Thief With No Shadow
Imagine a world where the ordinary and the extraordinary co-exist, where tall fire-breathing salamanders live alongside men and magic runs in certain bloodlines.
Melke is a wraith, able to walk unseen. Feared by all, hunted and hated, she has lost everything–except her younger brother. Now she is forced to do the unthinkable: in exchange for her brother’s freedom, she must use her magical gift to steal.
But Melke’s thieving has devastating consequence–and undoing her crime may cost Melke her own life.
“Dark and compelling, Thief With No Shadow is a stunning debut. Emily Gee is a storyteller to watch.”
–Nalini Singh, NYT bestselling author.
“Her haunting prose reads like Hans Christian Andersen for twenty-first century adults.”
–Mindy Klasky, author of Sorcery and the Single Girl.
“Written in light airy prose, Thief is an addictive story. These are ordinary people facing some dangerous problems. There’s oodles of angst as Melke realises the consequences of her well-intentioned theft; and ladles of tension when she realises how little time she has to put things right. Pleasingly standalone, gorgeously indulgent and hopelessly romantic.”
—SFX Magazine, June 2007
Nominated for two RITA™ Awards in 2008: Best First Book and Best Novel With Strong Romantic Elements.
Finalist in the Sir Julius Vogel Awards.
Melke crouched in the dying tree. Thirst was painful in her throat. The sun beat down, heating her hair until it almost burned on her scalp, and sweat prickled beneath her eyes, yet the stolen necklace was cold, as if drops of icy water lay against her skin.
She released the branch with stiff fingers and wiped her face, and the beast below her growled.
The sound raised fine hairs on her skin, made her shiver in spite of the heat. How did it know she’d moved? She was a wraith. No living creature could see her, and yet every time she shifted, the hound’s lips drew back and it growled, deep in its chest. Black hackles stood stiff down its spine and the sharp teeth were strong and white.
Melke took hold of the branch again and drew in a shallow breath. Go away, she thought. You cannot see me. I am not here.
The hound growled. Its pale wolf-eyes stared up at her.
The fierce sun inched across the sky. Heat burned through her ragged shirt and trousers. The tree was almost leafless, with thin and brittle branches. Splashes of blood showed dark on the parchment-pale bark, from where the snapping teeth had nipped her calf. The wound stung and her trousers were ripped from knee to ankle.
The skeleton shadow of the tree shifted on the ground, lengthening as noon passed. Desperation grew with each minute that slid away, each inhaled breath, each beat of her heart. I am coming, Hantje. I will not let you die.
There was a knife at her belt, thin and sharp, a few inches long. Melke fingered the hilt. Dare she attack the beast with so small a blade?
All morning the answer had been No. It was a knife for paring fruit, not killing savage hounds. Melke shifted cautiously on the branch. The beast growled again, showing its teeth. “Go away,” she said, out loud. “I don’t want to kill you.” I don’t know if I can.
Her voice, hoarse with thirst, set the creature leaping and scrambling, trying to reach her. She flinched back as strong claws tore at the bark. The hound began to bay, a fearsome sound, and the dying tree trembled beneath the onslaught.
Melke gripped the branch tightly. She closed her eyes and didn’t move, scarcely daring to breathe, and the hound’s baying became less frantic. It no longer scrambled to reach her, shaking the tree. The ululation became single deep barks, and then a low and menacing growl.
Melke opened her eyes. She saw a bright and cloudless sky and thin, twisted branches. Sunlight scorched her skin and hot air burned in her throat. She dared not look down at the hound.
I am coming Hantje, I promise.
The river was close. She almost heard the whisper of flowing water, almost smelled its damp scent. Trees stood lush and green on the far bank, beyond the edge of the dry meadow. So close. So far. The pain in her throat became more intense. She tried to swallow, but couldn’t. Her throat cracked inside, peeling as the pale bark of the tree peeled.
The waterskin lay hidden a mile or more upstream, beneath the bridge. A loaf of bread was there too, and the map that had led her to this place. The bread and map were unimportant, she could survive without them, but the water—
The beast whined, a sound so unexpected that Melke looked down.
