Chapter One

Jaine stepped out onto the street, the concerned call of, "Don't go past Muir!" floating after her. She closed the door and shook her head. Didn't Leriann know that she knew better not to approach the southern borders of the suburbs Muir, Chemys and Darcas?

It was hot, and Jaine wished she had more than her two-sizes-too-big work clothes to wear when she went to the market, especially since she had to cut through Karintarn, one of the better suburbs. On hot days like this Jaine always folded her long yellow hair in upon itself and tied it back to keep it off her neck. She was aware that her two older sisters thought that the combination of the hairstyle and her work clothes made her look like a boy, but on the contrary she felt this was to be preferred. People (and by 'people' she knew she meant the residents of Laws-End at the south-west part of the city) were more likely to choose a girl rather than a boy as potential victim.

Jaine kept her head up proudly as she strode through Karintarn and to the eastern part of its sister suburb, Pellintarn. Some of the merchants recognised her and called out to her. She acknowledged these with a cheerful grin as she made her way over to her favourite fruit stall, owned by a merchant known to give not-too-rotten fruit to the urchins.

As she was browsing through the fruit a rather small and dirty hand appeared in her line of vision and snatched an apple. Jaine turned and made a grab for the thief but she was much too quick. There was only one female thief in the whole of Arden and she'd never been caught. This was the first time Jaine had seen her and she looked five or six years younger than Jaine's own seventeen.

"Stop thief!" yelled the merchant. People looked up and most looked down again. Most of the merchants had had a go at stopping the thiefette (as she was commonly called) but without success. The reason for this was easy to see as some of the customers went after her and she betrayed her speed and agility, evading them easily. Jaine found herself hoping she'd get away and followed the thief, not to stop her but rather because she felt a strange urge to help the girl.

The thief headed south-west from Pellintarn and through Darcas a little way before turning south. Jaine followed and realised, too late as she watched the thief duck into a suspicious-looking tavern, that she was on the wrong side of the Darcas - Laws-End border.

Jaine went into the tavern for the simple reason that standing alone, unarmed, somewhere in Laws-End was a lot worse than whatever would happen to her in the tavern. No sooner had she entered than three burly policemen burst in, almost tearing the door of its hinges.

"I know she went in here, I saw her," one of them growled. "We're going to catch the thiefette if it kills us!"

Movement caught Jaine's eye. A young man, Elven by the look of him, sitting alone at one of the tables, had glanced up sharply. He ignored everyone else in the place to study the shadows, then rose quietly to his feet, unnoticed by all except for Jaine herself, it seemed.

"Where is she?" the policeman asked the barkeeper.

"I harbour no thief," said the barkeeper indignantly.

"Can't you leave us to have a drink in peace?" said a voice indignantly.

The policeman drew his sword. "I'll give you peace," he growled. "Who said that?"

The man laughed, leaned back in his chair as the other drinkers pulled away. Jaine caught a glimpse of red hair and ruggedly handsome features before the man turned towards the policemen. A silver pendant glinted around his neck.

"Arcassius," whispered the policeman in horror, and even Jaine flinched. A small-town girl she might be, but even she had heard of the evil deeds of Arcassius Centar, the land's second most notorious bounty hunter. The last anyone in Arden had heard of him, he had been in the South, not the West.

"Leaving so soon?" asked Arcassius pleasantly and was drawing his knife even as he rose to his feet. Jaine flinched and tried to find a place out of the way when the fight started. The last thing she wanted was to be accidentally killed by a bounty hunter who wasn't even supposed to be in the city.

A little hand closed around her shoulder. "Quick, follow me, before he kills me," whispered a female voice, and Jaine turned to come face-to-face with the thiefette. "Think I started that," said the girl with a quick, wicked grin, then, beckoning, turned away.

Jaine followed her again. It seemed the best thing to do.

Once out in the street her rescuer gave her a cheerful grin. "I dragged ya into that too, didn't I? Well it's ya own fault for following me. Oh, I'm Gabi, the thiefette," she introduced herself, sounding proud of her title.

"I'm Jaine." Jaine found that she liked the girl instinctively.

