Chapter Four: The Rise of the Rat

Mikey awoke early the next morning, opening her eyes slowly and relishing the cozy feeling of being held by Niall. He was still asleep, so she edged out from under his arm as carefully as she could to avoid waking him. She was almost free when he opened his eyes and smiled at her.

"Good morning beautiful," he said, smiling. Mikey crawled back onto the bed and kissed Niall very seriously.

"Good morning, my love," she said. Niall's eyes shone with emotion at her words.

"Are you sure you want to wait for anything more than cuddling? I could get more persuasive if you'd let me."


"I know, my love, I know," he said with a sigh and a smile. "I try not to push, I really do. But you're so very hard to resist." Mikey smiled and kissed him again. Then she ducked out of his reach before he could pull her back into bed.

"I have things to do today," she said. "I can't just lie around in bed like some people."

"Oh that's cruel, woman," Niall told her sternly. "I just wake up, the perfect woman leaves my bed, and now you accuse me of sloth. My world feels empty, now."

"Aw, poor thing," Mikey said with a pout. "I almost feel bad enough to get back in bed and apologize." Niall smiled and reached for her. "I said almost." Mikey stuck out her tongue and Niall started to laugh.

"Obviously I have to work on my seductiveness," he said.

"Oh! Is that what you were doing? I had no idea," Mikey said. "Yes, you should practice more, but only with me. I'll slice any other woman who gets that close to you."

"Yes, ma'am," he told her with a salute. They both chuckled.

"Seriously, though," Mikey continued. "I do need to make an appearance at the guild hall, for our cover if nothing else. I want to get it done before everyone is out and about."

"Sounds like a good idea, actually," he agreed. "I'll let you get cleaned up first in the bath room, and then I'll get dressed myself."

"Another excuse to lounge around in bed, no doubt," she told him.

"Well, you know how the nobility is about getting up early," he quipped.

"Nobles getting up early? No, never heard of that at all," she said. She began grabbing clothes and then disappeared into the bath room to perform her morning toilet and to dress. Mikey emerged some minutes later dressed and ready to leave. Niall hauled himself out of bed and headed toward the bath room himself. He was feeling a bit grumpy about her leaving without him, so he didn't try to tease Mikey any further. She wasn't done playing though, and she slipped close and kissed him again. Niall broke the embrace first.

"You need to go, my love," he said. "Any more of your sweet kisses and there will be no way to leave me behind." Mikey smiled, showing genuine affection, and then turned to leave. Niall swatted her backside and then ran for the bath room as she yelled at him. He slammed the door, cackling like a mad man.

"I'll get you for that," she growled. Mikey left their room and went downstairs to see if she could persuade Kate to give her something quick to break her fast. She found the woman in the kitchen. "Good morning, Kate."

"Good morning ma'am," Kate answered. "Though we've been up for hours. You young lovers always sleep half the day." Mikey snorted.

"Tell that to Dobb, he's still in bed," Mikey told her.

"Did you tire him out that badly?" Kate said with a wicked grin. Mikey just blushed.

"Would it be possible to grab something quick to eat? I need to go into the city for a few hours," she said.

"How 'bout a quick sandwich and a cup of milk?" Kate suggested.

"That sounds like just the thing, thank you," Mikey told her with gratitude. Mikey watched as Kate sliced some beef and cheese to place between a couple slices of the rich brown bread they baked each day and then matched it with a mug of fresh milk from a stoneware pitcher. "Thank you Kate, this is perfect."

Kate explained that she would be going out soon to look for some clothes to replace what they'd lost in their confrontation with the stalker last evening, and asking if there was anything else she should be looking for. Mikey thought a moment while chewing a mouthful of her sandwich. "Only thing I can think of would be some silver arrow heads, but I understand those might be very hard to come by."

"I can look, we might get lucky," said Kate. "But you're right, they have been scarce of late."

"Well, we'll do the best we can with what we have," said Mikey. "I'm hoping we won't need to fight any more of those things until our priestess arrives. She might have some alternatives for us."

"It will be such a relief to have a priestess here," said Kate. "Only the wealthiest folks have had access to the ones that remain here in Kor Opan since the Wraiths came and most of our priests disappeared."

"Aye, from what I've heard, the Wraiths are likely to increase the attendance at any place of worship," said Mikey with a wry smile.

"That's the simple truth," Kate said with a laugh. "Well, then I'll be off to see about our shopping for the day. Take care out there Mikey, the city isn't a very friendly place to anyone who walks there without caution."

"Don't worry too much about me," Mikey answered. "But I thank you for your concern. Feel free to kick that man of mine if he gets too lazy or is under foot too much."

