The snow drifts were two feet high against the stone wall of his family home, and now as the hour drew near to dawn side of midnight, it started snowing again. Kendrick hiked his coat up over his slender and smooth head, and then bent over to brush the snow from the step. By morning nobody would be able to tell he’d come in this way, providing he didn’t track snow all over the carpets.
The pangolin thief, heir to the Urseil clothiers, one of the more prominent merchant families in Metamor, was reminded once again why he was eager to stop being a thief. His body was naturally alert at night, but it was also ill-equipped to handle the frigid winter nights that Metamor was cursed with. Thrice cursed Metamor his cousins in Ellcaran had said. Quadruple cursed! Why couldn’t it have been some place far to the south where the winters were mild and the summers so warm all days were spent in shaded leisure?
Kendrick brushed the last of the snow from the step next to the side door, and then rubbed his scarf over his paws to dry them. He slipped off his boots and winced as he set his scaly feet on the cold stone step. Holding his boots in one paw, he gingerly lifted the latch with the other, forcing himself to slowly ease inside where it was warmer. His long toe claws met a thick skin strewn across the servant’s washroom floor. Father had just recovered enough of their losses from last winter’s assault to hire a second to keep house, and she’d insisted they place skins by all the entrances to absorb the winter snow, and Kendrick felt immeasurably grateful to her.
Once inside, the pangolin drew the door closed and pulled his coat back down across his shoulders. His narrow but long ears perked up, listening to the quiet creak of the house with some relief. The air was cool, but much warmer than outside. Somewhere above him he heard the new girl, Esther, snoring. He smiled. It was good to be home. He’d already given those rats a piece of his mind for making him go out on a night like this, but at least he had something wonderful to come home to.
He returned his boots to their place in the small closet off the foyer, then quietly walked across the main room to his hiding spot beneath the couch before the stairs. He crawled under the couch and gingerly pressed the loose board until it came up. His tools went inside, the board back into place, and he began to crawl back out.
“What are you doing, Kendrick?”
He topped, claws nearly jabbing into the wood. “Sofie?” He asked, wondering where his sister had come from and what she’d seen him doing.
The pangolin scooted back out from under the couch and nearly sat on his tail as he rolled over. Standing at the foot of the stairs dressed in a warm nightgown with a curious smile on her freckled face was his ten year old sister Sofie. “What are you doing up?” He asked in a harsh whisper. He felt a sinking in his stomach. It wasn’t the Watch that had found him; it was worse.
Sofie grinned, shaking her head and curly hair back and forth. “What are you doing up, Kendrick?”
Kendrick took a deep breath and lowered his eyes. “I was... I was...” What does one say to one’s little sister when they’ve caught you putting your thief tools away? He just didn’t have the heart to lie to her, but how could he say the truth? “Oh, Sofie, what did you see me doing?”
Sofie grinned, and came down the final step, eyes wide with mischief. “I saw my older brother sneaking into the house and put a little satchel under the couch. I bet Mother and Father don’t know about it.”
Kendrick froze. Just the thought of what Father and Mother would say if they knew what he did for the rats made him want to curl up into a ball and roll away. “No, you can’t tell them. Please, Sofie. You have to keep this secret. Please!” His whispers were almost whines as he crouched lower, his tail wrapping up between his legs.
His little sister’s eyes narrowed and she twisted back and forth as if pondering. “Well... you have to tell me what you were up to.”
That made his blood run cold. “No.” He shook his head. “No, Sofie. You don’t want to know.”
“Yes, I do!”
Kendrick took a deep breath, and crossed over to his sister. Standing on the steps, she looked down at him with that confidence of victory only a ten year old is capable of. He put his paw on her hand and tugged gently. “Please, Sofie. Trust me. It is too dangerous for you to know. I’ll do anything else you ask me, but don’t ask me this.” He’d already have to move his tools, as Sofie would certainly find them the first chance she got.
“But you’ll protect me, Kendrick,” Sofie replied winsomely.
Every tone and every glance from his little sister made him cringe. But on this he had to be firm. “Not just to you, Sofie. But to Barrick and Brigitt and Emma and Mother and Father. To all of us. I can’t tell you, Sofie, and you can’t try to find out. Promise me that, Sofie. Please. I’ll do anything else, but not that. Promise me you won’t tell anyone or ask about it again, okay?”
