Brennan clutched the bag of coins tightly as he raced around the corner. He could hear the shouts of soldiers behind him as he ran. He dodged a slow-moving wagon, ducking under a sellerís table before darting into an alley. A smile crossed his lips as he ran Ė there were no further sounds of pursuit.
At the far end of the alley, Brennan slowed his pace. He glanced all around, to be sure no one was watching. Crouching, he opened the pouch, grinning as he counted the gold coins. Then he closed the pouch, slipped it into the pocket of his tattered vest and left the alley. Soon he was walking down the crowded street, blending in with all the others traveling through Chorion.
Keeping a careful eye out for soldiers, Brennan made his way to the edge of town. He skirted the dump, blending into the shadows. Then he headed toward an abandoned shed. Once again, he checked the area around him. When he was sure no one was watching, he opened the door and slipped through the opening.
The shed was empty except for a ragged blanket, a cracked water jug with a bowl and a scrap of towel. Brennan knelt in the far corner. He carefully lifted up a floorboard to reveal a hollow space. Several other pouches were there already. Brennan smiled as he removed the pouch of coins from his vest pocket and added it to his collection. Then he replaced the floorboard.
As the sun set, Brennan wrapped himself in the blanket and closed his eyes. A smile crossed his face as he considered the coins he had acquired from unsuspecting business owners in town. Soon he would have enough money to leave Edora for good. Perhaps he could travel to Katara or Jarryn. As long as he stayed ahead of the soldiers, he would be fine.
"Theyíll never catch me," Brennan chuckled to himself as he adjusted his blanket. "Iím the quickest thief in Chorion." Smiling to himself, he rolled over and fell asleep.
The early morning sunshine made its way into the shed through several holes in the rotting roof. Brennan stirred as the light touched his eyes. He groaned, then stretched and rolled over. The hard floor was not much of a bed, but Brennan was used to it by now. In fact, he considered it almost a luxury to have a sheltered place to spend the night. He had spent too many nights sleeping in open fields with only a blanket for protection from the cold or rain.
"Soon it will be better," he muttered to himself as he poured a little water into a bowl. He splashed water over his face, trying to drive away the sleepiness. He rubbed his face dry with an edge of his blanket, then took a drink from the water jug.
"Now for breakfast," he said to himself with a smile.
For as long as he could remember, Brennan had been in the habit of talking to himself. It made him feel less lonely. Even for the few years that he had been a part of a family, his parents had been too busy with work or chores to pay much attention to their son.
Brennan had invented numerous imaginary companions who filled his loneliness. Over time, he came to prefer his imaginary friends to real ones. They were never too busy for him, never teased him or scolded.
When Brennan was eight, both his parents became ill and died within days of each other. There were no relatives living nearby as Brennanís parents had each left family and friends behind when they moved to Edora. A concerned neighbor did check on Brennan several times, but as she was a widow trying to raise four children, she could not take another into her tiny home. Instead, she contacted the head of a nearby orphanage who agreed to take care of Brennan.
Brennan, however, had other ideas. When he learned he would be taken to an orphanage, he packed his few belongings and left Terrin for good. He quickly learned to take care of himself Ė raiding farmerís fields and orchards, slipping into chicken coops for eggs and, eventually, relieving unsuspecting travelers or merchants of their gold coins.
In the past six years, Brennan had become quite skilled in taking exactly what he wanted. When his clothes became too tattered to wear, he stole new ones. If he had a craving for apple pie, he managed to remove one from the local bakery. He had even stolen a few books to help him further his education. "Iíll never stay ahead of the guard if I am stupid," he told himself.
Lately, though, Brennan had become dissatisfied with his life. He longed for a real home Ė one that didnít change every few days or weeks. He wanted to have fine clothes and good food every day. "I could have a horse or two and a carriage to ride in," he would say. "Maybe Iíd have a farm with a big apple orchard behind the house. Iíd sleep in a feather bed with soft sheets and warm blankets. And maybe Iíd even have a friend or two."
