Rasmus was a wizard of enormous power –perhaps one of the most accomplished practitioners of magic in all the known lands. In his youth, he’d been somewhat impetuous and easily tempted into providing a demonstration of the destructive spells at his disposal. As the years passed, Rasmus had gradually mellowed and though it would be wholly inaccurate to call him placid, he no longer possessed much of the recklessness which had defined his younger years.
Rasmus was an average height and moderately bony in appearance, and even though he tried to keep his face clean shaven, he was easily recognized as a wizard owing to the robes he wore and the pointed hat that often sat upon his head. Were one to look beneath this hat, one would note that Rasmus had short, darkish hair that might be thought of as stylish in certain circles. His skin was smooth and unlined, suggesting him to be no older than his early twenties and, given his extraordinary prowess in the magical arts, it was odd that he looked so youthful. Of course, it was not unknown for the most powerful of wizards to use their powers to disguise their age, or to defy it entirely. If one were to talk to him for a time, it would quickly become apparent by his manner of speaking that this seemingly young man was much older than he appeared.
On this particular day, Rasmus was far to the north in the continent of Frodgia, where the temperatures were warm even in the winter, and palm-tree-spotted deserts were the order of the day. He was an itinerant wizard, owing to the fact that he got bored easily, rather than because he was a known criminal who had to stay one step ahead of the law. The warmth of the local climate pleased him, but the sand in his boots did not, nor did the local insects, many of which were wider than the span of his fingers and which showed a remarkable propensity for scampering up the inside of his robes when he was distracted elsewhere. In one instance, he’d had to forcibly extricate something many-legged and hairy from his undershorts, without quite knowing how it had got in there unnoticed.
To the alarm of Rasmus, this creature had been the owner of a pair of particularly sharp-looking mandibles, which appeared to be perfectly designed for cutting other insects in two, or perhaps the occasional sausage if it were ever provided with the opportunity. Rasmus was about twenty miles away from a city called Gargus. He wasn’t sure if he was heading there and planned to make the decision when he got a little closer. For now, he slumped in the shade of a palm tree, which was just one such tree in a copse of a few hundred similar. It was peaceful here, with surprisingly lush grass underfoot and a happy little brook which babbled away to itself in the near vicinity. All in all, something of a tropical paradise, Rasmus thought to himself as he reached across to his backpack, wherein he knew there to be a pie and a leather skin of warm water.
“Hello, what’s this?” he asked himself under his breath as he reached into his pack. Within, there was something unexpected. It was not a peculiarly-large insect, but a small, folded square of paper.
“I’m sure this wasn’t here when I set out this morning,” he muttered to himself, scratching at the thick hair on his head. He unfolded the paper, upon which was writing. Come at once or I’ll have you beheaded, said the words. Rasmus studied the writing for a few seconds, before he crumpled up the paper and threw it towards the brook, where it landed without a splash. The reason for the wizard’s lack of concern was easy to fathom, since the order was written in Upper Frodgian Formal. Rasmus was versed in many languages and was most certainly literate. However, he couldn’t read Upper Frodgian Formal. Even if Rasmus had been capable of reading the script, he’d have been twice more scuppered. Firstly, because the man who had written the letter, being the Forgetful King Janks, had forgotten to sign it with a name, thereby making it impossible to trace the writer, even had the recipient been versed in the language. Secondly, the letter had actually been intended for a man called Rasmutin, who was a thief of note in the city over which King Janks ruled, that being Janksburg.
“I could probably have read that,” said his travelling companion, a man known as Viddo Furtive. He was an itinerant thief, owing to the fact that he got bored easily and because he was a known criminal who had to stay one step ahead of the law. Viddo was slim and nimble, with jet black hair and a pointed nose. He tended to dress in dark-coloured clothing, which further identified him as a thief, though Viddo tended to travel mostly at night, when he was less likely to be seen.
“If it were something important, I’d have expected someone to tell me about it, rather than simply shoving it into my backpack when I wasn’t looking,” said Rasmus. “Anyway, there weren’t many words on it –it was probably a receipt or something. Yes, that will have been it. A receipt for this new hat I’m wearing.” Viddo looked at the purple hat atop Rasmus’ head. It was definitely at the smarter end of the hat spectrum.
