FFC: The Stolen Warbler

Finally! A Chuck Wendig flash fiction that I actually got around to!

Challenge: Flash Fiction Challenge: The Random Title Jamboree

Word Count: 1341

The Stolen Warbler

The fire bit at the night’s chill, as it had for the last two weeks. Journey to find the warbler had taken longer than expected.

“Ain’t the king got enough money to buy himself some other nice bird to sing him ditties?” Paluv grumbled from under his baggy hood. He laid his head on the nearest stone, fuzzy with moss that had never seen a man’s presence.

“Considering the price he’s paying for its return? I doubt he’d care to hear that point.” Maldys struck a sharpening stone across his arrow tips, flinging sparks into the already crackling blaze.

Amarin’s plinking lute did little to liven the night. It seemed as if he were lost in his song but his playing softened when a topic piqued his interest. And this subject, despite it cropping up each night, always dulled his strings to a hum.

“But a warbler? Smidgeon of a bird. Not worth its meat or its tweet.” Paluv’s horse-wide mouth pulled into a grin, “You can have that rhyme for your song, Amarin.”

The bard’s strings grew louder.

Smashed glasses and tossed plates clattered to the tavern floor as Maldys slammed the beer-bellied cur onto the bar.

“I don’t know where it is!” The spy sniveled through blood and snot.

“And I suppose you don’t know someone who does?” The hunter growled through his great, brown beard.

Shaking his head like a wet dog, the man sputtered, “All I know is the king’s been stolen from. Folks think it was the bandits. Or the West Jarls. Some even talk about it being a dragon that took something. But you find one of them thieves guilds, they might say something.”

Maldys shoved the man off and behind the bar, dug into his pocket and flipped a golden coin to the barkeep, and left.

Amarin picked pockets with his hands and rumors with his ears. The festival crowd had so much to see they couldn’t be bothered to think of their purses. Spinning dancers, fire breathers, games of skill and luck; all distractions.

She looked like moonkissed marble. With dark hair past her shoulders, curves that could win a war, and eyes of wonder. This way and that, she dove to every booth, listening and laughing. No money or purse at her side, the hosts often let her play for free if only to have her stand near them a moment longer.

No more coin fishing. No more rumors to hear. He wanted to meet her. King’s quest be damned.

Though he trailed her for the afternoon, when he got close she’d flit away like a pond skimmer. Gliding through a crowd made of water only she could stand on. It’s like she knew. And after a particularly raucous crowd observing a sword fight, he lost her.

He found another woman that night. She loved his voice. He loved how she cost a single ale to get into bed. But in the morning after, he felt cheated for its ease.

“You’re on your way to a boot in the ass, Master Paluv.” The night guard warned as he gripped the scruff of the man’s collar in his gauntlet.

The drunkard, having spent a good sum of his advance on ale tonight, hiccupped, “Don’t you know who I am? I’m performing the king’s orders!”

The guard sighed, but continued escorting the heavy-set clod.

“It’s true!” Paluv said, taking a long moment to spit to the side of the road, “King’s lost his warbler. Wants a singy-song to listen to. Can’t sleep without the thing.”

“One more lie out of you and it’s the stocks.” The guard heaved Paluv like a shotput out of the border gate. “Come back when you can see straight.”

The fat man faceplanted, catching grass and grit in his underbite. As he struggled up to his feet, he didn’t notice the shadow behind him.

The crowd around gasped and awed at the sight.

Amarin tried to keep from retching.

Maldys just stared.

Paluv had looked better.

His eyes looked peaceful. Like he might not have known what was happening. From his nose down, though, he looked like a tiger scratching post. Old clothes ripped to ribbons and blood stinking up the morning air.

The hunter leaned down and rifled through what was left of Paluv’s clothes, gingerly examining him.

“This is perfect.” He said, pulling a long string of beads ending in a crude, pewter skull.

Amarin arched a well-groomed eyebrow as Maldys presented it to him.

“It’s not the thieves guild we should have looked for. It’s the Grey Skulls.” He said it with as much menace as the name deserved.

Amarin shrugged, still confused.

“Assassins.” Maldys sighed.

“You idiot!” The shaven-headed guild master slapped his protegé none too soft. “I didn’t tell you to flay the fat one.”

“But you told me to make an example of him.” The other man winced but did not reach for his cheek.

“I told you to send a message. That anyone looking for the king’s warbler forfeits their life.” The guild leader drew his knife and threw it at the wall of unfurled maps right by the apprentice’s head. “What I didn’t tell you was to leave our token on him.”

The man shrunk into his shoulders, “But the Grey Skulls always leave their mark.”

“You may as well have led them right to u–”
The door behind him splintered off its hinges and before he could turn, the guild leader fell dead, an arrow embedded at the base of his skull.

Dark hair. Moonlight skin. Eyes, too big for this world, filled up with fear. The girl leveled her spear more like a cornered raccoon than a trained soldier. Amarin stood stunned, sword limp at his side. But Maldys’s bow remained steady.

“Afraid you need to put down the stick, girlie.” The hunter said, calm breaths pacing in sync with his bowstring, ready to let fly at any moment.

“The king won’t want me dead!” The girl hissed through gritted teeth.

“Your father just wants you home safe.”

“That monster is not a father.” She backed another step away and one to the side. The hunter’s aim barely shifted, warbler locked in his sights.

“All the same. I mean to collect on the promised reward. And the half I’ll get with you dead is fine by me.”

The warbler’s breathing picked up, her eyes darted from hunter to bard and back to the window behind her.

“You don’t understand. He keeps me locked away. Makes me sing.”

“The world’s a worse place than that.” The hunter scoffed, “You should count yourself lucky. You literally get to sing for your supper and that’s all.”

“I’ll die before I go back.” She warned.

A long moment passed and the hunter breathed in slowly and out slower. “As you wish, Princess.”

Amarin’s lute-based club made a twanging sound as it cracked Maldys’s head, causing his shot to fire wide and the hunter to collapse.

“The warbler’s your daughter.” Maldys said. More as a statement than a question. The king looked at him from his throne with his balding head and sweat-sliding crown before nodding.

“And if I retrieve her alive…and do not reveal this new fact. You will double the original offer?”

The king nodded once more and the hunter turned away.

For now, the world was gone. Amarin thought of the friend he’d lost, the friend he’d betrayed, and the king he’d forsaken. But the thoughts ebbed away like the cold around their traveling campfire.

He played his lute to the wind’s tune. To the moment of Summer’s passing. The girl, shy at first, had begun to hum along with him as they traveled. There was no question why the king wanted her hidden.

With the warbler’s assassin escort defeated (by his own hand in part), she needed a protector. He would do for now. Were it his choice, he would do forever. For the stolen warbler had stolen the bard’s heart.

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