This month we will look at another excerpt from the upcoming anthology Tales from Thac. Art of the Steal delves into the enigmatic Donatello's origins - or at least a facsimile thereof according to a dubious old bard. For those of you who have read the Heroes of Ravenford series, this short story answers many of the questions you might have had about the flamboyant character such as:
Where did Donnie come from? How did he get his imaginative name? Where did he learn to be a thief, artist, and swordsman? Who is the mysterious woman who broke his heart?
For those of you still unfamiliar with Donatello, this short story is a standalone piece. It delves into the people and events that made the character who he is when he later crosses paths with the companions from Heroes. Thus, you need not read any other material to enjoy this background of the devil-may-care Donnie.
Here is an excerpt from Art of the Steal. One quick note, Donnie has a few pseudonyms as the story progresses. In this excerpt, he refers to himself as Dodger:
And this my friends, is where The Fates stepped in. For Dodger was no fool, and he chose the most well-protected caravan he could find—one guarded by twelve professional swordsman dressed in chainmail, and one cloaked holy man who bore the symbol of Arenor around his neck.
What Dodger didn’t know was that he’d chosen the caravan belonging to Edward, Lord of Flynn, and Blademaster to the royals of Bardak and Palt. And while he was able to secret himself aboard one of their wagons, he wasn’t able to keep his presence a secret for long. The third day into their journey, he was discovered trying to steal some food from the cook’s wagon.
By now, they were well into the Haunted Forest and the lord’s men were already on high alert. Unlike the clods and bullies who made up the city guard, these men were no lumbering oafs and knew how to work together as a unit. While he was still faster and more agile than they were, they soon had him surrounded. Any hopes of escaping them were dashed when the cloaked man stepped forward, held out his holy symbol, and began gesturing at him while chanting some strange prayer. In an instant, Dodger felt invisible bands of force ensnare him like half a dozen lassos suddenly pulled tight. He couldn’t move his arms or hands from his sides, and his legs felt like they were glued together. He was totally immobilized and it was all he could do to remain standing.
“Well, what have we got here?” an older human asked as he approached the group. He was wearing a crimson and black tunic, black trousers, and a traveling cape made from the finest of leather. At his side was one of the finest swords Dodger had ever seen—a long, slender blade, with a cupped guard and a grip banded in black leather and braided gold.
“A thief, M’lord,” one of the men said. “Caught him pilfering our supplies.”
“That true?” Lord Flynn asked.
Dodger stared back at the man, making his eyes as big as saucers and putting on his most pitiful expression. “Please, sir, I only wanted some food,” he whimpered, trying to sound as pathetic as possible. “I’m just a poor orphan…”
“Do you take me for a fool, boy?” Flynn growled angrily, not fooled for an instant by the Dodger’s act. “You’re a thief, plain and simple! No doubt sent to case out this caravan before your gang tries to raid it. Well,” he said drawing the ornate sword from his side. “I know how to deal with your lot. I’ll send you back to your masters with your hands in a box! Take him!”
The lord’s men grabbed Dodger and led him over to a nearby tree stump. There they pushed him to his knees, tied his wrists together, and lashed them to the stump. Still caught up by the cleric’s spell, Dodger was powerless to resist. The men stepped back as their master approached, with his sword held high above his head.
But before Flynn could bring it down and sever Dodger’s hands from his wrists, a band of goblins riding worgs burst through the trees, gibbering and screaming their war chants as they fell upon the caravan.
In an instant, Dodger was all but forgotten, as the lord and his men turned to face the new and more pressing threat. The invisible bands of force that had immobilized him faded away a moment later, and once able to move again, Dodger worked furiously to free himself from the stump as a melee erupted around him.
In the confusion of the battle, Dodger managed to slip away into the tree line, and even with his wrists still partially bound, managed to climb to safety high up in the canopy of one of the trees. Hidden from sight from both his captors and the attacking goblins, he sat down on one of the branches and used his teeth to undo the last of the knots.