It whined a second time. The black ears twitched. The wolfish head turned.
A whistle sounded, high and faint and thin. Hope leaped beneath Melke’s breastbone. Her heart beat faster. The whistle was repeated, louder and more imperatively. The hound shifted its weight.
Go, she urged it silently. Go! Your master calls you.
A man’s voice shouted, impatient. The hound bared its teeth at her. A growl rumbled deep in its chest, and then it turned and ran swiftly across the meadow.
Melke scrambled out of the tree in sliding haste, tearing skin from her palms and leaving more blood on the bark. Dust puffed as her feet hit the dry ground.
The meadow was as threadbare as her clothes, the grass sun-bleached, the dirt the color of old bone. To the west—no more than quarter of a mile distant—stood a man, a thin, dark scarecrow figure against the white glare of the sun. The hound ran towards him, a blurring black shape.
Fear shrieked in her blood—run run run—but her legs were stiff and cramped. They wouldn’t bend, wouldn’t straighten. She stumbled and fell heavily to the stone-hard dirt. The jarring pain was nothing, fear swamped it. Run run run. Melke pushed herself up, staggering, breathless, and snatched a glance behind her.
The hound stood with its master at the far edge of the parched meadow. The man had his hand on the beast’s head and they both looked at her.
At her. The man looked at her.
Terror clenched in her chest. For a second, her heart failed to beat. Melke jerked her gaze down, certain she was visible. But no. Nothing, not even a shadow. No eyes could see her.
And yet the man knew she was there.
He shouted, and the hound began to bark.
Melke ran as she’d run that morning: for her life, pushing past pain, aware only of fear. Desperation whimpered in her throat. Hantje. The river was close. She heard it. The air that she gasped so frantically smelled of moss and mud, of dripping vegetation. Her throat burned, her chest burned, the muscles in her legs and arms burned. The hound bayed behind her—close, too close—and the river bank was there, right there.
The water rushed in swift currents, thick and brown, swollen with spring rains.
There was a moment when she could have stopped, where dry ground ended and the river began, but the danger behind her—the hound with its snapping teeth and the man who’d take the necklace from her—was more frightening than any water could be. And so Melke jumped.
She plunged deep. Muddy water pressed down on her, filling her mouth and closing her eyes, making her blind. She thrashed against the downward pull, clawing at the water, and then there was sweet air and the glare of the sun. The river tossed her around as she coughed water from her lungs. High on the bank behind her was the black hound.
The current took her, spun her, as she gulped for air and tried to stay afloat. She twisted her head to see the hound. It stayed on the bank, growing smaller. The rush and hiss of water swallowed the sound of barking. And then its master was there, alongside it, tall.
The river swept around a bend, and hound and man were gone.
Branches snared Melke’s clothes and hair. Water tumbled and choked her. Her shoes were heavy, dragging her feet down and pulling her under. She kicked hard, her heartbeat spiky with panic. One shoe came off, then the other. She spat water and gasped for air and fought the river with hands and feet. The far bank, green with ferns and trees, came closer.
The river curved again, widening. There was a moist brown scar where the floodwater had eaten into the ferny bank and the current doubled back on itself in a fat, slow eddy. Melke swam as her father had taught her, pulling with her hands and kicking with her feet. The rush of speed slowed as she slipped into calmer water.
A tree stripped of leaves lay heavily in the eddy. Melke grabbed a slippery branch and floated with it, coughing, and knew that her brother would live.
Her gulped breaths became easier, her heartbeat less urgent. She shivered in the cold water and, now that she was no longer fighting for her life, became aware of the sound.
She heard singing. Not one voice but many, no louder than the rustle of wind in long grass. The voices were as high as a skylark’s song and as low as the rushing murmur of the river. They wept and sighed and laughed. A hundred different songs intertwined, melodies weaving and lacing with each other.
