Eddic’s heart pounded furiously as he sprinted down the shadowed alley and rounded the corner where it joined a cobblestone street. Peering back, he detected no sign of pursuit.
He sighed in relief as he leaned against the stone building to catch his breath. Having grown up on these streets, the young man knew the city of Dava Mirnolos like the back of his hand. He had lost sight of the blue-uniformed guards many blocks ago.
This had been far easier than he had expected. Clearly, Eddic had proven his worth in this test and would soon be a member of the Yellow Jackets!
Finally! I’ve found a group where I belong, Eddic thought.
In the dim lamplight, he raised the long sword in its scabbard, feeling its cool weight. A sense of invincibility swept over him as he recalled how easily he had cut it from the city guard’s belt. Yet Eddic also fought down an uncomfortable guilt. Never before had he stolen anything this valuable; until now he had taken only food or small coins to fend off starvation. He had always hoped God would understand when he stole to survive, but this? Despite his desperate need for friendship, how could the Creator forgive Eddic’s actions? Shrugging off such thoughts, Eddic wrapped the blade in the folds of his cloak and walked away to meet his contact.
Following a prearranged signal, Eddic strolled onto the stony arched bridge that crossed the Yorvel River. At the high point, he stooped to pick up a rock and hurl it into the rushing waters below.
Momentarily, a hooded figure crossed the bridge. As he passed Eddic, he whispered, “Follow me. Not too close.”
Eddic’s heartbeat quickened with nervous anticipation as he trailed the tall stranger. After a rapid series of maze-like turns, the man opened a small panel in the wall of an alley and disappeared into the dark opening. Eddic ducked and followed as the tiny door clicked shut behind him.
He descended a ladder and felt his way along a narrow passage. When he bumped into a chair, he stopped in the blackness.
“Light,” a voice said, and suddenly a golden glow emanated from atop a table in a windowless room. Through a doorway, Eddic could see into another small room with four beds.
Wow! Eddic marveled. This place is great! Living on the streets could not compare.
“Welcome to our humble home,” the stranger grinned, drawing back his hood, revealing a tall, handsome man with dark hair. Several years older than Eddic, the stranger radiated an aura of might and confidence.
Eddic couldn’t help staring. Finally, a man without fear, a man under his own control, a man to take Eddic under his wing.
“We need to get some things straight,” the leader explained. “You must never reveal this place to outsiders, and you can never leave us. Our motto is ‘A Yellow Jacket for life.’ ” This last statement struck Eddic coldly. What if I decide I don’t fit in with the Yellow Jackets?
“You will use only your cell members’ code names; mine is Night Wind. This is Raven,” he said, motioning past Eddic to an olive-skinned man behind him. Eddic startled; he had not heard anyone follow him. “Your name will be Striker, because of your efficiency during this initiation.
“Now let’s see what you brought.” Night Wind held out his hand, and Eddic gave him the sword. “Yes, this is it. Well done. You are one of us now.” He made a subtle sweeping gesture with his hand. Raven did the same.
Night Wind explained, “That was our sign of congratulations. You have done an excellent job and proven yourself worthy to join us.”
Eddic flushed with pride at Night Wind’s praise.
“I am your cell leader. You will meet only me and your two fellow cell members. That way, if you are ever captured, you can betray no other cells. We are one member short now, but we will fix that soon.”
Eddic nodded, smiling as he anticipated his new life.
Weeks passed. Night Wind led the cell on frequent missions to acquire valuables or secret information. Eddic learned skills that would forever separate him from amateur thieves, including scaling buildings and fences, picking locks and signaling with coded whistles. The Yellow Jackets performed crimes Eddic had never before committed, but they never hurt anyone seriously and they took only from the wealthy.
Eddic enjoyed his new status as a Yellow Jacket. His former enemies kept their distance once word got out that Eddic had powerful friends. Loneliness no longer dominated his days and nights, and at last his greatest foes — hunger and cold — haunted him no more. The Yellow Jackets met his every material need, though they could not quiet Eddic’s guilty conscience.
I have always hated stealing, now look what I’m doing. I was made for more than this, he thought. But God understands my need for friends, doesn’t He? I can’t go back to being alone.
Night Wind eventually decided that Eddic’s cell could safely add another member. Stoney earned his name because of his strength. Unable to outrun a city guard, he had passed his initiation mission by defeating the official in a single combat.
Late one night, Eddic talked at length with Raven, his black-haired cell fellow from the desert nation of Madir. Raven told of the strict religious laws in his homeland, where criminals lost their hands or even their heads. He much preferred Dava Mirnolos, he said.
Raven also told him of Skelter, the former member who died the night of Eddic’s initiation.
“What happened?” Eddic asked.
“Well, Skelter never was a careful guy and got too close while following you that night. When you split like a lightning bolt, the guards spotted Skelter and thought he was you. That’s why they didn’t follow you; they caught Skelter instead.”
“I didn’t mean for him to get caught, “ Eddic said apologetically. “I was just trying to get away.”
“Don’t worry about it, Striker. He was careless. You’re a better Yellow Jacket anyway.”
Eddic grinned, happy to be part of the Yellow Jacket family.
Why, then, did he feel so strange about Skelter’s death?
“We have a new mission,” Night Wind announced the next day. “In Alzidra, a wealthy sheik owns a rectangular ruby as large as your thumb. The Madirans call it the Finger of God.”