"It's a deal," Kate told her. They both laughed and then Kate left the room. Mikey quickly wolfed down the remainder of her sandwich and gulped the milk. She felt like she could face the world now without her stomach growling to warn her victims.

Mikey left the inn by the front door and walked through the poor village to the city gates. She was eager to see what the city was like now, and there was a spring in her step. For good or for ill, the Scarlet Rat was home again. She decided to work her skill a tiny bit just to make sure she was still in practice. It had been a while since she had stolen anything but kisses, and she knew that the guild master would test her before granting her free reign in the city.

She saw a guard lounging near the gate who appeared to have a fairly heavy money pouch hanging from his belt. Her conscience bothered her slightly when she had transferred the pouch to her possession, since she knew that the guard would simply extort more money from someone that didn't deserve the burden. Mikey consoled herself with the knowledge that they were setting things right here, and that they would leave the city a better place. Maybe not as good as the Kor Opan she and Niall had left behind them, but better than this city was now.

Mikey held up her identification paper for another guard, this one much more alert than the one that had so generously contributed to their finances. The Blue Dog inn was across the city, near the river docks where the barges transferred their wares to waiting wagons. It was an area that Mikey knew well in her own version of the city, though she found it odd that the guild contact would be there, since the guild hall was between the eastern gate and the Blue Dog. Apparently, they expected her to walk quite a distance out of her way to see how well she followed instructions.

The more Mikey thought about the strangeness of the request, the more she suspicioned she was being setup for an ambush. She wondered if her old friend Kelly might not be sending thieves to an informal meeting with the authorities in order to make some extra cash for himself. She walked for nearly an hour across the city to the waterfront district, thinking it over the whole way and watching the people. She saw a lot of people that showed signs of wealth and prosperity, but she also saw many more people who should be prosperous that weren't. Shop owners that were well off in her world, but here had so many patches on their clothing they might as well be wearing rags. Shops were boarded shut along the way; many that were still open had little to display on their shelves.

She saw children sitting on the sides of the street here and there. She remembered hearing Jane talk about promises of education for the children of Kor Opan, but these children were not in any kind of school right now. They were dirty, underfed, and solemn. Not at all what she expected from the children she had known in her city. After half an hour, she noticed something very strange, which made her increasingly wary. There were no thieves working the crowds. No pickpockets winnowing through the crowds lightening purses. There were no whores trying to attract business. She saw none of the usual signs of a healthy underworld. Mikey decided she couldn't afford to follow the instructions she'd been given, at least not in the way they were given. She decided to sneak in and get a look at the meeting area to see what she might observe.

As she walked through the city, she became convinced that she was in a subtle nightmare. Things were very similar to her city, and yet they were altered in disturbing ways. The lack of thieves was like walking through a sewer and not seeing rats. The city was dirty; most of the people appeared downtrodden as though they were suffering through desperate times. Those who appeared wealthy still, shone like brittle bits of colorful glass among the grayness that enveloped the cityscape around them. Mikey found herself starting at odd sounds, jumping whenever there was the sound of laughter, rare though that was. She kept tensing her back as though expecting a knife between her shoulder blades at any moment.

It was with a definite sense of relief that she stepped off the main street that she had been walking and into an alleyway. She waited in a convenient shadow for several minutes to be certain she wasn't being followed, and then ran across the alley and leapt for a handhold near the top of a short wall. She vaulted from there to a window ledge and then flipped back and upward to the roof of the building she had been standing against seconds earlier. She ducked into the shadow of a taller building near where she had landed and waited motionless once more. There were no outcries and no motion near her. Good, she thought, I haven't lost my touch after all.

Mikey moved silently from one shadow to another along the roofline. She could see everything in the streets below merely by leaning over a little, and yet be very difficult to observe from the ground. Even most thieves were unable to follow her when she took to the roofs. She felt she had little to fear up here and would be able to spy out any traps without walking into them first. She reached the end of the block where she could go no farther along the line of shops that she had been using, and carefully examined the street she would have to jump. There was another roof across the way from her, a space of almost sixteen feet, well within her ability. She was checking first to see if there were any watchers to see her leaping the distance to ensure there would be no outcry when she reached the far side.

Satisfied after several minutes of observation, she backed away from the edge and stood. She measure out the distance and took several deep breaths before launching herself at a full run toward the edge of the roof. Just before she ran out of flat space to run she stepped up onto the tiled section of roof on the edge and then launched herself into the air. Mikey soared across the intervening space and landed just past the edge of the far roof, immediately dropping into a tumbling roll to shed her momentum and tuck into the waiting shadow beside a chimney. She stayed there for minutes, waiting for the cry of alarm that never came.