Brennan had decided to travel to Edoraís capital, Chorion. Because Chorion was such a large town, there would be many more opportunities for him to steal the coins he would need to make his dreams a reality. "In a few months, Iíll have enough money to move away from Edora and live the way I want." Slowly he had been adding to his treasure, safely hidden beneath the floorboards of the shed where he lived.
After stealing his breakfast from a farm near the edge of town, Brennan sat down to review his plans for the day. Rumor had it that an ambassador from neighboring Katara would be visiting. Prince Corin of Katara wished to marry Princess Marina of Edora, uniting their two small countries into one. Brennan knew, from listening carefully to the women in the marketplace, that Prince Corin was sending several valuable gifts to his potential bride, including a beautiful jeweled tiara and necklace.
"The tiara would be too hard to steal," Brennan said to himself. "But the jewels in the necklace will be enough to make me rich. No more struggling to get by. My future will be set."
Brennan knew, both from marketplace gossip and the soldiersí preparation, that the Kataran Ambassador would present Prince Corinís gifts at a lavish banquet to be held that evening. Extra servants had been hired to take care of every detail of the banquet. The day before, Brennan had passed himself off as a cookís assistant, gratefully accepting the offer of a dayís work from the flustered and overwhelmed cook.
"This evening, while no one is looking, Iíll swap places with one of the waiters, slip into the banqueting hall and take the necklace," Brennan said with a smile. He straightened his hair and smoothed the new tunic and leggings he had just snatched from a nearby laundry line. "A little damp still, but theyíll dry by the time I reach the palace." Smiling to himself, Brennan wove his way through the crowded streets to become a cookís assistant for the day.
Brennan managed to keep the kitchen running smoothly by making sure everyone there was kept busy. He did very little work himself, always finding someone to take care of each task as it came up. The head cook seemed grateful for his help, never noticing that while Brennan appeared very busy, he actually did very little.
Evening soon came and the magnificent feast was served. Brennan waited patiently as each course was placed before the delighted guests. From time to time he peered into the dining hall to see if the jewels had been displayed.
At last, the Kataran Ambassador brought out a small wooden box. This was Brennanís chance. He had spotted a spare waiterís uniform lying in a heap on the kitchen floor, probably discarded because of the gravy stain across the front of both pants and jacket. Brennan shrugged at the stains, then slipped into the uniform and grabbed a serving tray. After placing a few water goblets on the tray, he stepped into the dining hall.
The Ambassador had opened the box and was parading up and down before the guests at the main table. He then set the opened box on a small table off to one side and began a speech that was intended to convince Princess Marina to pledge her future to Prince Corin. While all eyes and ears focused on the ambassador, Brennan straightened his uniform, raised his tray and moved carefully toward the box holding the jewels. Moments later, with a smooth motion that only the quickest eyes could see, Brennan lifted the necklace from the box, hiding it in his jacket.
Brennan was moving toward the door when someone from the main table pointed in his direction. "You there, bring water for the Ambassador." Brennan nodded stiffly, then approached with his tray held high.
As he walked forward, he felt the necklace shift under his uniform. Too late he realized there was an additional reason that this particular uniform had been discarded Ė there was a hole in the jacket pocket where the stitching had come undone. The weight of the necklace tore away even more stitches until, as Brennan stood directly in front of the Ambassador, the necklace ripped the bottom of the pocket and fell to the floor with a crash.
At first, the banquet guests were too startled to make a sound. Even Brennan was in shock. But he quickly recovered, throwing his serving tray at the Ambassador before scooping the necklace up off the floor.
"Thief! Stop him!" the Ambassador cried.
Brennan took off at top speed, skidding down the palace hallways. He ducked down a narrow corridor which he thought would lead outside, only to find several soldiers on their way to the banquet hall in response to the sounding alarm. Brennan turned around and ran back the way he had come, pushing his legs faster as he sped down hallway after hallway.
His lungs were burning and his legs were aching when he finally found himself outside. He sprinted across the grass, clutching the necklace in his now sweaty fist. He was growing tired now and his feet stumbled occasionally as he ran, but he kept going. Before him was a line of hedges and beyond that open field.