“You know it wasn’t a receipt for that hat, because I stole it for you when you got your eye on it and the drool started coming from your mouth because you were so excited,” said Viddo.
“Stole it? You did not steal it and the reason I know you did not steal it is because I do NOT wear stolen products!” Viddo Furtive shook his head at the wizard’s self-delusion and would have let the matter drop, except that he was not in the mood to do so.
“What about those socks I stole for you? And that pie which is in your hand, which I also stole?”
“Stolen?” spluttered the wizard, taking a bite from the pie. “You didn’t tell me they were stolen!”
“You didn’t ask!” replied Viddo, pushed slightly onto the defensive, even though he was certain that Rasmus had been fully aware of the thefts. Their discourse was interrupted by a twanging noise, followed by a thud. The feathered shaft of an arrow appeared in a tree adjacent to the wizard. It wobbled slightly with the force of the impact.
“Rasmutin! We’ve got you surrounded! Come out now and the King might go easy on you!” There was a pause, followed by, “Though he probably won’t. I don’t want to lie to you about it.” Rasmus and Viddo looked around them, noticing that a quantity of men had somehow closed in on where they rested.
“How’d they get here?” asked Rasmus.
“You must be getting deaf as you get older,” replied Viddo.
“Why didn’t you hear them? Or see them? I’ve heard you jump at the sound of a needle falling onto a woollen blanket.”
“I was thinking about dinner,” admitted Viddo, slightly ashamed to have been sneaked up on.
“Never mind dinner, what did he say?” asked the wizard. “I didn’t understand whatever mumbo jumbo language it was that he was talking in.”
“I think he said something about a king wanting to put his hands around you,” said Viddo, whose understanding of the language was far from perfect. “Called you Raspoobin as well, if I’m not much mistaken.”
“Raspoobin? How dare they!” said the wizard. Evidently thinking that all of this conversation meant that thief and wizard were up to no good, the man who had addressed them shouted again.
“Be silent! We are arresting you!” he informed the pair.
“I think he’s inviting us to a tea party,” said Viddo hopefully.
“With all of those bows at half-draw?” asked Rasmus.
“I can’t see it myself. I think they’ve come to arrest you for stealing this hat.”
“Should I tell them they can have it back?”
“Hrmpph!” said Rasmus. “I suppose you’d better, then, even though I am very fond of it.” Viddo Furtive raised his hands in what he thought was a placating gesture towards the lead man. Viddo could now see that there were perhaps thirty or forty such men in the vicinity, all of them wearing dusty clothes and well-worn boots that suggested they were experienced soldiers or trackers.
“The wizard apologises for stealing the hat!” said Viddo, in faltering Upper Frodgian Formal. “He will prostrate himself upon your mercy.” Unfortunately for Viddo, the words mercy and buttocks were exceptionally similar in the spoken version of the language, and it was the latter form of the noun which Viddo uttered. There was some consternation amongst the soldiers, which rapidly turned to anger when they mistakenly concluded that they’d been grossly insulted. Their impatient frowns became expressions of upset, while Viddo did his best to smile and nod disarmingly at them.
“What’ve you told them?” hissed Rasmus.
“I just said you were sorry you’d stolen the hat.”
“They’re looking a little bit annoyed!”
“I’d be annoyed too if some random wizard came and stole my hat!” said Viddo, now having convinced himself that Rasmus was responsible for purloining the goods. If the wizard hadn’t looked so desperate, I wouldn’t have felt obliged to steal it, he reasoned with himself.
Therefore, it is the wizard’s fault. The soldiers were not concerned with Viddo Furtive’s justifications, since they had not been sent here to act as judge and jury. They had been sent to enact the return of the brazen thief Rasmutin, whereupon said thief would likely be deprived of his hands on the basis that King Janks didn’t like members of organised crime syndicates running loose in his city. The lead soldier raised an arm and waved it in the direction of the thief and wizard. Six of his men advanced, confident in their ability to capture the pair before them.
