The paths leading directly to the Ship were marked by piles of picked-clean bones. Whose bones they were, no one knew. Or cared. Since they'd been there so long now. They served as a sign for members that they were upon their home and a warning for enemies, or even those who stumbled upon their community by accident, to keep away.
It worked - they had lived untroubled in the Ship for all of Arianna's ten years of being there. And beyond that, by all accounts, since she hadn't heard it detailed as any different by the older members.
There were inner troubles of course, but that was a story for another time.
Aaron kicked his horse to leap through the bushes, barging Arianna and her mare as he did.
So he was still annoyed at her punch. Good, she beamed to herself.
Her mare wasn't phased by this either, snorting loudly at the other horse and banging her hooves into the ground, declaring a challenge if it tried to do that again. Arianna was even more glad of her decision to claim this horse. We will make a good pairing, she thought.
They'd attacked the mare’s owner and his party at first light. Which meant getting up and out of the camp before the lover suns had woken up the horizon. Now the suns were positioned high and proud in the sky. Even though the trees were thick and created a canopy over most of the forest, they started to thin out the closer they got to camp. One by one the trees disappeared and made space for the full life that the Ship carried - even if the life it contained was as damned as could be.
It was as close to a home as Arianna thought she could ever have.
The kids raced out to meet the hunting party. They jumped and hollered for details of the events, hungry for more stories to share between their chores and for some, their thief training.
Arianna rarely stopped to talk to any of them; not that they ever talked to her. When she appeared, all the kids huddled together and moved away. They'd heard the stories about her and no doubt been warned by their suspicious parents not to talk with her. No, they were much more comfortable around Gabe who gave them tears of orange bread and drew them in with his wild tales of their exploits. They were like mesmerised moths to a flame.
There was one child who ran to her though. Little Cob. Who did not shy away from the stupid mask that the Tiger Lord made her wear on every trip, even when it was a night steal. The mask, which covered the expanse of the top half of her face and cut off just above her lips, was so used to her now she counted it as a second skin. Even in the ship though, where her name was known to all, it turned heads and made people scurry away from her.
Little Cob came up close and stroked the Mare’s flank. The Mare did not buck again and Arianna felt her relax under his touch.
"What did you bring us this time, Arianna?" Little cob asked.
Arianna smiled beneath her mask, which he couldn't even see.
She fished inside her satchel to find his gift. She knew as soon as she'd laid eyes on it, that she would give it to Cob.
It was a hand-sized steel wolf. The Duke had held it in his shaking palms as Arianna had thrown him out of his carriage and into the dirt, whilst the rest of the team stripped the carriage of all it's jewels like vultures on a carcass. They left nothing. It was clean, glistening bone by the time they'd finished.
Arianna didn't believe in stripping their conquests, which the men sometimes did, especially when the target was a well off man, plump from his own false sense of superiority. So since Arianna had got to him first, thanks to giving Aaron a good whack around the face, she had snatched the horse from his quivering clutches and simply told him to run back to wherever he'd come from. Which he quickly accepted without questioning.
The men had tried to tell her off for letting him go but she had threatened to hack off their tongues if they didn't stop. That had shut them up. What they said about her around the camp did have it's uses...
Little Cob’s face lit up in that way that not very many children around the camp did; especially those without parents. Arianna thought that was why he did not fear her - he had no parents to warn him of the danger she posed. He examined the wolf with exultant curiosity, then hugged it to him when he'd thought about all the fun he could have with it.
"Don't let the other kids see it," Arianna warned him.
He gave the kids a quick frown and then nodded that he understood. "Thanks Arianna!" he exclaimed.
She thought he might throw himself at her like she had seen children do to their parents when they were reunited with them after training, or when they were hurt, but he didn't. That would have been too much and even Little Cob couldn't overcome the talk associated with her. He simply took the wolf off with him, skipping as he went.
Which was enough for Arianna.
More people came to greet them at the Ship’s outskirts. These were usually the town’s market men who were here to catch an early bargain and see what they'd scored. All so that they could start counting their coins with the potential profits.
Again, they walked past Arianna. With a good ten paces between her and them. She was so used to it, she just stared forward now. Besides, she couldn't be bothered with their devious talk of making the thieves rich, when the thieves were already rich, and didn't need their help.
