Longfinger surveyed the passing crowd. In Angelshand, the capital of Skye, everyone walked with purpose. Occupied with tasks to do, business to conduct, places to go, people to see, they hurried on their way. Well-dressed nobles on horseback barged through the crowded street, guards clearing the way for their very important employers. Tradesmen rushed to complete their errands and earn a living. Merchants and shopkeepers hawked their wares, enticing the busy throngs to purchase a trinket, a treasure, a tool. Beggars lined the bustling thoroughfare crying, “Alms for the poor!”
Whether rushing on their way or idling in wait, no one presented an opportunity for the employment of Longfinger’s particular talents. He nickname came not simply from the elongated span of his digits, but also from the use to which he put them. They worked their way into pockets and purses, bags and backpacks. Few places remained out of reach when Longfinger turned his mind to ‘salvaging’ an item.
That was the term he used for his practice, salvaging goods that would otherwise go to waste. The owners didn’t need them, or they would be more careful and aware of what transpired with their belongings. He could use them, or if not, he knew people who could. Plenty of people bought ‘salvaged goods’ from him and never inquired as to their provenance.
The current crowd appeared far too alert for successful salvage operations, though. It wouldn’t do to have someone draw attention to a stranger’s hand in their pocket or bag. Perhaps another section of town would be more promising.
An elderly woman strolled at a leisurely pace on the boardwalk between the shops and the muck of the streets. Wisps of silvery gray hair sought to escape from the bun, held in place with two knitting needles, on top of her head. A smile and a greeting graced everyone she met. The greetings were returned with smiles and cries of “Good day, Aunt Min!” “Greetings, my lady!” and other pleasantries. Yarn trailed from the large, elegantly embroidered carpetbag she carried in the crook of her right elbow.
Longfinger pushed himself off the doorframe and stepped onto the crowded boardwalk several paces behind the diminutive figure. The woman’s stooped posture made her not much taller than him, and he was a halfling. Rather tall for his race but a halfling nonetheless.
The woman strolled ahead, oblivious to anyone or anything not immediately in front of her or calling her name. The passersby before her garnered her full attention and a cheery greeting.
With slow, doddering steps, she made her way through the crowd. After several blocks, she turned into a less-crowded street. Commercial buildings gave way to governmental structures. She was headed for the palace, and her clothing indicated she would be welcome.
The gaping opening of her bag beckoned to Longfinger. What salvageable goods lay within its dark confines? More than skeins of yarn, no doubt.
The woman stopped, hung her cane over her forearm, and reached into the bag. A moment later, she pulled out a wrought gold chain with gems. Shaky hands fumbled with the chain as she worked to disentangle it from her yarn, causing it to flash in the sunlight.
Longfinger quickened his pace and approached. “May I help you, Aunt Min?” That was the name with which people on the street had addressed her.
Watery blue eyes peered down at him. The pungent, menthol tang of dragon’s brain perfume assailed his nostrils. She must have taken her clothes out of the storage chest for this visit to the palace. With a voice as shaky as her hands, the old woman said, “Thank you, young man. You are most kind. Do I know you? Sometimes, names and faces have a way of becoming blurry.” Squinting, she peered at him more closely.
With a smile, Longfinger worked on untangling the yarn from the chain. “No, Aunt Min, we have never met. I have admired you from afar.” For the last five minutes at any rate.
“You flatter me. I should think a young man like you would have his eyes fastened on a damsel closer to his own age rather than a matron old enough to be his grandmother.” She gave him a slight smirk. “Probably many times over.”
“Come now, you can’t be that old. Besides, beauty such as yours defies the years. Like a fine wine, it improves with age.”
Aunt Min blushed and smiled. “Oh, you are such a charmer. Save the flatteries for fair maidens. They are more likely to believe them.”
Longfinger held up the chain. “There you go. All untangled. Will you allow me to drape it around your neck?”
A dip of her head indicated Aunt Min’s acquiescence.
The chain now around the woman’s neck, Longfinger stepped to the side and bowed low. This put him directly over the carpetbag and within easy reach of its opening.
“Oh, look! Isn’t that the Prince Regent himself leaving the palace?”
The woman turned to look. A quick reach inside the bag should bring Longfinger’s hand to some salvageable good before he took his leave and beat a hasty retreat. He groped for something besides yarn and encountered a sharp prick to his thumb.
A feeling of languor stole through Longfinger as he drew his hand from the bag. He shook his hand and put his thumb to his mouth to suck the blood from the puncture.
Aunt Min stared into his eyes. She no longer shook, and her eyes no longer watered. Her voice was steady. “Oh, dear. It appears you found something other than what you sought.”
Numbness coursed through Longfinger’s limbs and body. His legs ignored his brain’s command to run. He collapsed on the ground in a heap. The world went black.
A pungent, minty yet medicinal odor tinged with hints of citrus assaulted Longfinger’s nostrils. He wrinkled his nose. Dragon’s brain perfume. Why was he smelling dragon’s brain perfume? Only old ladies smelled of dragon’s brain perfume. Oh. The old woman with the elegant carpetbag on the street.
Longfinger forced an eyelid open. Before him loomed an enormous yellow eye with a vertical black slit for a pupil, a long snout covered in silvery scales, and a mouth that curved upward slightly at the corner. Pearl-white fangs protruded between the lips.
That was a dragon. No training or experience, no borrowed or stolen magic, had prepared him to face a dragon alone and at the beast’s mercy.
A female voice, vigorous and tinged with humor, inserted itself directly into Longfinger’s mind. You ought to exercise greater caution choosing your victims. Not everyone is what they seem, you know. A silver dragon might disguise herself as the arch-mage of a city who wanders about as a forgetful old woman.
The dragon’s smile broadened into a grin, a very toothy and fierce grin. Longfinger held his breath.
Once again, the voice echoed in his mind. Now, what shall I have you do for me?