Sofie sighed, her smile fading from her face like the snowflakes on his boots. “Okay, I promise. But you have to buy me whatever I want.”
Kendrick cringed but nodded gratefully. He had some saved up, but he’d need to hope Sofie had inexpensive tastes if he was going to have any chance of keeping her quiet for as long as it would take for her to lose interest. “Thank you, Sofie. I promise I’ll buy you whatever you want. Within reason. And it can’t be anything Mother or Father say you can’t have.”
“Oh fine!” Sofie pouted, but immediately smiled and kissed him on top of his bald head. “I love you, Kendrick! I won’t tell anyone.”
He breathed a sigh of relief and hugged her gently lest his jagged spines prick her. “I love you too, Sofie. Now get back to bed before Mother or Father wake. We’ll both be in trouble then!”
She lingered a moment longer before returning up the stairs. Kendrick wasted no time retrieving his thieving tools before slipping quietly upstairs to his room with Barrick and Brigitt. Barrick the bear snored loudly as his massive bulk made the bed groan. Kendrick crept along the floor, taking care that his digging claws didn’t catch in either the carpeting or wooden planks. He stuffed his tools beneath his lumpy pillow, shivered down to his linens, and then climbed beneath his heavy quilts.
All the while he prayed fervently to Eli for the one thing he’d long sought — guidance.
Sofie was true to her word. All the next day she said nothing to anyone nor gave any hint that she knew a dark secret.
Kendrick had little time to appreciate it as Father took him on several errands about town. Falkirk Urseil did have a business to maintain, and as the eldest son, it was Kendrick’s job to learn the trade. They visited three of the Keep’s tailors to interest them in some cloth samples Father had shipped in on the last caravan from Ellcaran. Bright colours and soft textures that spoke of strange foreign lands to appeal to the exotic tastes of the wealthier Keepers, plus the freshest wool for more common tastes, as well as a medley of items in between.
And after spending most of the day hawking then haggling, Falkirk Urseil took his eldest son to the site where the Nuns were building their convent. Father was pleased to show them several thick woolen garments that he hoped to donate to them for new habits better suited to the wintry Metamor weather. Kendrick liked watching the sisters clear away the rubble from the site they’d managed to purchase — Father had also donated a small sum to help cover the cost of the lots — while they sang their psalms of praise to Eli and Yahshua. While Father showed their wares, Kendrick used his digging claws as they were meant and helped the sisters dislodge heavier stones and supports imbedded in the frozen ground. They had all either become as young girls or animals, but even those beastly like him were still impressed by what the pangolin could do.
But listening to them sing their prayers and toil away against horrendous odds gave him something he had been lacking. When they finished, he asked his father if he might visit some friends before returning home. Falkirk gave him leave, and so Kendrick dashed through the town, hoping that his newfound courage would last. He practically skipped past a pair of the Watch as he navigated the busy streets toward the castle at the northern end of the city.
Metamor Keep had always captured his imagination from the moment he’d first seen it almost eight years ago. Its combination of brooding, squat towers and noble, almost elvish spires, never failed to impress. He’d always hoped to climb that tallest of towers and gaze from the belfry across the vast expanse of Metamor, but he knew his little legs would never manage so momentous a climb. Not that they were letting anyone up there still!
But today he would go in a different direction. As soon as he was within Metamor’s walls, he found a staircase leading down into the cellars. From there, it was easy to find the right hallway. A boisterous voice echoed along those darkened corridors, followed by much laughter and a fair amount of chittering and squeaking. Kendrick recognized Sir Saulius’s voice immediately, and he paused to listen in.
“‘Tis a foul business, but ‘twas necessary for the Keep. ‘Twill be days yet ere I get the stink from Armivest’s hooves!” He laughed, as did the others.
“You’d think the Lutins would have figured out by now not to come raiding into the valley.” That was Elliot. The one with the red patch on his shoulder from where one of Pascal’s concoctions had gone awry. “It’s been a while since I’ve heard about anybody dying on one of these patrols.”
