Luck of the Gods
The cards had been dealt. Truthfully, it was not the hand Tobias had hoped for; had the gods been smiling they would have sent cloud to cover the glorious moon, possibly even rain to deaden sound and blunt the zeal of the patrolling guards. When it rained the sentries tended to huddle in the turret towers warming themselves over the small braziers within only venturing out every half an hour to carry out the mandatory patrols. Cloud and rain – aces and faces, a hand to sweep the jackpot from a jiggery poke table, to be sure. But instead Tobias had been given a warm gentle night with songbirds and fragrant breezes that had the guards lolling and chatting on every rampart and turret of the keep. Obviously the only god watching was the Great Jester, Tobias thought sourly, but it could not be helped. There was a time limit to his mission, and it had to be done tonight. He had been dealt a hand of lows and crows; he would have to play it and hope for the best. He was, after all a gambler by nature and bluff came as naturally to him as breathing.
He strolled, casual as a cat along the perimeter of the rough stone walls. Above him the mumbling chatter and muted laughter of the guards pinpointed their positions but Tobias’s slender form was nothing more than slivers and shadows to those above, his shock of red hair covered by a jackanapes cloth cap and his lean hungry body clothed in colours of stone and stealth. At the base of the garderobe tunnel he stopped. A slick covering of effluence and sewage was enough to make his gorge rise and he stretched his mouth into a wide rictus grin in an effort not to gag. He had hoped that the recent warm spell might have rendered the outpourings of the castle privy into something dry, possibly even concrete, but again the Great Jester was laughing and watching to see what he would do next.
Tobias eyed the revolting mess with disgust. No, not even for Apsara could he bring himself to wade through such filth, besides he would have no chance of stealth smelling like a midden even if he did make it as far as the treasury. No, there had to be another way.
For several moments Tobias stood still and looked around him his long slender fingers resting on his narrow hips. He listened to the lilting nightingales and the whispering trees; he watched a slant-eyed fox slink quietly across the edges of the small town huddled in the lee of the castle and watched the moon shadows flit gently across the stones of the mighty walls. Specks of mica sparkled and danced as the silver light caressed them; shadows and folds of dark and light played over the stones until suddenly Tobias’s fox green eyes widened in astonishment. One shadowed rock in particular drew his eyes: where there should have been stone there was only shadow. There was a hole…a hole in the wall where no hole should have been!
A crooked grin lit up Tobias’s narrow face. It seemed the gods themselves were playing their own game of jiggery poke this night. Spitting on the palms of his hands the young man took a firm hold on the nearest jutting foundation stone and began to haul himself silently upwards. As he climbed he thought of Apsara, her pale fragile beauty that ebbed each day like the fading of a rose. They had known each other all their lives, thrown together by poverty on the streets. Tobias had lost his heart to her the moment they had met; for fifteen of his nineteen years he had been smitten and Apsara, for her part, seemed to love him back. They had always hoped to marry one day, somehow find a home, somewhere safe where they could grow old in peace together and watch their children grow.
Apsara could sing with a voice even lovelier than the nightingales which serenaded the night and Tobias had a gift too; he was lucky. Luckier than any mortal man had a right to be. He could read the cards at a jiggery poke table as easily as reading the pages of county news tacked up in the town square each day. Apsara had taught him to read having been taught herself by one of the wealthier boys in the town who had briefly entertained the thought of stealing her away for himself. Tobias grinned grimly. In the depths of winter his knuckles still ached in memory of the lessons he had had to teach the boy. The thought of winter wiped his face clear again. It had been last winter when Apsara had begun to cough. Her beautiful voice had become choked and tangled unable to break free of the liquid bubbling that filled her lungs and chest. Tobias had prayed that respite might come with the spring but so far those prayers had not been heard. He had left her, pale and shivering in the barn where they had been living for the last month. Her eyelids were so stained with fatigue and illness that it was hard at times to know whether she slept or lay silently watching as the world moved around her. Fear gripped Tobias’s heart and made one of his feet slip from its toehold. A sprinkle of gravel fell and above him the guard’s chatter stilled momentarily. The young man froze and pressed himself as close to the wall as he could.
Luck was with him again; the wall leaned out slightly just to his right, he saw the elongated shadow of the man who stretched over to look, his silhouette crisp in the silver moonlight then he heard the laughter and rattle of dice in a bone cup as the guards resumed their own game of chance. Slowly, silently Tobias pulled himself up. His heart was a rabbit inside his chest jumping and quivering with terror, only madness could have planted the idea of breaking into the royal treasury to steal the fabled Paradise Gem – or maybe it was love, a madness all of its own making.
The Paradise gem was the prize of the kingdom, a shimmering globe of gold so beautiful that it was reputed to be not of this earth. A trinket of the gods fallen from the heavens it was said to hold the power to grant one perfect wish. It had been held by the king’s family for generations, unused but always there should a dreadful enough need arise. It brought comfort to the kingdom; the people knew always, there was no need to fear famine or war since the Paradise Gem could restore their fortunes should the worst ever come to pass. Seven hundred years it had languished, its glory hidden, its promise unmet, almost as if the very knowledge of its existence was enough to ensure it need never be used.
