The Novels of David Chandler


From Den of Thieves, volume one of the Ancient Blades trilogy:

One of the whitebeards raised a long, crooked finger and pointed into the air.  With his eyes Malden followed the direction of the finger until he could just see a spire looming out of the mist two blocks away.  Most likely it had been the steeple of the local church, made of stone so it had survived the great fire.  While he was staring through the gloom something whistled past his cheek and slammed into a charred wooden plank behind him.  He glanced sideways and saw the shaft of an arrow there, still quivering.  The arrow was as long as his arm and it had struck the wood so hard the iron point was completely embedded.

For a while after that Malden did not breathe.  His lungs clamped shut and every muscle in his body went rigid.  He waited patiently for the next arrow, the one that would find his guts or his throat, but it did not come.

He understood rationally what had happened, and why.  The arrow had been a message—a reminder that here not all was what it seemed, and that he was still in mortal danger.  It was not a reminder he’d truly needed.

“I’ll pay you the courtesy of noticing you didn’t flinch,” the whitebeard said.  “That’s good, lad.  Very good.”

Malden gave him a brief bow, once he could move and breathe again.  “I think I understand where I am.  I’m not sure who you three are, but I assume you aren’t the ones I’m supposed to meet.  Yet you can show me the way to my meeting.  You’re the guardians of the doorway, yes?  And more than that, certainly.”

The bald one touched his chest.  “I am called ‘Levenfingers.  These,” he said, gesturing at the whitebeards, “are Loophole and Lockjaw.”

“Well met,” Malden said.  “Wait.  Wait…  I’ve heard of him, of Loophole.  It was a little before my time, but they still tell the story up in the Stink.  If you’re the same man, then you got that name when you robbed the garrison house up by the palace.  Is it true that you climbed in through an arrow slit, fifty feet up the curtain wall?”

Loophole wheezed as he laughed.  “Another time, I’ll tell ye all, if you wish.  Assuming you survive tonight.”

Malden nodded.  “I’d be honored.  And you—‘Levenfingers, how’d you come by that name, if I might ask?”

“I was the king of the pickpockets in my day,” the bald man said with obvious pride.  “They used to say no man with ten fingers could be so dab at it, so I must have eleven.”  He held up his hands, which were gnarled and spotted with age but otherwise perfectly normal.  “Just a nickname.”

Malden smiled at the third man, expecting an explanation of his name.  It was Loophole who gave it, however.  “Lockjaw?  He holds his secrets well, that’s why.  Never gives anything away for free.”

“Does he ever speak?”

“Not to the likes of you,” Lockjaw grumbled, in a hollow voice like a floorboard creaking in an empty house.  “Not yet.”

“I see,” Malden said.  He was impressed despite himself.  Thievery was a dangerous occupation.  If you didn’t die in some trap or under the spear of some overzealous guard, the law was always waiting.  In the Free City of Ness lifting even a copper penny from some fat merchant’s purse was punishable by hanging.  These three men, daring rogues in their day, notorious for grand exploits, had survived long enough to grow old without being caught.  That must mean they were very, very good in their prime.  Malden wondered what they could teach him.  Of course, there was more pressing business at hand.  “I was called here to meet with someone.”

“Are you ready for your audience with our boss, then?”

“I suppose I’d better be,” Malden said.

Lockjaw grunted out a noise that might have been a laugh.  The three of them stood up in unison, then moved aside to let Malden have a better look at the box they’d been sitting on.  It was a coffin made of plain wood, tapering in width at both ends.  ‘Levenfingers lifted its lid and Loophole gestured for Malden to get inside.

Malden had never thought himself squeamish or, worse, superstitious.  Yet a cold dread gripped his vitals at the thought of lying down in the coffin.  “Only a fool or a dead man would get in there happily,” he said.

“If you don’t get in,” Loophole told him, “you’re both, anyway.”

Malden snuffed out the flame of his lantern, then placed it carefully on the ground.  There would be no room for it.  Then he clambered inside what, he assured himself, was truly no more fearful than a packing crate.  The lid was closed and then nailed shut.  He tried not to breathe too hard.  He’d come this far, he told himself.  He must see what happened next.