Mikey crept to the far said of the building, looking for a vantage place that would let her overlook the Blue Dog inn and the surrounding alleys. From her experience, she knew the threat, if there was one, would come from the dark alleys to either side of the inn and possibly from those surrounding the building she perched atop. She watched silently for a long while and was very nearly going to walk away and chalk this up to her nerves when she caught the faintest motion in one of the alleys. She peered into the darkness of the shadowed alley and was rewarded with the sight of three enforcer types watching the street. Mikey shifted her attention to the alley on the far side of the inn and saw another group there. She then crawled to the edge of the building she was on to look down into the alley below. Once she did, she found another group of toughs there.

That dirty son of a pig set me up, Mikey thought. This was nothing more than a trap, but is it designed to take money, or life? Seems like a lot of muscle for a mugging. Mikey lay on the edge of the roof, quietly waiting to see if anything would give away their intentions or affiliations.

"So, think those two'll show up today?" One tough said to another below her perch. The other hired goon spat on the ground before replying.

"They better if they know what's good for them," he answered.

"But ain't we gonna kill ‘em? How's that gonna be good for them?"

"Just shut up and watch for them to show." Mikey almost laughed. These guys couldn't be from the thieves guild, they were too stupid. Dumb thieves tend not to live very long. These guys must be working for the government, she thought. Mikey decided she'd seen what she needed and started to move back from the edge of the roof. She accidentally brushed a small rock off the edge and she moved away. The stone seemed to fall in slow motion, and Mikey had plenty of time to reflect on the longevity of thieves that are stupid enough to drop rocks on people they're supposed to be watching.

The tiny rock fell in a gentle arc and landed about ten feet below her position, and directly on the bald spot of the biggest thug in the group. Mikey actually heard the tiny thunk sound as the rock bounced off that bald spot. The thug scratched his head and turned to look up. He and Mikey stared directly at each other for a startled moment.

"Hey, ain't that the woman we're looking for?" The thug said pointing up at Mikey. Sure enough, her luck went from bad to worse as the others looked up and saw her.

"Time to go," Mikey said to herself. She shoved herself back from the side of the roof. Mikey heard shouts from the alley below her, and then from the other groups of thugs around the area. Oh this just keeps getting better, she thought.

Mikey burst into motion, running back the way she'd come. This time, she didn't bother checking to see if anyone was watching the roofs, she just kept running full speed and leapt the street without pause. She had nearly cleared the chasm when she heard another outcry behind her. She didn't pause to evaluate the situation, she just ran. Most of the roofs on this block were at nearly the same height, and she was able to make good time over them. She knew that the men below would be focused on pursuing her in a straight line, though, so halfway down the block she changed direction. She went back the way she'd just come and then veered off to the north. Mikey didn't want to end up in the middle of the area they'd chosen as a trap and yet she wanted to get as far away from where they would be expecting her.

She reached the end of the block and jumped the alley on the north side of the city block. She made it across without hearing anyone below. Mikey was beginning to relax somewhat when she heard a shout behind her, but not from the streets below. She spared a glance back over her shoulder and saw that three of the thugs had climbed to the rooftops through one of the shops along the street she had just left. One of them had seen her and the group was now hot in pursuit. I just hope these guys are as out of shape as they look, Mikey thought. She heard a shout of fear and a loud crash and looked back again. Apparently one of the men had missed his timing on the jump over the first alley. She turned just in time to see his flailing hands disappear over the edge of the closer side of the alley. Mikey grinned fiercely and ran faster.

*     *     *

Niall sat on the porch of the inn with his feet up in a second chair, watching the traffic on the street. People passed along the street both toward and away from the city, usually on foot but there were riders or wagons every so often. One of Kate's girls had brought a sandwich and a mug of ale out for him, telling him that Kate would only serve men who worked for their keep. She'd said it with a smile, though, so Niall was fairly certain she'd been joking.  It still gave his conscience a twinge to think that anyone would think him lazy. But he was staying where Mikey told him to be. He was more afraid of her anger than of other people's opinion.

He was actually getting rather nervous at Mikey's absence. He thought she would have been back before lunchtime had rolled around, but there was no sign of her. He had a vague sense of unease building, and thinking it was merely tension from sitting too long, he got up and began to pace the length of the porch. The motion helped a little, but he still felt that something was wrong. He contemplated leaving his post to go look for Mikey, but realized he really didn't know where to begin looking for her. He knew where they had been instructed to go, but had no idea beyond that where she would be. He found himself more than once staring off toward the city gate as though he could see through the intervening stone to determine where his lady was at that moment.