Tobias had reached the top of the wall; he slithered over and crouched in the shadow. He was going to steal the Paradise Gem, he was going to take it back to Apsara and wish away her illness. He was going to ensure that they would have their paradise – they would be together always in laughter and in love. To his mind, it was a worse crime to waste such power as the Paradise gem could give than the act of theft he intended to carry out.
Like water Tobias crept along the base of the ramparts. The guards were engrossed in their game of chance and he reached the doorway without trouble. The stone steps whispered beneath his hurrying feet but did not give him away and before he knew it Tobias was in the heart of the castle.
It was darker than he had imagined and cold too. The corridors were hung with a sour slightly stale smell and he missed, at once, the freshness of the evening air and the breezes playing in the grass. Dusty heavy tapestries hung on the walls and rusting blades and axes decorated the tops of doorways which were closed with thick oak doors and heavy iron catches. Tobias had not given much thought to how he would find the treasury, in truth he had concentrated only on actually getting inside the castle. His luck would have to carry him, he decided firmly. A passage snaked off to his left, the steps leading down to the bowels of the building. Tobias hesitated for just a moment before allowing his feet to carry him down.
Smelly oil lamps glowed dully from niches in the walls as Tobias made his descent and the fetid scent of the sweating stones began to make him nauseous. It was said that the treasury was protected by sorcery and spells, Tobias wondered if turning the stomachs of would be thieves was one of those spells? All at once the passage ended, the steps petered out and he was standing on the beaten earth floor of a low ceilinged room. At its far end crouched a doorway its timber door infinitely older than the stonework of the castle. Tobias had heard tales that its site was originally that of a dragon’s lair, and the Paradise gem itself had been the most prized possession of the fabled beast, lost in the battle with the last of its kind. Cautiously he stepped forward expecting at any moment to be stopped or challenged, but the luck of Tobias held still; whichever god was on his side was still being dealt the aces and faces of a winning hand.
Slick with sweat he reached out his hand and grasped the heavy rusted ring before him, he pulled expecting resistance and almost stumbled as the door swung open on silent well-oiled hinges. Inside, to his dismay, were not the heaps of gold and gems Tobias had expected to see but instead shelf after shelf of boxes, chests and scrolls. He closed his eyes tightly his nose stinging with the bitter threat of disappointed tears. He had been so sure, so certain his luck would lead him to the Paradise Gem.
“Please,” he begged in a strangled whisper. “Please, not for me but for Apsara.”
A sound came from behind him, voices and footsteps getting closer as they echoed his own path down the steps. Pushing the door silently closed, Tobias darted behind a nearby set of shelves and hid himself behind the mouldering bulk of a worm-eaten wooden chest. Within moments the king himself strode through the door accompanied by a clutch of old men wearing beards and robes and they in turn by two guards, their armour and weapons glinting in the gloom. Without so much as a glance the party made their way to the far end of the small room and pulled away a stack of scrolls obscuring two doors set into the wall. As they were opened Tobias swallowed down his gasp of awe; in the earthen cupboard sat another small chest and as its lid was lifted a golden glow suffused the gloom and the scent of wildflowers and forests flooded the room. The king and his retinue however looked unimpressed. From his hiding place Tobias watched in wonder as the man reached in and plucked out the shining globe, handling it as casually as an egg.
“So you mean to tell me,” He said in his peculiarly nasal voice, “That we need not fear offending King Torqumond as this,” he cast a jaundiced eye at the globe in his hand, “Will see off any enemy?”
“It is so written your majesty,” quavered the oldest of the advisors.
“But we don’t even know how to use the blessed thing!” He replied.
“Ah yes your majesty.” Tobias could just about make out the watery blue wink the venerable bestowed upon the king. “But they don’t know that. The reputation of the Paradise Gem alone has been enough to keep our enemies at bay for centuries.”
“Humph,” the king tossed the globe back into its padded chest and the thought occurred to Tobias that perhaps a battle or two over the years might actually have done the royal family some good. He had never seen the king before and was surprised at how diminutive and ordinary the man looked. He had, in fact, the same haughty self-entitled attitude of the boy who had thought Apsara nothing more than a commodity to be bartered. Tobias might be poor, he might be a bastard of unknown parentage, indeed he could even be called a rogue and a thief but never would he have treated something as wonderful and precious as the Paradise Gem with such disrespect. Whatever it might or might not be, the thing had been entrusted to the king’s family. Tobias thought back to the tales Old George had told him. The man had lived through famine and war, plague and pestilence; time and time again the Paradise Gem might have been utilised to save the people and reduce their suffering and yet the kings family had elected to lock it away in a room resembling a dungeon, to hide its power and beauty and use it as a threat instead. Like all good thieves Tobias justified the actions he intended to take. He would steal this fabulous jewel; he would use it to restore Apsara’s health and beauty; it was his right as a citizen of the kingdom to do this, it was his right as a chosen one of the gods. He waited until the door slid shut behind the departing men and their footsteps began to echo again against the passage walls. He heard the king ask crossly,” Did anyone else think that place smelled like a barn? Get some cleaners down there Spindrift, in case we have to show them the damned thing to convince them to call off the war!”