The lord and his men were more skilled than their attackers, but the goblins had numbers on their side. At first, Dodger was unsure who’d eventually win the fight, and wasn’t going to stick around to find out. But then he watched as two of the raiders climbed aboard one of the wagons, killed its driver and made off with it.
Immediately the lord’s men sounded a new alarm, and Flynn himself began running after the departing carriage—in the back was his golden-haired daughter. Spurred on by his toddler’s terrified screams, the lord flew faster than Dodger had ever seen a human run, but he was nowhere near as fast as the two horses whipped into a frenzy by the goblins. Even the lord’s priest was unable to stop it. By the time the holy man finished chanting his prayers, the fleeing wagon was too far out of range.
“Now at this point, any normal person would have taken the opportunity to make good his escape. But as we all know, our friend was no ordinary person. For instead of running away, Dodger immediately began giving chase to the fleeing wagon through the treetops.
“Without a moment’s thought, he began running, leaping and sometimes even swinging himself from limb to limb following the cart. Unlike the goblins, he didn’t have to stay to the forest path, and was soon able to get ahead of the stolen cart. He stopped when he came to a tree with a thick bough that crossed over the path. Then, using the rope that had once been used to bind him, he attached it to the branch and leapt off.
The goblins on the wagon looked up just in time to see Dodger swinging down directly at them. He knocked the driver clean off the cart, dropping into his seat in an almost casual way.
“Mind if I drive?” he asked the driver’s surprised cohort. “I get wagon sick riding in the back.”
The goblin just looked at him for a moment like he was insane, then bared its teeth, growled something in its guttural tongue, and reached for its short sword.
“I guess you do!” Dodger said, only now realizing he was unarmed. He quickly reached for anything he could use to defend himself, finding only the handle of a lever at his side. He grabbed it with both hands as the goblin swung at him. True to his name, Dodger managed to dodge the blow by diving over the side of the speeding cart, using his grip on the lever and his momentum to swing himself back up onto the wooden roof of the carriage. When he landed, a bit unsteadily, he found the lever had cracked off in his hands. He didn’t have time to worry that he’d just broken the carriage’s brake and there was now no way to stop it. He was just relieved to have a weapon as the goblin climbed up after him.
“Back off, or I’ll beat you with my, um, fearsome, um, wooden stick!” he threatened as the goblin approached, undaunted.
“Okay, don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Dodger said, clumsily swinging his makeshift club at his foe.
The goblin easily parried the blow, then launched its own attack. Dodger again managed to avoid the swing, but was forced to retreat almost all the way to the back end of the roof.
Up until this point, Dodger had never been in a real fight. In fact, the only weapon he’d ever used was a dagger, and then he’d only used that to cut purses or as an improvised lock pick. He hated fighting, because he did not like hurting other people. Of course, he didn’t like getting hurt all that much himself, either. That’s why running away always seemed like the best option whenever things turned ugly. Only now, he didn’t have that choice.
“Look, why don’t we settle this like two civilized…” Dodger began, but stopped as the goblin bared its teeth and snarled at him.
“Okay, so you’re not civilized, I get that! I’ll tell you what. I’ll let you keep the wagon and all the loot, and I’ll just take the kid in the back and be on my way. Believe me, human children are more trouble than they’re worth! Sorta like chicken wings. They’re a lot of work for just a little meat, and they taste awful! So whaddaya say? We have a deal?” he asked.
The goblin answered him in true goblin fashion, and took another swing at him.
This time, Dodger used his ‘club’ to block the attack instead of retreating. The sword bit deep into the wood, and for a moment became stuck in it. The goblin grinned, and pulled his weapon back, trying to use the opportunity to wrest the club out of Dodger’s hands. But fear had made Dodger’s grip strong, and as he struggled and twisted to keep hold of the weapon as the goblin pulled his sword free, he wound up striking the goblin in the face with one end of the stick of wood.
Green blood spewed from the goblin’s broken nose as it howled in pain.
“I warned you not to mess with my fearsome wooden stick of goblin bane!” Dodger said, trying to sound threatening, but it came out more as an apology.