They did this even though the rules were that they were to take all exploits to the Chamber before selling them on. This was for inventory purposes. The Tiger Lord liked to keep track of the goods flowing through his kingdom.
And thanks to Arianna, and the rest of the thieves, enough goods flowed through that they managed to survive year on year. Despite the harsh weather conditions of their northern location, and even in the events of sieges by the Southern King.
The Chamber was a round stone house built seven years ago. Arianna remembered the men piling brick of stone upon brick of stone to give it walls and height. One night she'd snuck in to sleep with the walls surrounding her and the sky exposed overhead. The Tiger Lord himself had found her and scolded her for it the next morning, but it had been too much fun to regret it.
It was the only structure they could call a building in the Ship. For everything else, every single home, even the Tiger Brother’s and their families, was a simple, thin-cloth tent.
Arianna’s own tent was as basic as it could get. Lucky for her she was small in size, otherwise she would have spilled out of it. For some of the growing boys who reached six foot by the time they were fourteen, this was a big problem.
Not that Arianna slept in her own tent much. She never had really.
The chamber was full today. The council members were assembled for the debrief and to look over the spoils. Everyone from the council finance minister to the army general - it wasn't a proper sized army of course and made up of farmers more than real soldiers - was present.
There'd been a buzz in the camp when the news had come about the Duke. The truth was, they'd messed up quite a large job recently. Arianna hadn't been there; They'd said they needed her in the Camp. A mistake which she'd loudly voiced her opinion on to the Tiger Lord and his brother. That hadn't gone down well at the time, but the fortune they'd missed out on spoke for itself. They weren't going to leave her at home this time. And look at the results!
Her mare didn't take too kindly to being handed over to a stable boy. She had to wait with the horse, stroking her neck and saying soothing words. Eventually she calmed, although she was not totally placated. Arianna made a note never to break her spirit. She very much liked the fight within this horse.
When Arianna entered the Chamber she did so with the kind of swagger that should have had her shackled and thrown into the Pits. But she'd been consigned to the Pits so many times over the years that the thick, lung-constricting sand, packed together with the almost blood-boiling heat, didn't bother her much. Seeing the council member’s annoyed faces though filled her with much satisfaction.
Aaron came up beside Arianna. She knew why; he wanted to be the first to enter the Circle. No way was she letting him get ahead of her. Not on this grand occasion.
"Do you want me to even up your face?" she asked in a sincere enough tone that anyone else around them might think she was offering to bake him a loaf of bread.
"Bite me, Tiger’s pet."
"Don't call me that!” she growled.
It was a name that the other thieves had given her growing up, on account of the fact that she always tried so hard to please the Tiger Lord. In their inventive wisdom, they’d come up with that nickname, which had stuck. Much to her embarrassment. Although not one of them was brave enough to use it in the presence of the Tiger Lord himself. It was always sniggered out of his ear shot.
Aaron revelled in the fact he had pushed her button.
Curses! Why did she betray herself that way? The Tiger Lord always said it was her greatest weakness. And it wasn't about being a good poker player - she'd cleaned out most of the gambling men here - but there was a deep and ancient anger that bubbled within her that too easily rose to the surface. She had no idea why the anger was there, and what specifically made her so angry. It was something she was never going to be in control of, which she'd accepted. That didn't mean it didn't frustrate her to no end.
"When the council see what I've scored them this time, they are going to repay me beyond all sense."
“You?” Arianna scoffed. “If it wasn't for me and my talents, you would have found yourself facing downwards in the mud, a dagger in your back!"
She was referring to the guard that they'd all assumed was dead, until at the last minute when they'd thought the job done, he rose up and with a last ditch attempt at protecting his master, he threw a hand sized dagger. It was heading straight for Aaron's back, until Arianna had interceded it with an expertly thrown luggage trunk.
Every one of their hunting party saw the save.
But Aaron used the excuse of his back being turned. Therefore he didn't feel as though his life was in danger.
"I didn't see this dagger meant for my back, therefore it doesn't count.”
"Whatever. Just know that when you sleep tonight, it's because I granted you that opportunity."
As their path’s converged at the entrance to the Circle, she casually stepped onto his foot, hard, with all the force her heel could muster. Aaron dropped back, yelping in pain and Arianna used the time to enter into the Circle first.