“Oh, ‘tis still a danger,” Saulius replied in a quieter voice. “‘Tis always a danger setting out into the wild lands up north. But aye, the Lutins hath not ventured as often into our lands as they were wont to a year past.”
He heard Julian chuckle. “Before you continue, Sir Erick, I believe we have a visitor who might also like to hear of your exploits!”
Kendrick, abashed that he was so easily detected, came around the corner and found four rats sitting around a table laid with cheese, bread, and wine. Goldmark was nearest him, and sprawled in taur-form on a rug. The others sat on stools, tails resting on that same rug. All of them smiled at his approach. “Sorry about eavesdropping. I just didn’t want to disturb you.”
“Nonsense,” Julian crowed, beckoning him with a wave. “We have a fourth chair for Hector, but he’s topside selling some of his sculptures.”
“He canst have mine,” Saulius announced, rising form his seat. The brown-furred rat smoothed his tabard and smiled, revealing pointy incisors. “I wilt be leaving for Glen Avery tomorrow, and I must confer with my fellow knights who wilt be joining me. ‘Tis time to build my long lost squire his stables. I wilt return soon to tell thee of it, of the Lady Kimberly, and of his fine children.”
The rats all rose and hugged Sir Saulius as dear friends before letting the knight excuse himself. Kendrick clasped paws with him as he passed, then took the knight’s seat. The others all watched him, especially Julian with his red eyes. Kendrick waited until the knight, who was singing to himself, was out of earshot. “My little sister caught me returning last night.”
Goldmark’s ears lifted in alarm. Elliot’s jaw hung agape. Only Julian seemed unmoved by the news. “And what did she see?” the white furred rat asked.
“She saw me come inside and hide something beneath the floorboards. She didn’t see what, I made her promise not to tell anyone. I had to promise to buy her whatever she wanted in return. But I didn’t tell her what I was doing and I wouldn’t even when she asked.” He swallowed as the rat’s digested the news. “It’s gotten too risky for me to go thieving anymore. I want to help out however I can, but if anyone else were to find out what we do... we’re all going to be in the dungeons. And my family will be shamed!” Kendrick failed to keep the quiver out of his voice nor the tremble from his paws.
Elliot frowned as he turned his gaze on Julian. “It might be for the best. We’ve almost got enough to start a legitimate business.”
“We’re not there yet,” Julian said with a hard unsympathetic edge to his voice. “And don’t forget that you’re helping your family, Kendrick. Which one saw you, Sofie or Emma?”
“Sofie.” Kendrick replied. He swallowed a lump in his throat. “The older one.”
Julian pondered that thoughtfully. Goldmark and Elliot looked to him, both of them unsure. “She’s the mischievous one, right? Sofie?”
Kendrick nodded. “Well, she is ten years old.”
“Just old enough,” Julian said with a sudden smile.
Goldmark narrowed his eyes. “What are you thinking, Julian?”
The white rat’s smile grew wider. “I was no more than six when I picked my first lock. I think Sofie is old enough to join our little band. I think she’ll take quite nicely to being a thief like her big brother.”
The suggestion was like a knife through his heart. “No! Please, Julian! Please don’t do this to her! She’s sweet and innocent still. Please don’t make her a thief!” He wanted to, but couldn’t add, ‘Like you did to me’.
“I don’t make anyone a thief,” Julian replied with purest sincerity. “And I won’t make her. But if she takes to it as you did, then she can help our venture and your family. You can show her what she needs to know, Kendrick, and train her. If she doesn’t want to do it or she isn’t very good, then we’ll find something else for her to do.”
Kendrick shook in anguish and wished the rug and stones beneath his feet would open up and swallow him. His claws bit into the wooden seat as he held on to keep himself from falling to his knees and begging. “Please, Julian, no. Don’t ask me to do this to my little sister.”
“Are you sure we’d even need her?” Goldmark asked, clearly disturbed by the notion. His long tail lashed back and forth and thumped the rug. “Even if she did take to it, by the time she’s ready we’ll be out of the thieving business.”