The singing grew louder, a whispered clamor. It was more than mere sound; it was sensation too, sliding over her skin, stinging slightly. It was inside her. It rushed in her blood, tingling, filling her lungs and vibrating in her bones. As her heartbeat grew louder, faster, the sound grew in her ears. It surrounded and engulfed her, more terrifying than either river or hound.
Melke pushed away from the tree, a scream building in her throat, and flung herself at the bank. Water splashed beneath her flailing arms. She scrambled ashore on hands and knees, gasping shallow, panicky breaths.
The voices faded as she left the water, muting to a whispered song that she heard faintly in her ears and felt tingling at her throat.
Melke knelt in the mud, shivering, panting. She raised a trembling hand to the necklace.
The eerie voices grew louder as she touched the smooth, cool stones. Sound stroked over her skin. She felt it in the bones of her hand, in her forearm. It pulsed in her blood.
Melke snatched her fingers away. Sound and sensation faded abruptly.
She shuddered deeply. Instinct cried out to rip the necklace off and throw it as far from her as she could. But if she did that, Hantje would die.
“Moon, give me strength,” she whispered.
* * *
Melke followed the river, running fast. In contrast to the dry meadows of the farm, the eastern bank was lush with vegetation. Shiny ferns and dark-leaved creepers tangled on the ground and saplings fought for space beneath tall trees.
Humus squished under her bare feet. The necklace murmured faintly at her throat. Its song crawled over her skin and whispered in her ears, making her shiver and stagger as she ran, but as hair and skin and clothes dried, the sound quieted and the sensation eased. Eventually there was a faint tingle at her throat, nothing more. Other noises filled her ears: the hum of dragonflies and small flying insects, the call of birds, the swift rushing of the river, her own ragged panting and the swish of her legs through the ferns. Her arms and legs ached and her chest burned. She didn’t know whether she was running so desperately to her brother, or from the hound, or both.
The ground rose to her left and she veered towards it; she needed to climb the ridge before dark and find the road. The ferns became less luxuriant and the ground stonier, steeper. The hiss of water was audible long after the river vanished from sight. Melke climbed with scrambling urgency, leaning forward. Dead branches snapped beneath her feet, jagged. Undergrowth tore her clothes and scratched her face and pulled strands of hair sharply from her plait.
Afternoon slid towards dusk and still she hadn’t reached the ridgeline. She climbed slowly now, grabbing at rough rocks to steady herself, stumbling, limping, her breath whistling harshly in her throat. Fear built inside her as daylight faded, the familiar night-terror growing beneath her breastbone.
The ground became rockier and steeper. Trees grew in gnarled twists, stunted, hung with gray lichen. Then there was lightness ahead, a sense of space. The ridge.
At the crest, swaying exhaustion forced Melke to stop. She closed her eyes, panting, dizzy. The necklace with the songs trapped inside it was cold around her throat. Her feet throbbed with each beat of her heart, their pain sharp and raw. She dared not sit for fear she’d never stand again.
Melke opened her eyes. She wiped sweat from her face with a hand that trembled. Each breath was a sob.
Distant mountains basked in the rose-pink blush of the setting sun. Everything was still, silent. Low rays of light touched stone and bark and leaf, deepening the colors and making them glow. Darkness would follow swiftly.
Darkness. She couldn’t hide as she’d done last night, beneath the bridge, snatching nightmare-filled moments of sleep. If the hound pursued, it would find her. Tonight she must run.
Fear prickled across Melke’s skin and knotted in her throat. Her heartbeat was loud and frightened in her ears. She wanted to hide, needed to hide, to creep into a crevice and make herself small and wait for the darkness to pass.
She dared not. For Hantje’s sake she must run.
“Shine for me, Moon,” she whispered as night gathered above the mountains. “I beg you.”
Rage fuelled Bastian, roaring in his chest. He would kill the thief. He would flay her, tear her limb from limb, shred her and toss the pieces away. Her. Endal said the thief was a “her”. A wraith.
Loathing made him shudder. Loathing, and fear. A wraith. A creature of evil, an aberration that shouldn’t exist.
“Are we closer to her?” he asked aloud. The night air was cool against his sweat-damp face.