"A few more yards and Iím free," he muttered to himself.
Just then, a bright yellow ball rolled across the grass, thrown by one of the young guests who was not quite old enough to join in the formal banquet that evening. Brennan was so focused on how he would get over the nearest hedge that he did not see the ball rolling slowly his way. His foot landed on the ball and slid sideways. He tripped, hitting the ground so hard that the breath left his chest with a pop. The necklace flew from his hand, landing at the feet of the startled little girl and her nurse who had been playing a quiet game of catch.
In no time, the soldiers were on him. The necklace was recovered and Brennan was hauled roughly to his feet.
"Take him to a holding cell for the night," one of the soldiers ordered. "The Princess will decide what to do with him in the morning."
Brennan was marched back into the palace, down several flights of stairs to a dimly lit hallway. There he was shoved roughly into a tiny cell. As the door clanged shut, Brennan sank to the straw-covered floor in despair.
"What am I going to do now?" he moaned, covering his face with his hands.
Brennan sat silently for a very long time. He watched the light from the sunset travel across the prison cell floor. He leaned back against the stone walls and gazed out through the small barred window as the sky turned from soft blur to deepest black. A handful of stars could be seen through the window, but little else.
"What am I going to do?" Brennan whispered once again.
Just then, a curious glow caught his eye. "That canít be starlight," he whispered, "but what is it?" Brennan sat very still and watched intently as the glow came nearer. He blinked in surprise at two small winged creatures who hovered in the air before him.
"Greetings, Brennan!" one of them said.
"Who are you? How do you know my name?"
"I am Nik and this is Mykal," the tiny creature announced. "We are Ursa fairies. King Arnon sent us to you."
"King Arnon?" Brennan repeated, confused. "Who is he?"
"He is the ruler of Kyr," came the answer. "He cares about you and wants to help you."
Brennan frowned. "How can he care about me?" he asked. "I donít even know him!"
"He knows you," Nik answered quietly.
"He asked us to give you a gift," Mykal added.
"A gift? What kind of gift?"
Mykal opened a small pouch he had slung over his shoulder. Brennan could see a dark jewel hanging from a gold chain. "A necklace?" he snorted. "A key to this cell would be more helpful."
"You donít have to take it if you donít want it," Mykal said, flittering down to the straw. He carefully set the stone on the floor. "But it is there if you change your mind."
Brennan frowned. "You said King Arnon wants to help me. What does that necklace have to do with anything?"
"King Arnon helps everyone who asks him," Nik answered. "And his gifts give his power to all those he helps."
Again Brennan snorted. "How can I ask King Arnon for help? Heís the king of Kyr and Iím here in Edora, in a prison cell. Besides, what can that necklace do for me? Make me invisible so I can get out of here?"
"King Arnon hears your heart," Mykal said. "Just ask and he will hear you."
"Ridiculous!" Brennan snapped. "Go away, both of you! I have to figure a way out of this mess!"
The two Ursa fairies looked at each other for a moment. As they turned to leave, Mykal called, "Weíre here if you want us. Just call."
Brennan watched the two fairies fly out the window. He wished he was small enough to do that. Without the cheery glow of their bodies, the cell seemed even darker. Sighing, Brennan leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes.
But he didnít sleep. Instead, he found himself remembering his parents. He remembered reaching out to his father for a hug, only to be brushed aside with a quick pat on the head as his father went about his business. His mother was little better, although she managed to blow a kiss or give him an embrace every now and then.
"They never really loved me," Brennan told himself. "No one really loves me."
Yet the Ursa fairies had said that King Arnon knew him and cared for him. Could that be true?
"I donít need him. I can take care of myself."
Even as he said this, Brennan realized how hollow his words were. His grand scheme had landed him here, in a dirty prison cell. He would surely be executed for trying to steal a necklace meant for the Princess.
