The Challenge

A fanfiction by Velkyn Karma

Summary: Colm is determined to get Neimi that horse. Neimi is determined to do the morally right thing. But how's a thief supposed to get money without stealing it?

Note: What? VelkynKarma updating a fic? What is this world coming to? Actually folks, I've been real busy with school, as well as working on a MASSIVE fanfiction project of a different sort. That one's only half done, but I found this other fic lying around from a while back and figured I'd post it. So enjoy!

Disclaimer: I do not own, or pretend to own, the Fire Emblem game series or any of its subsequent characters, plots or other ideas. That right belongs solely to Nintendo and Intelligent Systems. The only thing here that's mine is the idea for the story.

"Sincerity is the key. If you can fake that, you've got it made."

--George Burns

The horse was one of the most beautiful things Neimi had ever seen in her entire life.

It was such a lovely creature, with a soft brown color and gentle disposition, but a young and strong body. The white stripe down its forehead was nearly exactly the same as the horse her grandfather had taught her riding on years ago, when she was still a young child; and it nuzzled her quavering, reaching hands with the same friendliness that old Maara had as well. It was perfect in nearly every way, and Neimi grew attached to her at once.

She had not expected to find such a beautiful mount in the middle of Salix, the almost-city Eirika's party had stopped in on for their journey to Rausten. After exhausting weeks of battle and travel throughout the mountains, Eirika had, under Seth's guidance, permitted her weary team to stop for a few nights in the large town to rest and restock on supplies. Neimi had dutifully repaired the bow her grandfather had made her and purchased a new supply of arrows, healing salve, and a few small travel-sized food supplies; but her surprising efficiency had left her ready to go within hours, with nothing more left to do but wait for the escort party to leave.

A little bewildered, Neimi had decided to wander the streets of Salix to take in the sights and sounds. Until she had joined the small Renais band, Neimi had never seen a gathering of people much larger than her own small mountain village, beyond the one memorable trip her grandfather had taken her on to trade furs several years ago. As a result, cities both exhilarated and terrified her, and she could not keep her curiosity in check.

And there had been many things to see. The Town Hall, where Salix's council of elders kept rules and regulations in check. The Salix Guard, dressed up in such shiny, polished armor and weaponry that it put her own weary band's dirty and battered arms to shame. The Temple of Light, a grand and beautiful building that she had stopped briefly at to pay her respects (and visit her friend Artur, who was spending his own rest periods there).

But the market place had interested her most of all. The sights, sounds and smells had practically overwhelmed her, enticed her every fancy and whim. Foods of every imaginable type decorated the stalls and stands around her. Hawkers wandered the streets, shouting loudly of their wares of tools, jewels, tomes, toys and more. Heavily guarded caravans displayed extraordinarily expensive--but incredibly worthy looking--stores of weapons, the polished gleam of the swords, axes, lances, warhammers, maces, staves and bows enough to make her head spin.

And, off in the corner to keep away from the main hustle and bustle of the marketplace, were the livestock.

Neimi had been drawn to them immediately. She had always loved animals ever since she was a child. As soon as she had been old enough to work, she had often helped her neighbors in the village, tending chickens and pigs, and even milking the elder's single cow. Seeing the creatures at the market brought her memories of home, and despite the faint pang in her heart she approached to take a look.

It was there that she saw the horse.

The mare captivated her. Neimi spent the rest of the day at the edge of the horse pen, watching her prance and caper with the others, a creature of absolute beauty and familiarity. Whenever she spotted the mare under the scrutiny of a patron, her heart tensed painfully, worried; and each time their gazes passed her by, she breathed a sigh of relief. She longed to go purchase a snack for the horse at one of the food stalls, but found herself irrationally afraid to leave. What if she came back, and discovered the horse had vanished, purchased and taken off to who knew where?