But Julian appeared obstinate. “And if we are not as fortunate as we hope? We may need more thieves before our business is secure. Eager young ones like Sofie are key to that. Nobody will suspect the children of the city’s merchant class. And haven’t I been right about that?”
“Yes, you have,” Elliot admitted even as he shook his head. “But don’t you think making two thieves from the same family is risky? Besides, Kendrick’s done more than enough and risked his neck many times. We owe him something too.”
Kendrick nodded and tried to stammer thanks to Elliot, but his eyes were still fixed on Julian. “I’ll do even more thieving if it means you won’t ask Sofie too.”
Julian took a deep breath and in somewhat softer tones asked, “Do you promise this?”
The pangolin hastily nodded. “Yes, yes! I promise I’ll steal whatever you ask if you just leave Sofie alone.” He didn’t have any idea how he’d do it now that his hiding spot was known. Who might also see him return from an outing?
The rat slapped his legs with his paws and smiled. “Very good! I accept your promise, Kendrick. But I think instead of more thieving I want you to help us open the markets. Meet people, bargain. For starters, you will need to convince your father to ship his cloth with us. Not yet, but when I tell you, you need to mention this possibility to him and convince him that it is the right course of action.”
Kendrick trembled still, but the initial agony was past. “But my family has used its own men to move wares for some time now. Father won’t want to fire them.”
Julian waved his paws, red eyes piercing. “I have a few ideas on how to make matters equitable for all. I will tell you what to say when the time comes. But for now, did you bring your tools?”
Kendrick nodded and fished the small satchel from the pocket inside vest. “Sofie knows where I hide these. I’ve kept them on me all day today so I could give them to you.”
“Good. Leave them with us. We’ll keep them safe until you need them again.” The white rat locked eyes with the pangolin. “And you will. You are a thief, Kendrick. Just like us. One day you won’t have to steal anymore, but until then you are a thief. Remember that.”
Oh Eli, forgive me! “Aye, I’m a thief. I won’t forget.” Kendrick looked over the three rats and sighed. He couldn’t bring himself to hate them at all. In fact, Elliot reached over and wrapped and arm over his shoulder and then hugged him close.
“Now hurry off back to your family,” Elliot said after letting him go. “You are very lucky to have one.”
“Thank you,” Kendrick replied with a little warmth. His fears allayed he managed to stop trembling and started to almost smile.
“And let us know what Sofie wants,” Julian said as he stood to embrace his fellow thief. “We’ll see what we can do to help you out there.”
“I’m not going to steal money to buy her something!” Kendrick objected; the very notion felt wrong. He’d never stolen anything for himself before. It had always been from those who’d charged exorbitant prices and stolen money from Metamor. It was a thin line, but still a line.
The white rat laughed. “I wasn’t suggesting that. You just make sure to let us know what she wants, Kendrick. We’ll find a way together that doesn’t involve stealing, since you find it so repugnant.” His red eyes narrowed. “I’ll let you know when next you’ll go out in a few days. And where we’ve put your tools. Now go, my friend. Cheer up. With luck, in a few months all of this will be behind us forever.”
Kendrick nodded, and then he and Julian hugged briefly. Kendrick stumbled from his seat, hugged Goldmark who also wished him well, and then took a few halting steps down the hall. Julian’s voice arrested him. “You still have your tools in your paws.”
“Oh!” Kendrick gazed down his slender snout at the grey flesh of his paws and the long digging claws to discover the brown satchel was still nestled between his palms. He set it on the table, and Elliot deftly slipped it into his tunic. He smiled to the trio of rats, and then walked as relaxed as he could manage back out of the cellars.
When he reached the surface and managed to crawl out of the Keep, the pangolin found a nice little corner hidden behind a snow bank and both cried and laughed. Sofie was safe, that was what mattered. He had to keep stealing, but at least Sofie was safe.
When Kendrick had his emotions under control, he brushed the snow off his clothes and resumed the walk back home. How he longed for the success of the rat’s plans. It was the only way he could ever not be a thief.
The grey evening sky over Metamor brooded, promising only more snow. He couldn’t tell if that were answer or prophecy. Kendrick pulled his coat more firmly over his shoulders, hunched low, tail brushing the stone, and rushed home.