“I didn’t do it!” said Rasmus, enunciating each word clearly, in the hope that the loudness of his voice and the movement of his lips would somehow overcome the language barrier that separated the two parties.
“The wizard says he won’t do it again,” translated Viddo. The time for words was gone, had it ever existed in the first place. Assuming Rasmus to be the most dangerous of the pair owing to his pointy hat and robes, four men closed in on him, while further away, another six trained their bows in his direction. Viddo had evidently been identified by his appearance as the fleeing criminal Rasmutin, though the soldiers deemed that only two of their number would be needed to haul him out of the trees.
The soldiers were possibly wrong on the assumption regarding the comparative danger levels of the companions and definitely incorrect to assume that two of their number would be sufficient to enact the capture of Viddo.
“I’m not sure I want to be brought in over the mere theft of a hat,” said Rasmus. “It’s not even a nice hat.”
“I concur,” said Viddo. “There are some fairly barbaric practises in this part of Frodgia. I would hate to have one of the more imaginative punishments inflicted upon my person.”
“What sort of imaginative punishments?” asked Rasmus, morbidly curious in spite of their predicament.
“There are many places a stolen hat can be forcibly pushed,” said Viddo.
Rasmus was aghast. “I can only think of two!” he protested.
“There’re at least another three on top of those two,” said Viddo.“If you push hard enough.”
“That sounds dreadful!” said Rasmus, summoning a pair of rabid gorillas and erecting a force shield in front of himself. The gorillas roared and barrelled into five of the nearest archers, scattering them liberally upon the green grass.
“And just when you think that no more hat will fit, then you might find a stolen pie following into the same place,” advised Viddo. He knocked out one soldier with an astoundingly fast punch to the temple and then kicked the other one in the knee. Arrows flew, three of them plinking harmlessly off Rasmus’ force shield. Another whizzed past Viddo’s head, missing him by the whisker that he’d swayed back in order to avoid it.
“I hadn’t realised that these Frodgians could be so jolly unpleasant!” said Rasmus, wondering anew at man’s capacity for the cruel. Another half dozen soldiers with swords crept warily towards the wizard. With a flourish, Rasmus cast a wave of force at them, which hurled them all backwards. One collided with a tree and was killed. The others landed in various states of discomfort, from which it looked as though they would soon recover. Rasmus and Viddo turned tail and fled, the wizard with his robes hitched up and the thief with rather more grace and aplomb.
“Oh dear, I think I might have killed that poor fellow!” said Rasmus. “I didn’t mean to, you know!”
“It’s one of the perils of soldiery,” Viddo shouted over his shoulder. “Just think of where he might have shoved your hat!”
“Now you put it like that,” said the wizard. “I’m very satisfied with the condition of my backside and should not enjoy pulling a bedraggled hat from it.” At this point, it became clear to the fleeing pair that there were more soldiers in the vicinity than they had previously imagined.
These soldiers gave enthusiastic chase, some waving swords in the air and some waving their fists in anger. Though Viddo Furtive had the fleetest of feet, befitting his stature as one of the most accomplished thieves in the known world, Rasmus was rather more lumbering, owing to his reliance on magic to do all of his dirty work for him.
“Slow down, Viddo!” he puffed, clutching his hat with one hand and his robes with the other. Already a hundred yards behind them, the backpack with its pie and water skin lay abandoned. An occasional roar spoke of summoned gorillas engaging armed soldiers in combat.
“It is you who needs to run faster, not me to slow down!” called Viddo. “And did I ever tell you what these Frodgians can do with a hollow tube and a box of ants?” As it happened, Viddo Furtive had never told Rasmus exactly what they could do, but the wizard had a good imagination and discovered his feet flowing smoothly over the rough ground as he chased his companion. They emerged from the trees, the wizard at maximum velocity and the thief on half throttle. Soldiers came after them, unwilling to give up the chase even having seen the undeniable prowess of the two fugitives. The area around the trees was covered in dry and scrubby grass, the ground itself made of hard dirt. It was barren and bleak away from the oasis, which had its life-giving stream of water to nourish the plant life nearby. A mile or so away, there was a series of grey, rocky outcrops, rising from the semi-desert like the teeth of a dead god.