Enthralled and a little afraid, Neimi stayed at the horse stalls until the merchants finally began to pack up their wares at dusk. Reluctantly, the young archer departed to the inn that the rest of the troop was staying at for the night. But she returned first thing in the morning to the horse pen to watch the beautiful mare once more, unable to leave the captivating creature alone.

Colm found her there at mid-morning, smirking as he slipped jauntily through the crowd to look for her.

Salix was a godsend for the young thief. Though Colm had never really had a problem with village life, he thoroughly enjoyed the large towns and cities, the hustle and bustle of the people. It would certainly do wonders for his trade, when he was allowed to practice pickpocketing again, though he was careful with his actions for now. Eirika had made him promise not to do any unnecessary thieving, and while he was sure his activities past her unnoticed, he was wary of the careful eye of the Silver Knight at her side.

Still, while he loved the cities, he was also aware of the unseen dangers within them. He wasn't so worried for himself, of course. Being quite a skilled thief (if he did say so himself) he knew the tricks of the trade and could spot them a mile away. But he was (maybe) just a tiny bit worried about Neimi wandering the cities alone. She still wasn't used to big, busy places like this and would be easy pickings for even a new pickpocket. And she had seemed distracted last night, he contemplated to himself, looking edgy, worried. He would take it upon himself to see what was going on with her.

He wasn't quite expecting what he found. Colm had thought, perhaps, that somebody had stolen her mother's old mirror again, or some other precious item of hers. Or perhaps she'd been pushed, or shoved around, or gotten hurt in the crowds, or been yelled at by an impatient vendor. The waterworks seemed to start for no reason at all these days, he thought irritably. But the last thing he thought he would see was Neimi, perched delicately on the side of the horse pen in the marketplace, watching the horses with an almost longing expression on her face.

"I didn't think you liked horses this much," Colm said casually, as he sidled up beside her at the pen.

Neimi jumped, startled, and nearly pitched headlong over the wooden fence she was sitting on. "Oh!" she yelped, startled, as Colm agilely shot out a hand to grab the back of her shirt and keep her steady. She recovered her balance quickly and glanced at her closest friend in surprise, not seeming to notice the exasperated sigh the young thief gave her. "C-colm! I didn't expect to see you here."

The pickpocket shrugged nonchalantly, though he kept one wether eye out for other sneaks in the area. He only spotted one, but that man was busy at a fruit stall and probably wouldn't bother them now that he was here. "You looked a little distracted last night. I thought I'd stay with you today to make sure you didn't get yourself in trouble."

Neimi looked a little hurt, but fortunately the glistening in her eyes didn't look too bad. No crying yet. "I wouldn't get into trouble, Colm...I'm being very careful."

"Sure," Colm said with an unbelieving snort. "And you're being so careful, that thief over there has no reason whatsoever to be staring greedily at your gold pouch."

Neimi looked shocked and whipped her head around predictably to try and glimpse the suspicious man after her money. There wasn't one, of course; Colm had made that part up. But a good scare might urge her to be a little more cautious in the future. Not to mention that it was a pretty damned good joke.

"Don't worry," Colm reassured, as she gave him a nervous look. "I'll keep them away. you really like horses enough to stare at them all day like this?" He gave her a quizzical look.

Neimi shook her head slowly. "Not...not really," she explained softly. "But that one--it looks familiar. She's almost exactly like my grandfather's old horse, Maara." She pointed at the trotting horse in question, and a faint, sad smile slipped across her face. "My grandfather taught me to ride on Maara," she murmured, clearly lost in memory. "And he taught me how to shoot while riding, too..."

Colm could spot the tell-tale rising glitter in her eyes now, and groaned softly. "No waterworks!" he ordered, waving a hand at her. "There's no need to cry over it. It's just a horse."

"B-but she brings back so many m-memories," Neimi said, her voice beginning to tremble. "And she's so pretty...I d-don't know what I'll do when somebody b-buys her." She watched the mare forlornly, coming dangerously closer to outright bawling.

The thief worked quickly to forestall it. "If you really feel that strongly about it," he said, with a touch of exasperation, but also a bit of concern, "then just buy her yourself."