Seeing the girl up close, Jaine realised her mistake. The thief looked about Jaine's age, but Gabi's height would have led you to think otherwise. Jaine wasn't particularly tall and the top of Gabi's head only reached her chin. There was a look in the thief's dark eyes that looked a lot older than seventeen. It was a little hard to get a good look at the girl because she was never still, but Jaine could see that Gabi's eyes were almost black and her hair was dark. Jaine wasn't sure but she thought the thief might have been quite pretty under all the dirt. Her skin, or at least what showed of it through the dirty, ragged clothing, had been browned by long hours spent in the sun.

"What now?" Gabi wondered aloud. She answered herself. "Ya go ya way, and I'll go mine, eh?"

"Yes. Um, no," Jaine remembered. "I'm lost."

"Well, well." Gabi tossed the apple from hand to hand absently. "Lost in Laws-End. Not even in the outskirts of Laws-End." She thought for a moment. "I'll take ya to the Shill, all right?"

"The Shill?" Jaine asked, falling into step beside her. "I've not heard of it."

"Nah, ya wouldn't have," Gabi shrugged. "Only people like me know about it. It doesn't officially exist." She took a bite of the apple, offered it to Jaine.

"No, thank you."

"Your loss," shrugged the thief. "Gerron'll kill me for bringing ya, but after that he's going to kill me anyway. Come on, then."

Jaine found herself having to run after Gabi, who walked with a purposeful stride and knew exactly where she was going. It seemed to Jaine that they saw many back alleys and some of the streets she swore they'd been on twice, but at the time it never occurred to her that Gabi was deliberately making it hard for her to find the place later.

Finally they came to a door on which Gabi knocked politely. There was no reply. She kicked it.

"Okay, okay! Who is it?" was the rather drunken reply.

"Ya know who it is," she growled.

"Password? Ya ain't comin' in if ya ain't got no password."

She sighed and embedded a rather sick-looking dagger in the flimsy wood of the door of the Shill. The door opened rather quickly to reveal a broken nosed man with a wicked grin.

"Ya should've told me it was ya!" he complained.

"Ah, shut it, Aronn," she ordered. She jerked the dagger out and sauntered past him.

Jaine faltered at the sight of the swaggering, drunk and in some cases singing men in the room beyond, but from the moment she first walked in, Gabi owned the place. Jaine could do nothing but follow helplessly. She had pretty much been doing that all along, anyhow.

No sooner had Aronn closed the door and gone back to his table, and his drink, than there was a click at the door as the lock was opened from the outside. The room beyond fell silent as the door swung open. Even the drunk singers halted in a song of which they'd lost the plot two verses ago. All Jaine could pick up about the newcomer was that he was green-eyed and very, very angry.

"You," he said, pointing accusingly, and for one horrible moment Jaine thought he meant her until Gabi swallowed nervously.

"Damn. I've really pissed the bastard off this time," she said softly for Jaine alone to hear.

The room picked up the noise again as the man, who looked to be in his late teens or early twenties, moved more silently than a cat over to Gabi, who stubbornly held her ground.

"Ya've really done it this time," he said coldly.

"Whatever do ya mean, Gerron?" she asked innocently. "I don't know what ya talking about, honest."

"I know ya can be more careful than I saw today," said Gerron angrily. "I've seen ya lose any number of pursuers in the crowds of the market, why did ya let them follow ya?"

Gabi shrugged. "Maybe I get off on the thrill of danger."

Jaine found herself under an angry emerald-eyed scrutiny, but the much taller thief turned back to Gabi before she could speak. "And to bring an outsider to the Shill!"

"I knew ya were going to get on Jaine's case sometime," complained Gabi. "Before ya condemn me or do something equally stupid, I found-"

"I don't care where ya found him," Gerron snapped back. "Ya shouldn't have brought him here, and ya know that quite well."

Jaine, confused, watched Gabi look carefully at Gerron. Some message seemed to pass quickly between the two before Gabi continued, "He's not of our kind. He was lost. I found him wandering around outside the King's Crown, and anyway, he didn't turn me in. Felt like I owed him something."

"He caught ya," said Gerron disbelievingly.

Gabi nodded earnestly. "It happens to the best of us. As ya know."