Niall kicked himself mentally when he caught himself staring thus at the city gate, chiding himself for not watching for Ingvar and Cara as Mikey had asked him. He was back staring toward the gate when a voice from the street surprised him.

"Dobb? Is that you?" Ingvar called. Niall turned to find Ingvar and Cara sitting on their horses in the middle of the street, looking up at him. He smiled and went closer.

"Hello you two," he said with a relieved smile. "I was hoping to catch you hear before you rode into the city."

"Are you staying here instead of in the city proper?" Cara asked him. "Where's Mikey?"

"Why don't we get you settled in and we can share a bit of something to wash away the travel dust," Niall answered. Cara frowned and said nothing. Ingvar smiled at the mention of something to wash away the dust and dismounted. Niall led them around the side of the inn to the stable. He introduced them to Jeb and saw their horses settled into the stable. Then he asked Jeb if someone could possibly take their gear up to another room in the inn. Jeb took them himself with a smile, leaving the three friends to go inside to find food and drink, or in Niall's case, more drink.

"Dobb, where is Mikey?" Cara asked again, quietly once they were sitting at a small table inside the inn.

"She's ok as far as I know," Niall answered. "She went into the city this morning to check in at the thieves' guild, and she left me here to watch for you."

"What caused you to change the plan and meet here?" Ingvar asked him after he'd drained his first mug of ale with a loud sigh. Jane brought him another one and he just smiled at her.

"Jane here is the reason we decided to stay here," Niall said. "She owned the inn we were going to stay at, but things have changed more than we anticipated. We got talking with Jeb and decided to come inside to wash away the dust and gather information. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that Jane was here, and we've been here since."

"Dobby just likes my ale better than anything else," Jane said with a laugh, ruffling Niall's hair as she did.

"I can see why," said Ingvar. "Tasty way to remove dust."

"Indeed," added Cara. She was smiling, but Niall thought that there was a bit of an edge to her smile as she watched Ingvar smiling at Jane. He realized that Jane was a fitting match for Ingvar, physically, and wondered if Cara was feeling a bit protective of her claim on him. Jane walked away to wait on other patrons and left the three to talk privately. Niall quickly filled them in on their encounters with the guards and the Wraith stalker the night before. Ingvar didn't seem surprised by the actions of the guards, but he was fascinated by the stalker.

"Silver, eh?" he murmured. "It may prove fortunate then that I added some silver chasing to the Ravens. I wonder if it will be enough silver to make a difference?"

"My friend, I think any amount of silver would be enough on that axe," Niall told him wryly. "That is a truly imposing weapon."

"That was sort of the idea when I made it," Ingvar told him. "It's a pain to sharpen and maintain, so the more I can intimidate an enemy into running the less time I spend sharpening."

"And the more time he has for other things," Cara said affectionately. She laid a hand on Ingvar's arm. The light must have changed in the room, Niall thought. Ingvar couldn't be blushing. Niall raised his mug to cover his smile.

*     *     *

Mikey was getting very tired of running and climbing. She had lost the original group of pursuers only to have them replaced by two more groups. Unfortunately for her, these men were younger and more athletic than the originals, and so she was having a harder time losing them. The only way I'm going to get out of this is to find some help, Mikey thought.

She was running along the rooftops on the edge of the temple district. Mikey had thus far avoided entering the district because the buildings there had greatly varying architecture, reflecting the cultures of the various gods and goddesses worshiped there, and because the temples themselves were separated by too much space to jump without aid. Mikey hadn't brought her thief's tail, a section of rope with a small folding grappling hook at one end, so making that leap wasn't going to work unless she could find another way. She was getting desperate for a chance to catch her breath, though, and was beginning to look for more creative answers.

Mikey crested the peak of a sloped roof and saw something ahead of her that just might work to her advantage. There was a street on her left separating her from the temples, too big to jump, but there was a tall wagon passing along the far side of the street heading away from here. If she could catch it before it reached the end of the block containing the temple, she might be able to make the jump. She only briefly contemplated jumping to the wagon and hiding in it, deciding that she didn't have enough of a lead to get away with it and the thugs following her might not be as stupid as the first groups were.

