Krunzle the Quick
by Hugh Matthews
Chapter Four: Caught
His first awareness was of the ache in his ribs, that swelled every time he took a breath. He cursed the pain, then thought, No, wait, I'm still breathing. That has to go on the positive side of the ledger. He took a deeper breath and groaned, his emotions mixed.
"Get up," said a voice from somewhere above him: female, but without the girlish tone of the amulet-wearer. This was a mature contralto, with strong overtones of I am used to being obeyed. Krunzle opened his eyes and discovered he was lying on a thick carpet. He recognized the hole in the ceiling.
A toe nudged his sore ribs—bruised, not broken, he deduced—and the voice said, "Up."
From this vantage, she seemed extraordinarily tall, an impression that did not diminish when he struggled painfully to his feet and found that she still overtopped him so that he had to crane his neck to meet her eyes. In doing so he discovered that his neck was joining his ribs in registering a complaint of maltreatment. "Ow," he said, rubbing it.
She looked to be of middle years, except for a face as smooth and ageless as magic could make it. She wore a complex headpiece of entwined snakes fashioned from some pale metal, inset with eyes of polished opal. Hair the same shade as that of the girl in the cell cascaded down onto a robe of pale silk, marked in red and black arcane symbols.
"I am Hortenza, and this is my house," she said. "Name yourself."
He did so, without resorting to sleights or subterfuges. She did not look the type to enjoy a frivolous puzzle.
She studied the thief. Krunzle had seen much the same expression on the faces of farmwives deciding which chicken would have its neck wrung for the stewpot. As if interested in the decor, he looked about him. The room was still windowless; there was one exit, besides the one he had made.
"Meddling in the affairs of spellcasters is rarely advisable."
As if she could read his thoughts—and perhaps she could—she said, "The door is locked and the snake is on the roof. He likes to take sleeping birds. But he'd rather have you."
Krunzle thought of several things he could say, but none of them seemed likely to profit him. He remained silent while she studied him some more. Meanwhile, the geas was urging him to escape, and to do so loudly. He focused mentally on the impossibility of doing so, and the urge quieted. Thanks to Cardimion for making it discriminating, he thought.
By now, his new captor seemed to have seen all there was to see. She said, "Baalariot sent you."
Again, the thief saw nothing to be gained by speaking. After a moment, she said, "Answer."
"I did not hear a question."
Her hard face hardened further. She raised a finger whose nail tapered to a black lacquered point and pointed it at him. The air around him crackled and he smelled a whiff of sulfur, then he became aware that every bone in his body had suddenly become hot enough to scald the flesh that touched it. The pain lasted only moments, but the memory of it lingered after she lowered the digit.
"Oh, yes," he said, "that question. Indeed, Baalariot sent me."
"To steal Galathea."
His eyebrows knitted themselves in confusion. "He called it something else."
That brought him a quizzical look. She studied him again, then said, "What, exactly, did he call her?"
Krunzle blinked. Her? But he was in no position to offer a correction. "He called it an apprentice's eye."
As a young student, the thief had never risen to the top of any class in literature, history, or philosophy. His was a practical intelligence, best expressed through his hands, whose remarkable deftness at eye-bamboozling speed had won him his nickname. But his inability to recite even the best-known dates and precedents used to win him a certain look from the preceptors at the day school, a look that said, Can this oaf really be that much of a thimble-wit?
He was seeing that look again, on the face of the witch. Now she looked down at the carpet, where the amulet with the color-changing cabochon lay, the polished, uncut stone now green again. The snake's coiled embrace must have pressed it to him. Indeed, he suspected the hard stone was responsible for one of the bruises on his ribs. The moment he noticed it, he involuntarily stooped and picked it up.
"That?" she said. "You want me to believe he sent you for that?"
The darkening expression on her face told Krunzle that he needed her to believe it, because it was the only explanation for his conduct that he was able to offer.
She was studying him even more closely now. "You're not one of his coterie."
"I have never been a joiner," Krunzle said.
"Not as such."
She picked up the amulet and held it to him. The green stone turned red. "Ah," she said.
"Why does it do that?" he said.
"It is an apprentice wizard's tool," she said. "It perceives the energies involved in magic, and mostly serves to prevent the inexperienced from touching that which might do them harm. Right now, it tells me that you have been ensorcelled."
She tilted her head in thought then added, "Which might make you dangerous. Don't move."
She went to a cupboard that stood against the wall, opened a door, and selected an object from several that were stored there. She brought it back and he saw that it was a tube carved from black crystal. She put it to her eye and inspected him through it.
"Ah, Baalariot," she said. "Always the obvious. Of course it would be Cardimion's Discriminating Geas." She went back to the cupboard, chose other items from its contents and brought them to a table. Then she moved a brazier to the same part of the room and, with a mere motion of one hand, ignited its charcoal. She inspected the things she had arranged on the table—Krunzle saw scrimshawed ivory, an ebony rod, some old, time-worn knuckle bones, a scrap of pale hide tattooed with blue runes, a diminutive, oddly shaped skull—then she began to perform actions beyond his comprehension.
"If we were out in the street," she said, touching this and elevating that, "I could scarcely make a dent. But I have an arrangement with Our Lady's sanctuary next door, and that gives me access to a power that..." She broke off, concentrating while she tapped the black rod a precise three times on the top of the skull, then covered the bone with the tattooed skin. The air inside the room was suddenly charged with energy. Kunzle felt a crackling in his ears. Then she looked over at him and aimed the rod in his direction, saying, "This will probably hurt a little."
Coming Next Week: The final chapter of Hugh Matthews's "Krunzle the Quick."
Hugh Matthews is a pseudonym of critically acclaimed science-fantasy author Matthew Hughes, who is responsible for more than a dozen novels and is often called the "heir apparent" to the legacy of Jack Vance, particularly for his Archonate series. His novel Template was republished by Planet Stories, and his first Pathfinder Tales novel, Song of the Serpent, also features intrepid thief and confidence man Krunzle the Quick.
Illustration by Kate Maximovich