"What did you let him catch ya for, eh? A priceless bit of jewellery?"

Gabi shrugged and took another bite of the apple. Gerron glanced at it briefly. "Ya damn lucky I don't turn ya in," he threatened.

"Ya'd never dare," said Gabi around the piece of apple.

"Keep this up and I will," he threatened, moving past her. "What'd ya get today, anyway?" he asked over his shoulder.

"Stole a pretty ring from a stranger," she offered. "And don't get any ideas, 'cause I'm keeping it."

"Did he notice ya?"

"Didn't even realise it was gone from his finger," Gabi responded smugly.

Gerron turned to her. "What else?"

Gabi hesitated. "There was a silver necklace from someone's pocket. The chain's broke. Man was new. Looked a little strange."

"Brown-haired man not from around here, shadowed eyes, only one hand?"

"That's him," Gabi nodded. "Why, he an old boyfriend of yours?"

If looks could kill, Jaine would have been running for a funeral director judging by the ferocity of the one Gerron directed at the small girl. All he said was, "Seen him around lately, is all. Don't know what he's doing here, and that bothers me."

"Ah, send him a bunch of flowers or something, I'm sure he's missing ya. Now, none of ya get to corrupt Jain, he's my townsperson. I'll be keeping track of him, all right?" Gabi demanded.

"I'm sure that's all ya'll be doin' with him!" said Aronn with a drunken grin, and she kicked him quite neatly in the crotch.

"Hey, Gabs, it was jus' a bi' 'o teasin'," protested a man Jaine did not know.

"I don't take that from anyone, Harak," Gabi answered, "and y'all should know it by now. Jain's with me, and anyone who robs him gets dealt with like Aronn here. Only I'll be usin' the dagger. Come on," she said to Jaine and sauntered off to a flight of stairs.

"Oh, Gabi?" Gerron's voice, coloured with a slight accent that Jaine was just beginning to notice, was soft but cut through the noise quite clearly.

Gabi stopped at the foot of the stairs and rolled her eyes in an exaggerated gesture. "What, Gerron?" she asked, turning to face him.

"Are ya sure ya won't give me the ring?" Gerron positively purred, moving to her..

"Yep, and ya can keep ya thievin' hands off me - "

"More than slightly hypocritical, isn't that, Gabi?" He put one hand on her face and shifted position to turn her back to the occupants in the room in an entirely natural movement. Jaine was so taken by the difference in their heights that she lost sight of his other hand.

Gabi stiffened and swiped at him but he had already moved back in an impossibly quick move. "Fuckin' bastard!" she spat at him. "Don't touch me again!"

Gerron was laughing, and he wasn't the only one in the room to be doing so. He held his left hand out to her and she snatched the ring off his middle finger. With a final glare she stalked up the steps and Jaine quickly followed.

"What was that about?" she wanted to know.

"He's the only fucking thief who can steal from other thieves of the Shill," said Gabi furiously. She opened the door at the top of the stairs. "And that makes him the best. That, and the fact that no one can kill the bastard."

"He's very well-spoken for a thief. Um, no offence to the rest of you, but... um..." Jaine knew she was digging her hole deeper with every word she spoke. She squeezed her eyes shut, waiting for the dagger.

"Don't ever close ya eyes in Laws-End," Gabi advised, turning back to her. "You watch him. He'll only speak like that with me. He knows that none of the others'll understand the pretty words."

"How come you do?"

"And asking questions'll just get ya killed. Come in."

Jaine followed her into the room and looked around. "What is this?"

"It's the loft of the Shill." Gabi lit a candle and moved across the room with it, using the flame to light another wick. "They don't mind me living up here, so I claimed it. Hey, a girl has to have somewhere to call her own. Most of the others live elsewhere. Some of them live out on the street, but ya'd never get me living out there."

"Why not?"

"We have names for women who live on the street." Gabi noticed Jaine's bewildered expression, sighed. "Whores," she clarified. "And I'll never fall that far." Gabi lit two other candles to fill the room with enough light to see by and put the original candle back from where she had taken it.

Jaine was curious. "What about Gerron? Where does he live?"

