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Fantasticoe 2001 -  10th Anniversary Issue

The Merchant and the Flame

Jeremy George

Waking up tied to a tree is the most uncomfortable way of starting the day.

Reese had the most rotten luck in the entire dukedom. It had been fortunate that the woodcutter found him when he did. He took a sip of his ale. He usually didn't drink, but today was an exception. The tavern he was drinking in was empty and dark, but considering most of his belongings were stolen from him last night he was lucky to be able to afford a mug. He was a young man, in his late teens, with brown hair and a slightly less than muscular frame. His white shirt was slightly soiled from spending the night outside, and his fashionable black vest had sap stains in the back. As an aspiring trader, it was important to look respectable to finish off deals, but his frazzled outfit would have impressed no one.

Reese's father was going to skin him alive. His family owned a modest little trading company, and it was expected of Reese to take over some day. To learn the trade, his father had Reese do small delivery runs to nearby towns. He usually transported a small cart with a team of two mules. It wasn't the most exciting job, but Reese was usually gone on runs for days and it was pretty relaxing work. People transported all kinds of things: millers transported small bags of barley or meal, blacksmiths sent specialty tools they didn't have time to deliver themselves, and sometimes people had a small package of some sort to send to a friend. His father's company transported almost everything. And Reese had lost an entire shipment. To the Constable of Rythure no less. He took a gulp of his ale. Curses, his back was stiff.

The route to Rythure was a typical three-day journey. Last night Reese decided he couldn't make it before Rythure closed its gates, so he made camp for the night. Off the road, in a small forest, there was an old campsite for travelers. A wall of trees surrounded it, and there was enough room to fit his entire wagon. He was alone on this run, mostly because it was a local transport. He was relaxing in front of the fire when suddenly something struck him from behind. He blacked out. When he came to, Reese groaned and tried to get up. His hands were pulled behind him around the trunk of the tree he leaned against, with a length of rope tying them together. Those ropes were pulled bloody tight! He growled, futilely pulling against the tree. There was a red-cloaked stranger hitching up the mules to the cart.

"Hey, what the bloody hell's going on?" he shouted to the stranger through clenched teeth.

The stranger's hooded face glanced in Reese's direction. "Oh, I just thought that the mules and the cart are just too much for you to burden yourself with. I figured I would take them out of your hands," the thief said in a muffled high-pitched voice. The stranger resumed tying the mules to the cart.

Reese glared with helpless anger. "Who do you think you are?"

The stranger's hooded face turned towards Reese. "Perhaps you've heard of me. I am the Scarlet Flame"

"Uhcan't say I have."

The Scarlet Flame stood and turned around, holding out red-sleeved hands in confusion. "The Scarlet Flame? The master thief? You have honestly never heard of me?"

Reese shrugged.

"But, I assure you, II am a great thief. I am sure anyone else would quake in fear of my name."

"You would have to be good. I imagine sneaking around at night in red must be very difficult."

The Scarlet Flame clenched his fists in indignation. The eyes in the depths of the hood glared at the helpless merchant-in-training. The thief muttered a curse, and let out a wicked laugh. "Think you're a smart little rat, don't you?" The Flame walked over to where Reese was tied up and kneeled down. The thief pulled out Reese's dagger and held it in front of him. Reese swallowed.

"It's nothing personal, of course. It happens that I am working on an important job, and it seems you have something of value in your cart. Lucky for you I am not too fond of killing." The Scarlet Flame chuckled, and stuck the blade in the dirt a foot away from Reese's feet.

"Have a good night, Rat." The Scarlet Flame stood and walked to Reese's cart, laughing all the way. The thief swung up into the seat and cracked the reins. The mules began making their way on the road.

"You stupid mules! Stop! I'll get you, you lousy flaming bag of boils!" Reese scampered his feet in a vain attempt to retrieve his knife, only a torturing few inches away. He eventually gave up, cursing that thief with every obscenity he knew. He fell into an uncomfortable sleep, the bark scratching up his forearms.

When the blessed woodcutter found Reese and untied him the next morning, he thanked the man, sheathed his dagger, and ran after the tracks left by the cart. He was a mixed blend of anger and worry, planning every kind of pain on that Scarlet Flame. That afternoon, he had finally reached Rythure town, exhausted and dirty from the run. It was a prosperous town, with the manor of the Constable in the center. The Constable was the overseer of this part of the dukedom, and answered only to the High Lord. Reese's deliveries were for the Constable's household, so he went straight for the Constable's offices. Reese told the clerks that a thief called the Scarlet Flame had stolen the shipment. They had never heard the name either. The clerks were furious, as there was an important package in his shipment, and they complained about the lack of precaution of Reese's company.

So Reese ended up in the tavern, downing his third ale from the coppers hidden inside of his boot. He hiccupped, and muttered a thanks to the serving girl. He asked the girl if she had heard of the Scarlet Flame, which she had not. He walked outside. Somehow it had turned into night. He decided he had better find the inn that had the reservation in his name, before someone else tried to rob him blind. He walked past the Constable's manor, a great three storied brick mansion with a tall stone fence around it. A few guards roamed around the gate, alert but bored.