“Let us head that way!” said Viddo. He’d now dropped back so that he could run alongside Rasmus. The wizard wasn’t sure if Viddo had done so on purpose, just to rub it in that he was much the quicker of the two.
“But Gargus is that way!” said Rasmus, pointing to the north.
”We can run that way if you wish,” said Viddo. “It’s only twenty miles.”
“On second thoughts, let us make for the rocks!” said the wizard, quickly seeing sense. He glanced over and noted that Viddo was breathing through his nose as if the sprint tested him not at all. Smart arse thought Rasmus. In spite of the wizard’s comparative lack of pace, the soldiers soon fell away behind them. Whether it was because Rasmus was faster than he gave himself credit for, or because the soldiers were less fit than they fancied, was not clear. In the soldiers’ defence, they had already walked for a number of miles that day and had also suffered a poor night’s sleep after they had accidentally made camp near a nest of pincer-headed bristle termites. After a hard-run five-minute mile, which Viddo Furtive could have completed in well under four and Rasmus would have preferred to complete in eight, they reached the first of the rocks. These rocks were taller than head high and with gaps and passageways between them, almost as if they’d been carefully placed to facilitate the escape of fugitives from the long arm of the King’s law. Without a pause, Viddo led the way, jinking between two boulders and darting along a path between them. Rasmus followed, cursing under his breath, though in truth he had begun to enjoy this unexpected interlude on their journey. Both of the pair were drawn to excitement and though the wizard might huff and puff at it, in reality he needed the thrill of new things in order to keep him interested in life.
“Where are we going, Viddo?” he called ahead.
“Don’t ask me,” came the reply.
“If I’m in doubt, I usually go left-right-left until something shows up. It’s never failed me in the past.” Rasmus thought about this for a moment. Whenever he was faced with a choice of left or right, he normally went left. He was aware that if he kept going left that he’d eventually end up back where he’d started, but somehow it had always worked out for him. Or at least he’d never been killed taking left-hand turns. In a similar way, he always called out tails when he flipped a coin. Funnily enough, the coins that he flipped always ended up on tails, owing to the nudges of magic as they were in flight. As it happened, Viddo Furtive always called heads when he flipped a coin and he, too, was always correct. Never trust a thief or a wizard in a coin toss was a little-known phrase which was rapidly gaining traction across the parts of Frodgia where these two had chosen to stop. On this occasion, the left-right-left combination propounded by Viddo eventually took them to a dead end of sorts. They’d got quite far into the rocks now and there was little hope that the soldiers would find them any time soon. Nevertheless, the only way to advance was upwards, through a tight crevice in the rocks.
“Bah, let’s go back and take that left turn we just passed,” said Rasmus, not entirely keen on the idea of climbing.
“No, we must go upwards,” said Viddo defiantly. “Eh? Why’s that, then?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t like going backwards once I’ve gone forwards.” That was Viddo Furtive to a tee. He liked to see progress in one direction and saw even the smallest deviation as a failing, especially if it took him back where he’d been. The only time he liked to travel the same route twice was when he’d successfully stolen a large enough quantity of goods that he felt that his endeavours had been successful, such as if he’d broken into a house, pilfered the contents of the safety box and then had to beat a hasty retreat to avoid capture.
“That’s your problem, not mine,” said Rasmus, equally defiant.
“I’m a wizard, not a human fly. I can’t climb up there!”
“Of course, you can, it’s easy. Just watch.” And with that Viddo smoothly climbed ten feet upwards, as easily as if he were the human fly that Rasmus was not. “Showing me something and then saying ‘look how easy it is’ does not help me do something which I cannot. It’s like me saying to you, ‘go on, summon a couple of elephants’ and then expecting you to be able to do it.” Viddo Furtive hadn’t really been listening to this minor invective, for something high up had caught his eye.