"Him? I don't know, and who cares?" Gabi shot back. "He probably lives around here somewhere, spends most of his time at the Shill anyway. Just my bad luck that he was at that inn. Damn him! Sometimes I think he does this on purpose, just to irritate me." The thief shook her head, looked up at Jaine."Ya don't mind spending the night here? I'm going to stay here and think for a while. Ya don't have to, but go downstairs at y'own risk, and I won't be going out again till tomorrow. I won't take ya home tonight."

"Well... all right."

Gabi handed her a blanket from the mattress. "It's clean, and so's the floor," she said

when Jaine hesitated to take it. "Just because most of us are dirty doesn't mean I like to be."

"Sorry." Jaine took the blanket, thinking about the thief's dirty appearance. If she liked being clean and could wash her bedding, surely she could wash herself as well?

Gabi knew what her guest was thinking but chose not to enlighten her. She sat down on the mattress and tossed her the only pillow in the room. "Ya can look around and touch what ya want to, but then again, I guess ya wouldn't want to get ya town hands dirty now, would ya?"

Jaine didn't know what to say so she kept quiet but had a look around the room, trying to piece together a complete picture of this thief who was well-spoken, kept her area clean and had at least saved her from being raped and murdered somewhere in Laws-End.

The loft was a small room with a wooden floor and a low ceiling, and despite Gabi's additions was quite simple. Apart from the mattress, there was a small table and a small chest of drawers. Very few ornaments adorned this room but there was an assortment of animals carved from wood, stone and some kind of gleaming metal that could have been gold or bronze.

"I like to collect them."

Jaine turned to her, having been given an opening. She gestured at the only picture in the room, a yellowing painting of a house in a beautiful valley. "Where's this from?"

"It has personal value," Gabi answered. "I don't like questions. Haven't ya learned that yet? None of us appreciate questions."

The dark girl was looking not at her but at the broken silver chain she held in her slender fingers, a chain from which a black stone dangled. Jaine, curious, almost drawn to it, asked, "What is that?"

"It's the necklace I stole," the thief explained. "I'll have to get another chain from somewhere."

"What do you do with the things you take?"

"Keep them sometimes. Sell 'em, usually. Can't eat rings and precious stones, it's usually pointless to steal 'em if you're not going to buy food with them," Gabi said practically, setting the chain aside. "What I steal is mine after I've paid my dues to the Shill. Well, if Gerron doesn't take them first. He has a liking for shiny objects and the ability to take what he likes before ya notice. Doesn't often steal from me, though," said Gabi somewhat proudly. Her dark eyes flickered. "Hey, ya hungry?"

"A bit," Jaine admitted, although in fact she was ravenous.

"I'll see what I can get for ya. Don't worry, town-girl, what ya find at the Shill is better than most other places in Laws-End." Gabi's eyes flickered over the blonde girl and she rose to her feet. "Ya don't have to eat it, after all. If ya don't want it, I'll have it. Food in Laws-End isn't always available."

The food Gabi brought up for her consisted of apples, some bread and a bit of cheese. "The thugs downstairs've been eating everything again," she complained. "I couldn't get much."

"What you have will be fine, I'm sure."

Gabi selected an apple and retreated to the mattress, tossing it from hand to hand in an almost thoughtful manner. "What are ya going to do now?"

"I don't know. Go home, I hope," Jaine shrugged helpless.y

Gabi considered. "Mmm... I don't think so."

"What do you mean by that?"

Gabi shrugged, took a bite of the apple and ignored her for the rest of the evening. Jaine bided her time until Gabi had decided to go to sleep. When she was sure the thief was sleeping she got to her feet and made her way to the door. (The instant she moved to get up, Gabi awoke, but she let Jaine go, knowing she wouldn't get too far.)

Jaine was unhindered all the way down the stairs and to the door and beginning to think she'd get out after all. Aronn was dozing quite happily on the floor near the door. She was reaching for the door handle when someone moved in front of it.

"Going anywhere?" It was Gerron.

"Yes," said Jaine evenly. "I'm going home."

"Ya think ya going out, alone, at night, in Laws-End," he summarised.

Jaine thought about this. "Oh," she said weakly. "I guess I didn't think of that."