Reese moved farther along the stone wall, and glanced down an alley between the fence and a building. What he saw caught his breath. A scarlet-cloaked figure, rope in hand, bounding up some stacked boxes and leaping into the manor's grounds. His nose curled in anger. He wasn't drunk, but there was enough ale in him to go down that dark alley, and he thought of nothing except wringing that highwayman's neck. He climbed up the boxes used by the thief, and peered over the fence. He overlooked the Constable's private garden on the east side of the mansion. There was only one guard strolling around. He was walking along the wall towards Reese, not noticing the scarlet thief silently moving through the roses to the mansion.

His anger at the red cloak flared, he needed to get back at that scoundrel! He figured with only the one guard, he could easily follow the thief. The ale in his stomach boosted his confidence. As the guard came closer to Reese's position on the wall, he grabbed a flowerpot stacked atop of the fence and waited. Unfortunate for the guard that he didn't have a helmet. When Reese dropped the pot, the guard dropped as well. Reese leaped over the fence, not even bothering to hide the guard's unconscious body. He could see the scarlet cloak climbing the rope to the second floor, and Reese ran through the assorted plants and flowers to catch up.

The Scarlet Flame had climbed through an opened window, and Reese followed. Reese had no experience climbing up ropes in the dark, but he was determined to even up the score with that dratted vandal. His palms were coated with blisters by the time he made it through the window. He was in an unlit room, and finally Reese's nervousness caught up with him. He had gone too far now; he was going to get that cursed Scarlet. He peeked through the door, scanning for any guards, but the only one he found was lying silent on the floor. His breathing told Reese he was alive. From across the hall, Reese heard a clash to the ground, and a curse to go with it. "You're mine, Flame," he thought.

Reese crossed the hall and peeked inside. It was a big room, with a balcony overlooking the yard and a dozen relics placed around the room on crafted wood displays. The Constable's private collection. The thief was in the middle of the room, near a display that held a white rod half an arms length long, picking up a dropped tool from the floor. Reese drew his dagger, and crept towards the hunched over figure. Reese made it half way across the room, when he hiccupped. He clapped his hand over his face all too late. In an instant, the Scarlet Flame jumped to a stand.

"You!" was all the thief stammered before Reese tackled the Flame to the ground. They wrestled each other, daggers strewn away from them. Reese ended up sitting on the thief's stomach, with each of the Flame's arms held by his own.

"Lets just see who we have here," said Reese, as he pulled the Scarlet Flame's hood back.

Looking back at him was a beautiful black-haired girl, about his age. For a moment, Reese was dumbstruck.

That moment caused him to get a fist to the groin.

Gagging, Reese fell off of the girl, who scrambled up to the display with the white rod. From under her cloak, she pulled out a yellow stone in the shape of a flame. "Look familiar, Rat? Shame I had to lift off the entire wagon of yours to find the Constable's package. He had no idea how valuable it was. Well, when combined with this marvelous ivory rod." She took the rod off of its pedestal with her other hand. Before she could attach the yellow headpiece to the scepter, Reese grabbed her ankle and yanked with all his might.

The two pieces were tossed across the room, near the doorway that led to the balcony. The Scarlet Flame crawled over to the pieces, but Reese's hand gripped her calf muscle tripping her on her stomach. Reese threw himself at the rod. He had no other reason for trying to take the rod other than to extract revenge on the female thief. Rod in hand he came to his feet, as did the Scarlet Flame. She moved like a snake.

"I suggest you give that to me, Rat," she snarled.

"I don't think so. I was planning on beating you upside the head with it." He held the rod menacingly. "Now, you had better tell me where my shipment is."

"That ratty old cart? I dumped it somewhere outside the manor this morning. A great thief like myself couldn't be seen riding into town on that thing. Now give me that rod. I am not beyond offering you a cut of what I get for this relic."

"Sorry, great thief, but even if I did believe you I am not in the habit of stealing. I am surprised a darling girl such as yourself is."

That was not the best thing to say, as she doubled in fury and landed a fist straight in his face. He tumbled backwards, falling to the floor barely missing one of the Constable's treasures. The thief picked up the rod and rushed over to the strewn headpiece. She smiled as she attached the stone to the rod, and an array of noiseless sparks flew from the newly formed scepter. It glowed with an eerie golden light, and the girl giggled.

"The wizard will pay a handsome price for this beautiful thing." Scepter in hand, she walked out to the balcony, and pulled the hood over her head. Without thinking, Reese leaped to his feet and seized the stone headpiece of the scepter. He pulled with all his strength, but the thief landed a kick in his gut. He collapsed to the floor.

"It's been fun, Rat," she whispered. Waving the rod provokingly, she leaped off the side of the balcony. Reese rushed to the side and looked down. She disappeared. He pounded his fist on the parapet. She got away! He glanced in his hands, looking at the headpiece that detached before she kicked him. Reese smiled. At least it wasn't a total loss; the thief didn't get both pieces. He would give the headpiece to the Constable and hopefully would receive assistance to find his cart. He turned to exit the room.

In the doorway the Constable, in his nightshirt, stood with a pair of guards each armed with a spear.

Oh, curse it all.

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