She stopped thinking and gave all her energy over to running for the wagon. She leapt as hard as she could off the edge of the roof, tumbling through the air to land on the wagon's load of wood, and immediately launched herself into the air as high as she could. She frantically scrabbled for a hold on the edge of the temple's roof and then pulled herself over the edge. This roof had a small wall embossed with the laughing images of angels or sprites, Mikey wasn't sure which they were and didn't really care at that moment. She lay flat on her back breathing hard and listening for her pursuers. She finally looked carefully over the wall and saw two of the thugs make the jump to the next roof along the block she'd been on. Maybe they didn't see me make that jump after all, she thought.

Mikey waited another minute and then rose to a crouch and ran back along the temple roof looking for an access door that would let her descend into the temple. As she turned the corner that would block her from view from the direction she'd come, she found a small trap door set in the roof. The door was latched from the lower side, but there was enough space to wiggle her smallest blade into. It took her a minute to work the latch loose so she could lift the door and drop down into the darkness. Mikey settled the trap door back into place above her and reset the latch. That would keep the inhabitants from noticing her entrance, she hoped. She knew she had very little time before the thugs would try the temple, so she needed to keep moving.

The room Mikey was now in was almost completely dark, but here and there gaps in the floorboards let enough light into the attic room that she could begin to find her way as her eyes adjusted. There appeared to be mostly old storage up here; there were boxes that were covered with a deep layer of dust. That dust could be a problem, Mikey thought. If they come up here and see footprints, they'll get very curious. She focused on finding another door out of the attic. Mikey made almost a complete circuit of the attic area before she found the stairs down to the lower floor. Figures I would pick the wrong direction to go for the stairs, she thought with wry amusement. She listened at the door long a long moment before softly opening it. She found herself in a long hallway, currently empty of people. Mikey could hear a soft murmuring in another part of the temple, and decided that a service must be underway. Hopefully her luck would favor her enough to find a way out without anyone here seeing her.

Mikey began checking doors on either side of the hallway, looking for a way out. In one room she saw several racks of robes and other paraphernalia. She had almost closed the door to move on when she had a crazy idea. Grinning fiercely, Mikey entered the room.

*     *     *

"That does it," Niall growled. "Mikey should've been back a long time ago. I'm going to look for her."

"Why don't you go along, Ingvar?" Cara asked. "I can stay here in case she returns."

"That sounds like a good idea," Ingvar replied. "I think we'll want to go prepared for trouble though, in case there's a reason she is late."

"Aye, let me go upstairs and get my weapons," Niall said before hurrying off to the stairway. He was back in only a moment, buckling his sword belt around his waist and slipping one dagger in his boot and another up his sleeve. Ingvar watched with amusement.

"Are you carrying any others?" Ingvar asked with a grin.

"Maybe," came the reply from Niall. "But you'd have to buy me more than a few drinks to find them." They both laughed. Cara stood up and put her hands on Ingvar's arm.

"Be careful, my lord, and bring Mikey back safely." Cara kissed him and then stepped back so he could follow Niall out the door.

"I will my love," Ingvar said over his shoulder as he walked away.

The two men walked up the street towards the gate. People were looking at them oddly, eyeing their weapons and finding reasons to be occupied elsewhere. Niall noticed the change and wondered at it, and then noticed that they were more likely to be staring at his companion than himself. He nearly laughed at the thought of their shock at seeing a barbarian warlord with that huge axe on his back.

"Are you carrying much gold?" Niall asked.

"Some," Ingvar replied evasively.

"We'll need to stop and get your identification papers at the guard's office. They charge five gold a person for the papers," Niall told him. Ingvar just grunted in disgust.

"Was that true in your city?" Ingvar asked Niall with a raised eyebrow.

"Gods, no," Niall said. "People have always been free to come and go unless we had reason to stop them. Merchants do much better when their goods and their customers are unrestrained. And if the merchants are doing well, the people are fed and the Crown is gathering its taxes. Everyone's happy."

"Good," Ingvar said. "I'm just beginning to like you. I'd hate for a thing like that to come between our friendship." He slapped Niall on the shoulder, causing him to stumble.

"Thanks," Niall said, rubbing his shoulder.

*     *     *

The white robed acolyte moved along the hallway toward the public areas of the temple. The floor-length robe hid her feet and gave the impression that she was gliding rather than walking. The hood she wore concealed the top of her head and part of her face, leaving the lower portion of her face shadowed.

The midday prayer was just ending and there were other acolytes and a few priests moving through the halls now, and the acolyte blended with them. She nodded to others as they passed and murmured a greeting or blessing. A few of the acolytes were exiting the temple on their way to preach in the market for the afternoon, or to beg for funds to support the temple. One acolyte stepped off to the side of a corridor near the exit and lifted her hood slightly to watch the others. Mikey could see that some of the acolytes were leaving and that others were milling about before going off in ones and twos on their tasks. She lowered her hood once more and walked calmly to the door.