"No, I guess ya didn't," he agreed, folding his arms and leaning against the door. "I don't know if I can let ya go. Ya know about the Shill and for that I should kill ya rather than let ya go."

"I would never tell anyone - "

"Anyway, I think I might have a use for ya. Ya could be very useful. After all, no one would think ya were a thief. Not a clean, well-spoken, Human, blonde... woman."

"You know," said Jaine, surprised.

"Of course I knew," Gerron laughed. "Ya'd make a very pretty boy, Jaine. The reason I changed ya gender is because if they knew ya were female, ya'd be lucky to die eventually." His eyes flickered over her in a way that Jaine did not entirely like, and when he raised his eyes to hers, she read amusement in them. "Gabi bites, eh? That's why they don't touch her. Somehow I don't believe ya'd do the same." He shifted slightly, said matter-of-factly, "See, what we have here is a problem. I can't let ya go. Not only do ya know about the Shill, which we've worked hard to keep only a rumour, but there's no way ya'd get more than three steps out of here before someone grabbed ya. Ya see?"

"Why are you so concerned about me?" Jaine asked uncertainly.

The thief gave a derisive snort. "Don't want ya blood on my hands, is all," he shrugged carelessly. "If I let ya go out into Laws-End as y'are, 'specially at night, then that's the same as murder. And I'm having too much fun at the moment to have ya makin' me feel guilty. See now?"

Jaine nodded slowly. "I see."

"And if I keep ya 'round, get ya trained so ya can survive or at least know where to hide, I've let ya get out of Laws-End to tell the authorities exactly where we are."

"Oh." Gabi must not have known what she was doing by bringing her here, Jaine decided.

"She knew," Gerron shrugged. "She just likes to force my hand, is all." He smiled again at Jaine's incredulous expression. "And learn to keep ya feelings to yaself. Y'going nowhere tonight, I can say that, so ya may as well stay here for a while. Eh?"

"Well... I don't really have any choice, do I?"

"Nah," Gerron agreed. "Good y'understand that."

"Why are you and Gabi so well-spoken? Well, by comparison?"

"Gabi? I don't know, and I myself haven't always been a thief."

"What do you mean?" asked Jaine curiously.

Gerron moved so quickly that she hardly saw it to grab her collar and pull her closer. "I'd hate for questions to be ya cause of death after all this, Jaine," he hissed softly, darkly. "Ya gotta learn to keep curiosity under control, 'cause some here might take offence, eh? Least of all me." He released her. "Ya'd better get back to the loft before someone down here forgets who y'are. Gabi's protection only stands when she's with ya, flashin' around that damn dagger."

Jaine nodded, one hand protectively at her throat, and made her way quickly back up the stairs. The loft had been dark when she left but now two candles were burning.

"Thought ya might 'preciate some light," Gabi said conversationally. "Gerron caught ya, didn't he?"

"Yes," Jaine admitted, shaken. "I didn't even see him, let alone hear him."

"None do. See him by light of day and y'understand."

"And the way he moved…"

"Ah," said Gabi softly, but that was her only comment.

Jaine sat down on the floor and sighed. "I guess this is my life now. He won't let me leave the Shill."

"Didn't think so," Gabi agreed.

"My family - "

"People die in Laws-End all the time," said the thief roughly. "Without leaving any scrap of evidence behind. I've seen it before, we all have. They'll grieve, but they won't look too hard."

Jaine dropped her eyes.

Gabi sighed, moved to sit beside her. "Sorry, I've ruined ya life, haven't I?" The small girl tried a quick smile. "At least ya still have one. I could have left y'alone where I found ya."

"Why didn't you?" Jaine wanted to know.

"Why?" Gabi echoed. She didn't think that the reason that came to mind, Because the necklace told me not to, was going to be very good in this situation. "Cause ya'd never've made it out the border of Old Jaddarcas."

"What?" asked Jaine, confused.

"Here in Laws-End we like to use the real geography of the place. Maybe I'll tell ya sometime."

Jaine asked anxiously, "What's going to happen to me?"

"Ya'll survive, Jaine," Gabi responded. "That's all ya can do, and sometimes that's enough."