had left him over the period of two years, and all because he’d gone on a stupid voyage to some stupid place on a stupid stupid ship.
Rubel pressed his cheek against the bark of the tree and stared at the little statue of Varkias. He wished for him to come back to life. Varkias was the last person Rubel could trust and now even he was gone.
“Bloody hell.” Rubel whispered as he ran his hands through his hair and jumped to the ground. There was nothing left for him. “Just… bloody hell.” The boy leaned against the trunk of the tree and sunk to the forest floor. The whispering of leaves seemed to mock him.
“Oh, the nights have flown so fast since your good master swept you off to safety. And two years! Such a long journey for one so young… But I have waited. And see..? Here you are come back to me, and, oh yes, I am still here. And I’ve not been idle… I’m afraid this may hurt a touch my darling little thief…Welcome home.”
“Who’s there?” Rubel rose from the ground. “Who are you?”
“No Rubel, not here. Not now. Once, perhaps, if you’d had the questions. But you didn’t. And now, it’s far too late. They’re gone.”
Rubel could have sworn he heard the voice laughing at him. “Show yourself.” He tried to sound brave. Because that’s what thieves were, wasn’t it? Brave, ruthless, emotionless. No one could frighten a thief with just words.
“As you wish my little thief.”
And then she emerged from the trees, tall and dark. But Rubel wasn’t surprised. He knew it would be her. Even if he didn’t remember her, some part of him knew it would be her.
“Do you remember me, Rubel? Try very hard, I know you do.” She was wearing a black cloak that swirled around her ankles. It masked her figure well, but the boy could see she had a weapon. A thief was observant, a small angle or edge that didn’t fit, Rubel would notice.
“You’re the shadow lady.” That part of Rubel that knew her knew her only by that name.
“I’m your shadow lady, Rubel.” She extended an arm towards him. Her skin was so pale against her cloak. Even her hair was black. So black that Rubel couldn’t tell where her hair ended and her cloak began.
“Yes.” Rubel looked at her closely. “I know you.” He hardly even realized he’d said that. He didn’t know her, but in a way he did.
“Come with me, Rubel. Don’t be frightened.” She smiled at him, but her smile wasn’t sincere or happy in the slightest. But that’s the funny thing about magic. Rubel didn’t even notice the evil in her smile. Magic can make you think you’re doing the right thing when really you’re not.
“I’m not scared of anything.” Rubel reached his hand out towards hers, and her eyes flashed in victory. But she had to have the last word, so she spoke again.
“Don’t lie to me, Rubel. Not even you can be immune to fear. I can tell you fear being alone. I can tell having everyone gone is your worst nightmare come true. I’m here to help, Rubel.”
Rubel drew back. Despite the magic around the shadow lady, Rubel was still arrogant. “Don’t call me a liar. I’m not lying to you.”
The shadow lady became angry. “Hurry, Rubel. We don’t have enough time for this.” Her plan wasn’t working anymore.The boy was offended.
“No, you’re not trying to help me.” Rubel’s eyes narrowed. “You’re the one who’s lying.”
“This is ridiculous, Rubel. I’m your shadow lady, how could I have any evil in mind? I want to be friends with you.”
“No.” Rubel drew up to his full height, which was only a few inches shorter than the shadow lady. “You aren’t my shadow lady, I don’t know you. But I do know you’re lying.”
And then the shadow lady reached for her weapon, and Rubel reached for his. But Rubel had only a dagger he had won from a fight during his voyage, and the shadow lady had a sword. It was huge, and it seemed to be made of darkness. It was as if someone had cut out a part of the night sky and molded a blade for her.
“Asarians should stay in Asaria, Rubel. You never should have left. The world doesn’t need idiots like you scumming up their waters.”
Rubel stood there for a moment, stunned. The shadow lady wasn’t attacking him with her weapons, but she was with words. So Rubel hit back. “Asarians are not idiots, and neither am I! I would never insult another mans country without reason! Only real idiots do that!”
The shadow lady looked surprised and angry. She didn’t seem to have anything to say to that. So she spit at Rubel’s feet. “I’ve seen your kingdom for what it really is, and your princess too. She’s gone mad, Rubel. I know you wanted to be the big hero, coming home from your journey full of tales for the princess, but she’s insane, Rubel. Give it up.”
After the shadow lady said that about Katara, Rubel got really mad. Everything went kind of fuzzy, and the next thing he knew he’s lunged at the shadow lady and attacked her with only his hands. The dagger was lying in the grass around the Angel’s tree. He swung a punch and she dodged out of the way. She too dropped her sword and threw herself towards him.
Rubel felt her fist collide with his shoulder and he staggered back a few steps, feeling his back press against the Angel’s tree. The woman’s eyes blazed with anger. “I may not be your shadow lady, Rubel. But you still belong to me. You had three chances and you’ve used up two in half a breath. Whatever shall we do with you, my little thief? Without your darling princess to protect you?”
They eyed each other for a few seconds, looking for the others weakness. But of course the shadow lady had already found it; she just needed to realize she had. Rubel was at a disadvantage, he didn’t know the shadow lady and her cloak covered up anything that might tell him about her. But the words she’d spoken about Katara still stung him, so he did something foolish.
He leapt for her sword.
The funny thing about life is that sometimes the foolish things we do are actually the best option. The shadow lady, expecting Rubel to attack her, put her hands up to defend herself. But Rubel rolled harmlessly past her, grabbed the sword from the grass and pointed it at her heart.
“Princess Katara has the most pure heart there ever was! I love her, and anyone who does not is either blind or wicked to the core! Now leave this place, or I will cut out your heart with your own sword!”
“Little thief, I did not lie to you. I told you half a truth.” She was beaten, but she wasn’t giving up.
“You tell me half a truth and say it’s not a lie? Half a truth is still half a lie.” Rubel’s arms were getting tired. Her sword was heavy.
“Ah, darling thief. I cannot help myself. For though I may not be your shadow lady I am the Queen of Halves. I cannot tell you more than half a truth; it’s not the way things are done. Now stop being foolish and give me the sword.”
“No.” Rubel’s eyes flashed and he moved slowly towards the tree. “Leave the Sleeping Wood, my good Queen, we shall part ways and never meet again. Taint me no longer with your lies.”
“You speak big words, but they are empty. You can’t make me do anything, foolish boy.”
“Leave.” He had reached the Angel’s tree and reached back with his other hand to pocket Varkias. But the little demon statue wasn’t there. Rubel glanced over his shoulder quickly to see the imp perched on a branch, grinning at him. “Varkias!” The boys face split into a grin. “You’re alright!”
“Ha. How touching.” The Queen of Halves grimaced and turned away from Rubel. “Consider yourself fortunate, young thief that you still live.”
And then she was gone in a little puff of smoke and so was the sword. Varkias landed softly on Rubel’s shoulder.
“What a looker.”
Rubel blushed and flicked Varkias off his shoulder, but the imp merely flew in a small circle and landed on his shoulder again. Rubel let him stay.
“What I meant to say was, God damn she’s evil.”
The boy laughed and spun on his heel towards the way out of the forest. “You’ve got that right, Varkias. But I bet we haven't seen the last of her.”
And the thief and his demon made their way out of the woods.