"Wait, you can't go in there," a female voice said near her. Only her long training kept her from tensing up and perhaps betraying herself. Mikey kept moving toward the door but listened carefully for any sign that she had been discovered.

"Maybe you can help us," a male voice said. He sounded a little winded, as though he'd been running. Mikey smiled and kept going. "We're looking for a thief…"

"There are no thieves here," the woman interrupted, indignantly.

The sounds of their conversation faded as Mikey passed through the door and out into the daylight beyond. No one tried to stop her, fortunately, and so she kept up her stately pace. She'd had some time now to catch her breath and felt like she was up to resuming the race if necessary, but she also wanted to avoid having to kill anyone and draw attention to herself if she could help it. Stealth was much better at this point.

As Mikey neared the other side of the wide street she happened to catch the fleeting shadow of someone running on the roof above her. She smiled to herself, thinking that they were obviously still looking for her, and just as obviously hadn't caught on to her disguise yet. That won't be true very long, she thought. Mikey stayed in the crowd, trying to move along at a pace that wouldn't draw attention. She followed the people heading toward the market, since that was near the east gate and the direction she wanted to go. Soon, though, she knew she would have to move off in a different direction.

*     *     *

"I don't understand why you expected to have trouble with the guards," Ingvar said. "They seemed pleasant enough to me."

"That's because you scared them," laughed Niall. They had cleared the process of obtaining papers for Ingvar easily, and without any attempted bribery from the guards. Niall had noticed several of the guards eyeing Ingvar's axe nervously and had nearly laughed out loud.

They had left the guard's office and headed into the city proper. Niall tried to see whether there were any guards following them but couldn't see anything obvious. He couldn't imagine they would let two armed men walk about the city without some kind of precaution. He had also wondered why Mikey's acquaintance, Sergeant Kelly had not been at the office. Not knowing much about the movements of the guards he shrugged it off.

What they did notice, with a sidelong glance at each other when it happened, was small groups of men running through the streets as though looking for someone. The first few times they saw these groups, Niall didn't see anything to be alarmed by. But at last, one of the men stopped and took a second longer look at Niall and then ran off to catch up with his friends. Niall looked at Ingvar to see if he'd noticed and found his companion loosening his sword in its sheath.

"You caught that, too?" Niall said.

"Aye, looks as though your woman stirred something up," Ingvar growled. "Nothing like a little exercise to loosen you up after hours on horseback."

"I'm afraid that's exactly what we're going to get," Niall said grimly. "Why don't we sort of hurry along in the direction some of those guys are going?"

"That's the spirit," Ingvar said with his booming laugh.

"No, I'm thinking they might be chasing Mikey," Niall said with a smile. "I'm really not looking for a fight yet."

"Too bad, I think we'll find one before long," Ingvar said. "Besides a good fight makes the ale taste better."

*     *      *

Mikey was only a few streets from the east gate when she felt a rough hand grab the hood of her robe and yank it down, snagging her short hair in the process. The pain of her pulled hair brought tears to her eyes briefly, but the surprise caused her to gasp out loud.

"Got you now!" the man cried as he spun her around and tried to pin her arms. He began calling to his friends before Mikey could do anything to stop him. He stopped abruptly though as the tip of her pointed boot impacted his crotch. The man abruptly let go of Mikey and dropped to his knees, but the damage was already done. And I was so close to the gate, too, she thought.

She was pulling the robe off and turning to run when a group of four thugs came skidding around the corner between her and the gate. Mikey cursed and set off running up the side street, away from the gate. The men all chased after her, except the one that still lay on the ground writhing in pain. Mikey was too tired to lead another chase over the rooftops, and too likely to be cornered if she just kept running blindly along the streets. She rounded a corner into an alley and stopped. She drew her sword and waited.

The first man rounded the corner after her, still running at full speed. He was unable to stop when he came face to face with Mikey, and she easily impaled him on the tip of her sword. She yanked the blade free and started running again. She cleared the alley just as his friends came around the corner behind her and found their compatriot. Mikey looked back and noticed that they were very slow to round the next corner, which gave her a wider lead. She turned back toward the east gate again, hoping she would be able to reach the inn somehow.

"It's her! It's the Scarlet Rat!" Mikey almost stumbled and fell when she heard the shout from a side street she passed; partly from surprise at the sudden shout, but mostly because someone here knew her thief name and knew that the Rat was a woman. She very nearly turned to face them right there and then, but her instinct told her to keep moving. My luck almost never lets me down, Mikey thought. I'll trust it this time.

