London, Anno Domini 1098
The cloaked man strode through the dark town. At this time of night thieves and cutthroats roamed freely, but the man had no fear. While no wizard, he was a gifted conjurer, skillful with certain smaller magics. If he couldn’t conjure away a hazardous encounter, odds were good he could talk his way out of it.
Failing that, he had his dagger. Even with only average physical gifts, centuries of practice had made him lethal when the occasion demanded it.
He pulled the cloak closer. Down here by the river, the mist grew thick, the dampness sinking into his bones, and he suspected he’d have a long wait. His cousin’s behavior had grown even more erratic of late. He knew, despite wanting to believe otherwise, that their long association was at an end. One last caper, one last magic sword, and then he planned to gather his earnings, retire from swindling, and head south.
Somewhere warm. The south of France perhaps, or Spain. Maybe Constantinople . . .
Lost in dreams of sunshine and leisure, the cloaked man was oblivious to the small figure stepping from the shadows.
“You know—” the figure said.
The cloaked man, startled from his reverie, groped for his dagger.
“You should never let a leprechaun sneak up on you.” The small figure threw back his hood. “We’re nefarious little bastards.”
The cloaked man relaxed. “No, my friend, you’re a nefarious little bastard. Most of your brethren lack the imagination for anything but average wrongdoing. And you’re the only one in the worlds who can sneak up on me.”
“Good thing I’m on your side.” The leprechaun chuckled, then grew serious. “Where is he?”
The cloaked man sighed. “Where do you think?”
Now the leprechaun sighed. “In his cups telling tales of past glory. If he keeps this up, they’ll burn him for a heretic.”
“He and my father both,” the cloaked man said. “The age of the northern gods is over. It’s time to move on.”
“What are you saying?”
“It’s time to get out of the magic sword and magic ring business and into something more modern. Sacred relics perhaps.”
The leprechaun nodded, pondering the cloaked man’s words. “With a convincing backstory and a little magical dazzle, some people will believe anything. Particularly when a god is involved.”
“Indeed. Plus, relics are easier to manufacture and transport. Add gullible and greedy buyers . . .”
“I like it. But what about him? How does he fit into this?”
The cloaked man sighed. “He doesn’t. His work hasn’t suffered yet, but it will. Provided he doesn’t end up on a pyre.”
“You don’t mean that,” the leprechaun said. “We can’t abandon him. His leg—”
“Is an old wound and a convenient excuse. The drink is destroying him and I won’t let it destroy us too.”
“Us? Is she—”
“She’s at her breaking point.”
“If you both leave, it will kill him.” The leprechaun shook his head. “Are you sure about this?”
“Not in the least. I hate myself for even considering it. But if he’s intent on drowning himself in mead, should we let him drag us under with him? Should our loyalty to him make our lives forfeit too?”
The leprechaun stared at his small feet for a long moment. “No. I suppose not.”
Neither spoke for several breaths.
An internal decision made, the leprechaun broke the silence. “On the relics thing—did you know it’s not only lone fools? I’ve heard that whole towns are banding together to get them.” The leprechaun chuckled. “They crow about stealing well-known relics from other towns to entice pilgrims and their gold.”
The cloaked man smiled. “Because a relic somebody would willingly sell is not worth having?”
The leprechaun nodded, a wide grin on his handsome face. “And not being thieves themselves—”
“They’re willing to pay well to procure such services.” The cloaked man nodded.
“So, if we create a convincing relic, goosed with a little magic—”
“We can—guided only by our piety—reluctantly sell it to one town and get paid to steal it for another.” The cloaked man laughed. “You nefarious little bastard.”
“And we know a certain woman with lovely golden hair who might have reason to disguise herself—”
In his excitement, the cloaked man had forgotten his dreams of retirement. “As a saintly woman who has shorn her hair to prove her modesty and humility—”
The leprechaun nodded.“Giving us several feet of lovely golden hair—”
“To cut into locks from the Virgin Mother’s head. Pilgrims love holy hair.”
“Giving us an easy way to earn enough coin to eat well whilst we set up something grander for ourselves.”
“Much grander,” said the cloaked man. “We could get paid at least three times on one relic if we steal it back from the town we stole it for. Or even more depending on how many times we can steal it before they grow wise."
They basked for a moment in the glow of their scheme. Then the cloaked man thought of his cousin, the kinsman he had decided to leave behind, and felt a stab of guilt. But there was no alternative. For his own sake, for her sake, and for his cousin’s sake. It was only a matter of time before the drunken lout turned his frustrations upon his wife, only a matter of time before he lost what meager control he had over his magical gift and it destroyed them both.
“Do we wait for him any longer?” the leprechaun asked.
The cloaked man shook his head. “No. She’s waiting with the cart. At the church near the bridge. The one place she knows he won’t be.”
The leprechaun’s eyes widened. “You’re already packed? You’re really serious about this.”
The cloaked man nodded. “I am.”
“But what about tonight? We have a sword to deliver.”
The cloaked man gestured around them. “Do you see a sword? The drunken fool still has it. I don’t relish walking in there empty handed. This buyer won’t hesitate to cut us down with one of his many less than magical swords if he thinks we’re trying to cheat him.”
“I guess we can’t sell a sword we don’t have. Not to this buyer.” The leprechaun shuddered. “Better we disappear. But I have a few things to do before I can leave.”
“We were thinking about heading south.” The cloaked man sighed. “To be truthful, I was thinking about heading south. She wants to go north.”
The leprechaun nodded. “Which means you’re going north. Norwich?"
The cloaked man nodded.
“I’ll find you,” the leprechaun said.
“You always do.” With a final smile, the cloaked man turned and disappeared into the the fog.