A silvery finger of moonlight made its way through the bars of the window. It fell on the floor, causing the red stone necklace Mykal had left there to shimmer. Brennan picked it up, gazing at it curiously. Then he slipped it over his head.
All at once, he felt warm, loving arms wrap themselves around his heart. He felt accepted and a sense of belonging he had only known among his imaginary playmates. A voice whispered to his spirit, "I love you, my son."
Tears filled Brennanís eyes. "Please help me," he whispered.
Startled, Brennan turned toward the voice to see a man standing outside the cell door. "Who are you? Where did you come from?" he asked.
"I am King Arnon," the man answered gently. "Will you let me help you?"
"Yes," Brennan said, not sure what would happen next. To his amazement, King Arnon walked through the iron bars as if they werenít there. He reached out his hands and pulled Brennan to his feet.
"You tried to steal the necklace that the Kataran ambassador brought for Princess Marina." It was a statement of fact, not a question.
Brennan dropped his eyes, his face burning. Always before he had excused his actions to himself, saying, "Iím not really stealing. Iím just making a living, just like anybody else." Yet now he felt ashamed. He felt as if even his thoughts were laid bare before the man standing with him in the cell. There was no point trying to hide the truth from one who could see into his soul. He took a deep breath, swallowed and answered softly, "Yes, sir."
"You have stolen many things over the past six years," King Arnon continued.
"What you have taken must be returned or paid for."
Brennan swallowed, his throat tight. He kept his eyes on the floor as he said, "I canít do that, sir. I donít have enough money."
"Then I will pay your debt for you."
The quiet statement shocked Brennan into looking up. He was amazed to see a depth of love in King Arnonís eyes that he had never known before. "You would do that for me, sir?" he asked. "Why?"
King Arnon smiled. "Because I love you and want you to be mine. Wouldnít you rather serve me than stay here in this cell?"
"Yes, but Ė " Brennan began.
"What is it?"
Brennan swallowed nervously, then blurted, "I stole that necklace, or tried to. And theyíll punish me. I could be whipped or sent to a work camp or even be executed!"
"I have already spoken to the Princess and the Ambassador," King Arnon said. "They have agreed to let me take you to Kyr, to become my servant."
"But then I wonít be free," Brennan said.
"You arenít free now," King Arnon observed.
"I was before."
The question hung in the air. Brennan thought it through. When his parents had been alive, he had constantly worked to please them, a slave to his need for their affection. After their deaths, he had been a slave to survival, doing whatever he had to do to keep going. "I guess I wasnít as free as I thought," he said out loud.
"If you come with me and serve me, you will discover true freedom," King Arnon said gently. "And you will find the love you have been seeking all your life."
The jewel around his neck flared brightly at these words. Brennan once again felt loving arms around him. "I will serve you, King Arnon," he said, "if you want me."
"I do indeed," King Arnon said. He stepped forward, taking Brennan into his strong arms. As he ruffled Brennanís hair, King Arnon whispered, "I paid a great price to make you mine."
King Arnon took Brennanís hand and walked toward the cell door. Together, to Brennanís amazement, they walked through the bars just as King Arnon had done earlier. The King led Brennan from the palace, out of town to where the shed sat behind the dump. Brennan lifted the floorboard and drew out the pouches of gold coins he had stolen.
"I will see that these coins are returned to their rightful owners," King Arnon said. He clapped his hands and suddenly the shed was filled with Ursa fairies, laughing and working together as they lifted the heavy bags. Brennan watched them in amazement as King Arnon gave each group instructions concerning their treasures. Brennan followed the fairies out of the shed, watching as they flew away over the town.
King Arnon whistled and a beautiful white horse appeared. Seated on the horseís head were two Ursa fairies. Brennan laughed as he recognized Mykal and Nik. The fairies danced around his head as King Arnon helped him up into the saddle. Then, swinging himself up behind his new friend, King Arnon headed toward Kyr while Mykal and Nik danced before them in celebration.
And so, the Ursa fairies learned that even a thief can find a welcome in King Arnonís kingdom and that, when King Arnonís love fills the heart, even a thief can learn to give.