She turned another corner and felt like her luck was laughing at her. The street before her was a dead end cul-de-sac.

*     *     *

"This way, Ingvar!" Niall shouted and took off running down a side street. Ingvar pelted after him. "I heard someone shouting about the Scarlet Rat down this way," Niall said as Ingvar caught up to him. They came skidding around a corner to find a group of men circled around a lone woman in a dead-end street. There were about a dozen men, which would be too many for Mikey to handle alone, especially as tired as she looked to Niall. He and Ingvar stopped short of the ring of thugs, who seemed to think they were just more of their gang come to help.

"Well gentlemen?" Mikey asked, panting from her exertion. "Are you at least going to tell me who sent you to kill me before we dance?" Niall chuckled at her bravado, noticing the crimson dripping from her extended blade.

The apparent leader of the group was a smallish man, rather nondescript looking. He was medium in almost every way, and the eye tended to move right past him as though he were somehow camouflaged. He was wearing a brown tunic over light brown pants and wielded a dagger. The others identified him as their leader by their body language and the way they kept looking to him before making any move. Mikey would have lunged for him and killed him first if he'd been within reach, but he stood behind the first circle of men and out of her reach. But he was within Niall's reach.

"I believe the lady asked you a question," Niall said with a steely resolve in his quiet voice, and the tip of his sword resting against the man's neck.

"What took you so long?" Mikey asked.

"Oh you know, the usual," Niall answered lightly.

"Drinking?" Mikey asked. Niall just laughed. The leader of the thugs winced as Niall's laughter made his sword move ever so slightly and prick the man's skin. A thin line of blood ran down from the point.

"Answer the question," Niall said to the man. "Who sent you to kill her?" The man swallowed before speaking.

"His Majesty ordered us to apprehend the Scarlet Rat for crimes against the Crown," he said.

"Crimes against the Crown eh?" Niall said. "Have you been offending Gray again, Mikey?"

"Gods know I try," Mikey answered with a crooked smile.

"I think you're lying to us," Niall told the man. "No one here knows the name you used, and we've done nothing to cause this reaction." He pushed the tip of his sword against the man's neck again, causing a fresh bit of blood to flow.

"You exist," he said at last. "That is reason enough."

One of the thugs apparently thought he was fast enough to rescue his boss. He suddenly lunged at Niall's side. He'd covered about half the distance when Ingvar grabbed his sword arm with a single beefy hand. The man's forward momentum simply stopped and he stared first at his hand and then up at Ingvar's face.

"That's not very nice," Ingvar said to the man. Then he twisted his hand and the man dropped his sword from a lifeless hand and began screaming. Ingvar released him, and the man fell to his knees. "Good night," Ingvar said and punched the man once across the jaw. The thug went limp, either unconscious or dead, no one could tell.

That broke the stasis, though. The other thugs all charged Ingvar, thinking their numbers would overwhelm him. Ingvar laughed loudly, causing several men to falter. He also grabbed the Ravens off his back and brought the axe around in a viciously fast arc. The men who'd kept charging all died in that sweeping arc. The Ravens sheared through arms and torsos, leaving the fallen men in pieces and sending blood showering across the confined space. Mikey nearly threw up her breakfast at the sight. Now there were only five men left, in addition to their leader.

Mikey stepped forward and killed two men with quick strokes as they faced Ingvar. Then the Ravens made a return arc as Ingvar stepped closer to the remaining three men. And then there was only the leader left at the point of Niall's sword. Ingvar made a short quick swing of his axe to clear it of any clinging blood and then dropped it to his side casually. "Good fight," he said laconically. "Care to call a few more? I could still use some exercise." He said to the leader. The man went slightly pale at the casual way that Ingvar said it. Niall didn't blame him, he felt the same way.

"You won't make it out of this world alive," the man said, spitting at Ingvar's feet.

"Sorry you feel that way," Niall said. He bunched his muscles to drive the sword through the man's neck, but the man suddenly blurred and disappeared. Niall's stroke passed through empty air. The three of them stood there staring in disbelief at the space that had been occupied by the offensive little man.

"That's a first," said Ingvar with a chuckle.

"Let's get out of here," Mikey said. "I need a safe place to rest."

"Agreed," said Niall. He put away his sword and hugged Mikey close. "I'm glad we found you."

"Probably not as glad as I am," she said with a laugh. "Let's go."

"You know, Ingvar," Niall said tentatively as they walked quickly from the street. "You kinda scared me back there." Ingvar laughed.

"I'll tell you a secret," Ingvar answered. "I learned years ago that a fearsome reputation will do a lot of the work for you."