Neimi's eyes widened in surprise. The thought had clearly not occurred to her. "Do you think it would be all right?" she asked, looking nervous. "It might not be good for the troop...and Princess Eirika would have to pay for feed for another horse..."

Colm waved a hand in dismissal. "Stop worrying over nothing," he countered. "Nobody will mind if there's one more horse. It'll be easier to transport things. And if you can fight on horseback, that's nothing but an advantage to the troop."

"Do you think?" the young archer asked, still nervous. "I'm not so sure...." She gave the horse another longing stare.

"Just do it," Colm answered, now thoroughly exasperated. "It'll be fine. If they complain, I'll explain it myself."

"A-alright," Neimi said slowly. She still looked dangerously close to crying, but a hesitant smile slipped across her face as well as she hopped off the fencing to walk to the livestock merchant. Colm breathed a sigh of relief and waited at the side of the pen, wrapping his tattered cloak a little more securely around himself.

But it looked as though the problem was far from being resolved. The merchant spoke to Neimi for a few moments; she held up her gold pouch, and he emitted a short bark of laughter before snapping back at her quickly. Her face became crestfallen, and as she wandered away from the merchant Colm knew tears were eminent.

He didn't waste time. Vaulting the side of the pen, he darted half a dozen paces to her side, giving the merchant a sharp glare before turning to his friend. "What's wrong?" he asked, his voice hard but concerned.

She shook her head now, outright sobbing. "T-too much," she trembled. "He wants f-five thousand g-gold for her. I d-don't have that m-much at all..." She shook with another bout of sobs.

Colm felt helpless watching her cry. "How much do you have?" he asked, almost hesitant.

Neimi gave him such a forlorn look that he almost wanted to rush the merchant and give him a swift backstab with his hidden curved dagger. "F-five hundred twenty gold," she whimpered softly. "I've been s-saving up...I offered it all...b-but he says it's not enough..." Another soft sob.

As if on cue, the mare in question trotted over curiously, flickering its ears at Neimi's unhappy noises. It butted its head against her shoulder gently, encouraging a soft pat, and the young archer obligingly offered one.

"I'm sorry," she whispered to the mare quietly. "I c-can't take you with me...s-sorry..."

Colm eyed the creature warily. He'd never been very fond of horses himself, but Neimi seemed so damned attached to the thing...he made up his mind then and there that she would have it, bloody merchant be damned.

"There's other ways to get her, you know," he said almost jauntily, but softly, so that the aggravating vendor would not overhear. "Just wait until tonight--"

Neimi's head shot up in surprise; and, to Colm's utter shock, she fixed him with such a glare through her tears that his voice came to a dead halt.

"No," she said softly, but her voice was firm. "You can't steal her, Colm."

"I'm not going to hurt her, if that's what you're worried about," he reassured hastily, a little surprised by her aggressive response. "I'll just sneak her out when it's dark--"

"No, Colm," Neimi said, still strangely firm. "You can't steal her."

Exasperated, the young thief relented. "Fine then. I can collect a few thousand gold in a couple hours. Everyone has a full purse right now. Just give me some time to--"

"You can't steal to get her, Colm!" Neimi's eyes were growing watery again, but this time from what he thought might be anger.

"And why not?" he asked, frustrated. "You'd have her by this afternoon, no problem."

Neimi shook her head. Her anger seemed to vanish from her suddenly, and she looked tired, sad. "Grandfather never liked it when you stole things," she explained softly.

"So? He can't tell me not to. And I want to help you."

She shook her head again. "No," she said once more. "You don't understand. She reminds me of grandfather's horse...of grandfather." She smiled sadly as she stroked the nose of the creature. "He wouldn't like it...if I broke his ideals to try and remember him. It wouldn't be remembering him right." She looked at Colm, eyes glittering, trying to make him understand.

He frowned. He supposed he could understand what she was getting at, not that he agreed with it, but... "So you'd give up your chance at getting this horse, just because he'd be mad if you stole it?"