The enraged goblin was neither appeased by the apology nor cowed by the threat. It just hefted its sword above its head, and with both hands brought it down toward Dodger’s head.
Dodger took hold of ‘goblin bane’ with both hands, thrusting it up and out over his head in an effort to deflect the downward swing. The goblin’s blade crashed into it with a mighty crack, all but splitting it in twain.
While the attack had failed to cleave Dodger in two, Dodger’s only means of attack and defense was now useless, and the goblin knew it. It bared its teeth again as it took a moment to steady its balance on the bouncing wagon before striking what was sure to be the final killing blow.
Dodger put that momentary pause to good use. He glanced behind the goblin while he steadied himself, then cast aside the fistful of splinters in his hands, so they’d be free for what was coming.
“I see nothing’s going to stop you from getting your point across,” he said, eyes locked on the goblin’s blade. “But there is something you really ought to do before you kill me.”
The chronicles are unclear on whether the goblin really understood what Dodger was saying, but it did pause, looking at him quizzically.
Dodger pointed behind the goblin, yelled “Duck!” then somersaulted backwards, catching the edge of the roof in his hands and using it to swing into the open doorway in the back of the carriage.
The goblin had barely enough time to turn around before a low-hanging tree limb swept him off the roof.
Dodger watched from the inside of the wagon as the goblin’s body hit the ground with a loud thud.
“I guess a tree’s bark is worse than that goblin’s bite!” he quipped, smiling at the startled little girl at his side. She had stopped wailing and was looking at him with eyes as wide as a full moon.
“So, kid, whaddaya say we get outta here and look for your father?” he asked the little girl.
She nodded slowly, still unsure about him.
“Good girl!” he said encouragingly as he glanced around the inside of the wagon. “Say, your father wouldn’t happen to have any rope in here, would he?”
The little girl nodded again and quickly found some for him. Dodger took it, then grabbed a large kite shield he found among the now scattered belongings bouncing around inside of the wagon, and set it on the floor, curved end down. He quickly stepped onto it, hooking his feet into the handholds and shifting his weight around to test its balance as the shield rocked side to side like a boat in the swells.
“Eh, I guess it’ll do,” he said to the toddler as he secured one end of the rope to a metal ring hanging from the ceiling. He grabbed a hold of the other end with his left hand, then beckoned her to come to him.
As you can well imagine, the little girl was hesitant at first, but with some more urging and another warm smile from Dodger, she finally came to him. He scooped her up with his right arm and hugged her to his chest.
“Hold on real tight, and don’t let go!” he told her.
The little girl nodded that she understood, then buried her face in Dodger’s shoulder.
“Okay, kid. Here we go!” he said, hopping backwards out of the wagon, the shield attached to his feet. They landed with a bounce and were immediately yanked forward, but Dodger’s keen agility and sense of balance kept them upright as they surfed along the ground, being pulled by the cart.
Dodger slowly let out the rope he held in his left hand, until they were well behind the fleeing wagon. When he reached the end of the tether, he tossed it aside and used the hand to help him maintain his balance as they gradually lost speed. He brought them to a stop with a great sliding flourish, then hopped off the shield.
“Ride’s over,” he said to the little girl, who was clinging to him more stubbornly than a leech. She looked up at him with a mixture of fear and exhilaration in her face.
“Want to go again?” he asked, grinning.
The little girl looked at him for a minute, unsure if he was serious, then shook her head vigorously no.
Dodger just laughed. “Okay,” he said. “Then what do you say we go find your father? I bet he’s really worried about you.”
This time, the girl nodded her head yes, and Dodger lifted her onto his shoulders and began walking back the way they had come, whistling a happy tune as if they didn’t have a care in the world.
So, as you can see, early on Donnie had a heart of gold and a soft spot for the ladies. This is just a small excerpt from Donatello's early adventures. For more of Donnie and other exciting stories, look for the anthology to be published this fall. And stay tuned for more excerpts from Tales in the coming months.
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