Endal trotted ahead of him up the steep, rutted road, a wolf-like dark shape in the moonlight. Closer, he agreed, the words whispering in Bastian’s head. She bleeds.
She’ll bleed more once I’ve caught her, Bastian promised grimly.
The dog made no reply.
Exhaustion hovered at the edge of Bastian’s awareness, pushed aside by rage. Rage was everything. Rage and fury, and beneath those a stark core of terror. If he didn’t reclaim the necklace—
No. He would find the thief. He’d hold the necklace in his hand again. Too many people had died, too many lives been ruined, for him to fail.
And he would kill the filthy, verminous creature.
The moon was on the wane, a thick and misshapen crescent. Opalescent. Evil. No clouds obscured it. Bastian shivered and pulled the collar of his work-shirt higher at his throat. She travelled well, the filthy wraith, with the moon guiding her steps. Moon time. Wraith time. Time for slinking shadows, for bandits and others with darkness in their souls.
The road crested the ridge and flattened. “We’ll run again.”
Endal made no comment, but lengthened his stride into a slow lope.
Bastian ran, refusing to acknowledge that his limbs ached with weariness. The road was rough. Night shadows gathered in the dips and hollows. The fierceness of his rage and urgency of his fear grew with each panted breath. If I don’t catch her—
The road descended again. Trees grew taller and shadows darker. The ground was more difficult to see, but still he ran. His breathing was harsh and labored, his lungs and legs burning, but still he ran. Are we gaining on her? he asked Endal.
An owl hooted.
He wanted to ask how far ahead the wraith was, to know in terms of miles, of yards and feet and inches, but the dog didn’t understand such measurements. Will we catch her? he asked instead.
Maybe, said Endal.
Bastian concentrated on his rage, on the need to keep running. Each step, each breath, brought him closer to the wraith.
The road became level and the forest grew close around them, hiding the sly face of the moon. The shadows were dark and thick. Bastian stumbled as he ran, kicking stones and scuffing his boots in the dirt. The road was something he no longer saw, merely sensed. It was a wideness, a shade of black slightly less dark than the forest around him.
The crossroads, Endal said.
Bastian slowed to a stop, gulping air. Sweat dripped from his face. He strained to see the white stones that marked the crossroads.
He reached out for Endal and the dog came to him in the dark. “Which road does she take?” he asked, steadying himself, his fingers clenched gently in Endal’s silky-rough coat. “Which town?”
Alarm sparked in Bastian’s chest. “What?”
She takes the road to the fire creatures.
Horror closed his throat. For a moment he couldn’t breathe. No.
Yes, said the dog.
Bastian released his grip on Endal’s coat and pushed the dog away from him. Fear gave him the strength to run again. Fast. Faster. If she gave the necklace to the salamanders—
He stumbled on the rough, dark road and caught himself before he fell. Endal, we must catch her before she reaches—
He stumbled again and fell heavily, hitting the ground hard, knocking the air from his lungs. He raised his head and gasped for breath.
Bas. Endal was a solid blackness in the dark, whining, touching a wet nose to his cheek. Bas.
“Fine,” said Bastian hoarsely, spitting blood and dust as he pushed himself upright. He staggered and then found his balance. “Fine.” He took a step, and another, aware of Endal alongside, unseen in the darkness. The dog’s anxiety was a silent touch in his mind.
He began to run again, clumsily, slowly. Pain didn’t matter. Exhaustion didn’t matter. What mattered was the necklace. He had to take it from the wraith before she reached the salamanders’ den.
He concentrated on moving his feet one after the other, on inhaling and exhaling, on running as fast as he could. Faster. Faster. Minutes passed. Hours. The black sky turned gray. Endal became less shadow and more dog.
“How far ahead is she?” Bastian’s voice was ragged. His pulse was high and hard in his throat, his head curiously light. He wiped stinging perspiration from his eyes.
Very close. We’ll catch her soon.
Bastian had no breath left to speak aloud. Good. He pushed himself to move his legs, to lift his feet, to run. He would catch the wraith.
And when he’d caught her, he would kill her.