Only when the voices and footsteps had faded completely did he finally unfold himself from his hiding place and make his way to the cupboard. With shaking hands he pulled open the little doors and allowed the flood of light and perfume to pour over him again. Tobias felt his heart leap with joy like the hares of March that frolicked and boxed in the first spring sunshine. He felt a swell of love envelope his entire body lifting and warming his spirit like nothing he had ever known save Apsara’s smile. As his fingers closed around the smooth warmth of the globe he heard a singing start within his brain, a song so lovely that even Apsara would struggle to match its beauty. Lifting the Paradise Gem gently he reached into his tunic and pulled out the battered leather ball he had used to win many a game of run-around. Carefully he lowered it into the place the Paradise Gem had so recently occupied; oddly it did not look strange at all. Tobias almost fancied that the king and his courtiers, in their ignorance, would not even notice the difference. Resting the treasure against his chest the young man slipped out of the room and began to make his way back out of the castle.
Almost as if the Paradise Gem were enhancing his luck, Tobias saw a delivery cart rumble into the yard. It stopped just feet from where he stood in a shadowy corner of the passageway and when the bottles and casks had been unloaded an inviting bed of fragrant fresh straw beckoned him to hide in its tawny golden depth. A quick glance told him that no-one was looking so Tobias nipped out as smart as a cat and burrowed beneath the crackling stems to be carried safely outside of the castle walls. Once he was a safe distance away Tobias crawled from the cart and dropped silently to the road, he cut across the meadows and began to run towards the barn where he had left Apsara.
She was quiet when he reached her, so quiet that his heart banged like a war drum in his breast. Her skin was so pale, her dark eyes hidden beneath bruised purple lids. Tenderly he brushed aside the ebony fall of her hair and leaned forward partly to plant a kiss on her cold skin and partly to listen for breath. Her chest rose and fell so shallowly that for a moment Tobias could not be certain it moved at all. Crooning to the girl he reached into his tunic and withdrew the Paradise Gem. Like the king he had no idea how to use it but he snuggled himself next to Apsara placing the gift tenderly in her lap. Lifting her unmoving fingers he laid them on the surface of the gem and brushed away his own tears roughly.
“Don’t die Apsara, please don’t die,” he whispered gently. “I love you so much I would do anything in the world for you. Please don’t leave me.”
For long moments nothing happened. Apsara drew one small breath after another and then, to Tobias’s joy, her eyes flickered beneath their lids.
“Yes, yes,” he wept openly. “Open your eyes my love and see the gift I’ve brought you.” As if in answer to his plea the girl opened one eye then the other, a sad weary smile rose to her pale lips and she struggled to reach the fingers of the young man next to her.
Saving her the effort Tobias took her hands carefully in his own and pressed them to his lips. As if trying to breathe his own life into her he leaned forward and pressed his lips to Apsara’s mouth, he felt the curve of a smile as she half turned and her arms slipped up and around his neck to pull him close.
“I love you so much,” he wept as his heart broke like a wave against a rock. “Please be well, be happy and strong and healthy; stay with me forever.”
The Paradise gem exploded in a wave of dazzling golden light engulfing the two youngsters in warmth and love. Tobias felt himself rise, the earth falling away beneath his feet and the world shrinking to nothing but Apsara’s frail body in his arms. He closed his eyes tightly and breathed in the scent of her skin and her hair. He felt her ribs jolt and rise as she fought for breath and he squeezed her closer to him than ever. The world was a whirlwind now, a wind and fire that devoured the flesh from their bones yet rebuilt them anew at the same time and when Tobias finally opened his eyes again he saw not the rude walls of the barn they had been sat in but gently rolling hills and gardens and streams that danced and laughed over rocks and pebbles as golden and bright as the Paradise gem itself.
Hardly daring to believe he drew away from Apsara and was astounded to see laughter and life shining from her face. Her eyes were bright and danced with happiness and her body was strong and beautiful once more. Throwing back her head she began to sing for pure joy and the sound was echoed by choirs of songbirds in trees that were lush with fruits of every jewel bright colour. Half turning Tobias saw as if at the wrong end of a spyglass the town they had left behind. It looked small and drab and insignificant, dark clouds hovered on its horizon where a gathering army prepared to march, and a scummy brown mist seemed to cover everything. Behind him he heard laughter and turning back saw two beings as beautiful as the sunrise seated at a table of carved ivory.
The man was a god with tumbling dark hair and jocular sea green eyes, his whole body shook with mirth and although he had evidently lost the game it was also clear that he had enjoyed it anyway.
“Alright,” he laughed at his opponent,” you win. They figured it out after all.”
The woman who sat opposite smiled angelically. Her face was serene like an ocean at rest and her face was too lovely for words. Slowly she lowered one eyelid in a wink to the astonished Tobias and laid down the cards she held in her hand. Aces and faces; the cards had been dealt and for love, it seemed, it had been a winning hand.