"So that was an act?" Mikey asked.

"Mostly, yes," he told them. "I was only half serious when I asked him to send more."

*     *     *

A short time later, the three companions stood together in the shadow of a building watching the guards at the gate. There were approximately twenty guards on duty, and all looked alert. "How in the names of all the gods are we going to get through there?" Niall asked.

"I'm working on it," Mikey replied testily. "Give me a minute, will you?"

"I have an idea," Ingvar said. He suddenly walked away back toward a small shop they had passed earlier. Mikey and Niall watched him enter the shop, their mouths hanging open in surprise. Ingvar came walking out of the shop a few minutes later with what looked like a carpet and a jug. He walked back to them as if there were nothing out of the ordinary and handed the rug to Niall. As they watched, Ingvar pulled the cork from the jug and began to pour what smelled like whiskey over his head and shoulders. He took a long pull from the jug and then re-corked it. Mikey waved a hand in front of her face to wave away the smell of the alcohol.

"Thank you Niall, may I have the carpet back now?" Ingvar handed the jug to Niall and took the carpet. "Hey Mikey, Look at this…" He handed her one end of the carpet. Mikey took hold of it not knowing what he intended. Ingvar suddenly spun her around, wrapping the carpet around her so that her face and torso were concealed, but her legs were free from the knees down. Then he lifted her over one shoulder as Niall stared in amazement. Mikey began kicking and shouting at him to put her down.

"That's perfect, Mikey," Ingvar said. "Keep it up." Niall suddenly laughed as it dawned on him what Ingvar was up to. "Niall, you follow along and beg me for a chance at the wench," Ingvar told him with a wink. Then Ingvar stepped boldly out into plain sight and began staggering toward the guards singing an unintelligible drinking song. Mikey was thrashing in the carpet and shouting, her voice was so muffled no words could be made out.

"Here, mate, let me have a taste of her," Niall called out to Ingvar as he stumbled along after, sloshing the jug around in the air as he gestured. Several of the guards were pointing at them as they came into the gate, and they all began laughing at the sight.

"You'll get yer taste when I've had mine and not before, as I said afore," Ingvar said loudly.

"I'll need to see your papers, my friend," said the sergeant on duty.

"Oh damn," slurred Ingvar. "I've got em here somewhere, unless I lost em in tha card game afore I won the wench." He made a show of checking his pockets on his free side. Then he casually flipped Mikey up in the air and onto his other shoulder. Mikey squealed in surprise and started cursing him louder. "Yes, yes, darlin' I know yer eager to start. But these here nice men need to see me papers an all." The guards all laughed again.

"That's alright, friend," said the sergeant, still laughing. "I can see you aren't a threat to the city and that you have pressing business."

"Pressing business…" Ingvar muttered as though trying to figure out what the man meant. Then he laughed at the guards. "Right ye are, I've gots me some business ta press alright. Thankee gents and have yerselves a good night." Ingvar waved and almost stumbled as he did so. Mikey squealed again and stopped moving as she felt him almost falling. Then Ingvar righted himself and the two men began staggering onward once more. They kept it up until they reached the first street and then turned the corner that would let them approach the inn from the back. Ingvar suddenly straightened and lowered Mikey carefully.

"You might want to stand back, Niall," he said with a grin. "Sometimes they come out fighting." He pulled on the free end of the carpet and Mikey came spinning out, her daggers flashing in the late afternoon sun. Niall collapsed on the group laughing and Ingvar just stood there smiling at her.

"You… you… barbarian!" Mikey growled at Ingvar through gritted teeth.

"Thank you," Ingvar said politely bowing. Mikey dropped her daggers to her sides and stared at him with her mouth open. "I do apologize for not warning you, but it works better when the outrage is genuine." Mikey closed her mouth, still staring at the big man. At last she turned to Niall.

"You! You are sleeping on the floor tonight," she told him. Then she sheathed her daggers and walked off to the inn, muttering to herself and gesturing angrily. The men just watched her go, smiling.

"I hope you aren't angry with me, Niall," Ingvar said as they walked to the inn.

"Not even slightly," Niall said. "I hate to admit it, but it was worth the pain of sleeping on the floor to see her outmaneuvered. How did you come up with that?"

"One of my warrior lords taught me the trick with the carpet long before I became king," Ingvar explained. "He said it was the safest way to capture a woman while pillaging a city. And considering that he had the fewest knife scars of any of us, I figured he was on to something." Niall stared at him for a long moment. Ingvar just looked innocent. Niall spent the rest of the walk muttering to himself about barbarians. Ingvar was laughing quietly.