“Where’s Alzidra?” Stoney asked.
“It’s a city in Madir,” their leader explained. “The risk is higher, but the reward will be well worth it.”
After making preparations, they departed on foot across the Kelvor Mountains. Disguised as travelers on a holy pilgrimage, no one would suspect their true purpose. A three-day walk took them over the steep, rocky peaks and into Alzidra, a community buzzing with business and craftsmanship. Perched upon a major trade route, its population frequently swelled with merchants and travelers.
Eddic’s cell spent the day after its arrival carefully exploring the new environment, memorizing every avenue and hiding place. City guards marched calmly through clean city streets. Merchants turned their backs on their wares, clearly unconcerned about theft. Alzidra contrasted sharply with Dava Mirnolos.
The apparent crimelessness spoke ill to Eddic. “Are you sure we can pull this off?” he asked Night Wind as they walked.
“Of course!” his leader assured. “They will hardly be watching for it. You’ll see.”
“But isn’t the punishment much worse here?” Eddic inquired.
Night Wind shrugged. “Don’t get caught.”
That night, Eddic sat alone at a dimly lit table in the inn chosen for their operations base. Mug in hand, he casually observed the other occupants while waiting for his three companions to return from scouting. When a darkly hooded stranger met his gaze, Eddic looked quickly away. Their mission depended on secrecy; he did not want attention.
A moment later, however, the unusual character crossed the room. “May I join you?” the man asked.
Realizing a refusal would draw unwanted eyes, Eddic simply replied, “Sure.” The newcomer took a chair and set down his mug.
“I know why you have come to Alzidra,” the stranger said.
Eddic smiled. “I suppose my pilgrim’s robe gives it away.”
The man shook his head. “I know better. I know whom you have come with and why.”
“Oh, really?” Eddic said skeptically.
“There is no point in trying to steal the Finger of God. If you knew God, He would share His finger, or anything else, if you asked for it.”
Eddic said nothing, but his stomach tied itself in knots.
“I also know that you are having doubts,” the stranger continued.
“Doubts? What doubts?” Eddic challenged. This man couldn’t read his mind. No one knew Eddic’s personal misgivings.
“Doubts about your companions.”
Eddic forced a laugh. “That’s ridiculous!”
The man smiled knowingly. Eddic squirmed beneath the piercing stare of his dark eyes.
“Who are you?” Eddic suddenly demanded, sitting upright.
“A friend,” the man replied.
“Are you a Yellow Jacket?” Eddic’s imagination ran wild. Could the Yellow Jackets know he was having second thoughts? Perhaps Night Wind had sent this spy. But if he had guessed wrong about this man — he realized too late how much his question had revealed.
“No, but I have your best interests in mind.” The stranger stood. “On the day you need a friend, I will be there.”
“You don’t even know me,” Eddic protested, confused and afraid.
The man smiled disarmingly. “On the contrary, I have been watching you. But what do you know about me?”
Eddic stood angrily to mask his fear. “Are you going to turn me in?”
“No,” the man replied. “You must decide to change on your own.”
Eddic finally regained his confidence with a sneer. “That will never happen.”
“We shall see,” the stranger said. “Your doubts in your friends are well-founded.” He turned and left the inn.
Eddic sat there, pondering the man’s words.
The sheik’s palace sat atop a large hill, a shiny marble structure with a domed roof and minarets. Eddic squatted in the darkness just below the perimeter wall of the palace garden. He signaled down the hill toward the dusty brush. In a moment, three shadows flitted near his position.
Raven broke off from the others, leaping to catch the top of the garden wall. His dark shape slipped over and dropped silently on the other side.
The whistle like a desert quail sounded softly in the cool night air. Following his cue, Eddic jumped and pulled himself over the wall. His feet struck pavement soundlessly as he glanced for danger. Raven moved away as he landed, and Eddic whistled to Stoney, who then dropped nearby. Night Wind brought up the rear as Eddic cautiously entered the torch-lit outer courts.
Ahead of him, Raven climbed a tall stone pillar to access the sheik’s balcony. At his signal, Eddic followed to keep watch there. The other two remained in the shadows below as Raven cautiously entered the sheik’s dark bedroom.
Raven returned in a few minutes. Even in the faint light, Eddic could tell by his frantic expression that he had failed. Raven signaled escape and quickly descended the pillar into the garden.
No sooner had his comrade dropped below the balcony level when a servant exited the sheik’s chambers. Spotting Eddic, he shouted in Madiran and fled back inside.
Although the servant’s outcry left little doubt, Eddic whistled the alarm signal and ran to the balcony’s edge. Instead of sliding carefully down the pillar, he dropped 15 long feet to the garden floor. His feet struck soil rather than stone, but he landed hard and his left ankle wrenched painfully. Limping now, he scrambled for the perimeter wall as running feet clattered toward him. A voice shouted “Stop!” in Madiran, but Eddic continued his escape.
His injured ankle failed just as he reached the wall. Instead of leaping upward two steps ahead of the guard, Eddic crashed headlong into the stone surface. Immediately, the sentry clutched his arm, shouting for assistance.
Eddic’s head swam. Will my friends help me, or will they leave me to die? Did they know my doubts? Maybe this was a set up all along.
In this harsh foreign land, Eddic would be executed for his crime. Hopeless, he slumped in the guard’s steely grip.
Is this the end for Eddic?
Read on in Bound to the Brotherhood, Part 2 . . .