“Shut your chuntering for a moment, would you? I think there’s a cave up there.”
“I am NOT chuntering,” chuntered Rasmus. “And even if I were, the sound of this hypothetical chuntering has no bearing on your ability to see whether or not there is a cave above.” In spite of his chuntering, the wizard had become curious. Everyone liked a good cave, he knew. Even the remote ones were exciting. They rarely contained anything of note, but it was the potential that made them worth looking into.
“Is it a cave then?” he asked eventually.
“Why yes, I think it is,” said Viddo, also happy at the boundless possibilities. “Fancy a look inside it? Or would you like me to have a look and then tell you what’s in there?” Not wanting Viddo to have all the fun, Rasmus informed him that he was suddenly eager to also investigate the contents of the cave eighty feet above them and that furthermore, Viddo Furtive should get a shift on, in order that his wizardly colleague not be delayed in his own ascent. These desires were put most succinctly by the next word to be spoken.
“Climb,” said Rasmus. And climb they did. Viddo used his thief’s skills to scale the vertical rocks. In truth, the climb was a fairly easy one for him. He could have climbed a smooth, sheer wall with a bar of soap tied to the palm of each hand if he’d needed to. Rasmus was not so lucky and he made his ungainly way upwards, using the few small outward-jutting rocks for his hands and feet. The wizard had never been scared of heights and besides, he had a spell that would have ensured his safety if he’d been careless enough to fall.
“Can you see any soldiers?” he called upwards to Viddo.
“I think they might have gone. At least, I can’t see any of them,” came the reply.
“They seemed a tad bumbling,” said Rasmus. “All cocky with their travel-stained clothing and their sword waving, but when it came down to it, they weren’t very good at arresting us.” It wasn’t the time or the place for such a conversation, but thief and wizard were comfortable in each other’s company, for all the minor insults they exchanged. The competence or lack thereof as it pertained to the soldiers, soon became of no concern. Rasmus craned his neck and saw Viddo’s head looking down at him from above. He had found a ledge and was standing on it.
“This cave is a whopper!” he said happily. “And there’s a breeze coming out of it!”
“Splendid,” said Rasmus. A breeze meant that the cave either led somewhere or it was just a very big one and therefore worth their time to explore. “Any sign of what’s in there? It doesn’t just head up to the top of these rocks, does it?” the wizard asked with concern.
“No, it looks like it heads down. I’m hungry. Have you got that pie with you?”
“I didn’t have time to gather it, what with soldiers firing arrows at me. Why didn’t you pick it up?”
“I was being polite,” said Viddo. “And you know I hardly peck at my food anyway.” Both of these statements were blatantly untrue, since Viddo could pack away a meal for six in under ten minutes and he was definitely not shy. Rasmus reached a hand up onto the ledge. There were few hand holds at this stage and his fingers scrabbled for grip. Viddo took hold of his wrist and hauled him upwards and over the lip, betraying a far greater strength than his slim size would have suggested.
They were on a narrow ledge, four or five feet deep and eight or ten wide. The outcrop itself loomed another seventy or so feet above, meaning they were little more than half way to the top. Rasmus admired the view. The trees which they had recently escaped from looked surprisingly small, and there were tiny figures visible on the scrubby grass.
“The soldiers are already heading back,” he said. “They gave up quite easily. Perhaps it’s their lunch time, or something.” The wizard turned his attention to Viddo, who simply raised a hand and pointed a finger at the cave entrance.
“Look,” he said. “Not bad, is it?” They both stared at the cave. The opening was about seven feet high and five feet wide, with no sign of light from within, not that they’d expected to see any. The breeze which Viddo Furtive had mentioned wafted over their faces, faint but unmistakeable.
“By the way, your hat fell off when you were twenty feet from the top,” said Viddo, letting his friend in on the bad news. Rasmus let forth with a slew of gutter language, but in truth had just that moment decided that he hadn’t been desperately keen on the purple shade of the hat’s brim. “Never mind. You can steal me a red one next time,” he said. Nothing further was said on the subject of hats and they walked into the cave without further pause.