Neimi trembled, but nodded quietly.

Colm hissed softly in frustration and glanced at the beast again. Neimi loved the thing, and already it was attached to her. Seeing it go to another person would break her heart, and for some reason he couldn't bear to see that happen.

"What if..." he said slowly, thinking. Confused, Neimi watched him curiously, and he continued, "What if I could get the money for the horse...legitimately? No stealing, I promise," he added, waving his hands placatingly as she frowned at him. "Nothing underhanded, nothing under the table. If I can do that, will you take her?"

Neimi looked hopeful. "Can you?"

"Absolutely," he promised, flashing a familiar smirk. He had no idea how, but he would. Somehow.

"Then...then of course," she trembled softly. Her eyes were beginning to well up again, this time from gratefulness, and he grimaced. Damn.

"there is one condition for you," he added. She looked surprised, and he said, "No crying over it. I don't want to see a tear on your face over this horse. Okay?"

"I...I can't h-help it..."

"No crying," he repeated firmly, and then slid around her to tramp towards the merchant, already ignoring the fact that she was breaking her side of the deal before she'd even agreed to it.

The merchant gave him a puzzled look as he approached; apparently he'd been watching the entire conversation, just out of hearing distance. As Colm reached him, he commented casually, "That yer girl?"

"Shut up," Colm hissed under his breath, and then "No, just a friend," a little louder. "Listen. That horse--"

"She's worth five grand, and not a damn copper less," the merchant growled fiercely.

"Absolutely," Colm agreed placatingly, flashing a friendly smirk. "I understand. Listen, though--can you, I dunno, set her aside for a little while?"

The merchant seemed surprised. "What? Why?"

Colm lowered his voice and said with an almost conspiratory whisper, "Well, you see...she doesn't have the gold, but I do. I'm gonna buy that mare from you, with five thousand straight up. Only problem is, I've got to do a little debt collecting first, if you know what I mean."

The vendor leered; apparently he did know what Colm meant. Or thought he did, anyway, since the young thief was lying through his teeth for the entirety of the conversation.

"So you see," he continued, working quickly, "I've got the gold, I've just gotta get it first. So if you set aside that horse for me, I'll be back in just a bit to take it off your hands for you."

The merchant frowned, considering. "You'll be back?"

Colm grinned. "Count on it," he promised, his voice sincere. He was not leaving without that horse in Neimi's possession.

The man thought for a moment, and then slowly nodded. "Alright," he agreed. "I won't take offers from anyone else today. But only until sundown," he warned, with a vicious glare. "You ain't back by then, and she's gone. Deal's off."

"Fine with me," Colm agreed. "You'll have your money before then."

"And you'll have yerself a new horse," the merchant sneered. "Shake on it."

Colm did, and resisted the urge to filch a few coins from the man's pocket as he did so. He was going to do this right, for Neimi's sake if nothing else.

Neimi was smiling hopefully when he returned to her, face mostly composed but for a few glistening tear tracks. "Can you get her?" she asked, voice soft.

"I've got until the end of the day," he answered with a grin. "Don't worry--you'll have her long before that. Stay and watch her if you like. Think of a name or something." He gestured at the fence absently. "But give me your money pouch. I'll need something to work with."

She handed him the bag carefully, giving him a grateful smile, and at his reassurance moved to perch on the pen edge again. He gave one last careful glance around (still no sneaks, fortunately), and then trotted off into the city proper, wondering how in the goddess' name he was going to get five thousand gold in a matter of hours--without stealing.

But he'd never backed down from a good challenge, and he wasn't going to do it now. He meant what he said--come hell or high water, by sundown Neimi would be walking that horse back to the troop's inn. He'd swear by it.

And there we go with the first installment.

This was originally inspired over a year ago when I was thinking about some of the game's promotions. For many of them it's little more than a costume change and getting their hands on a new weapon, but others come with some new "accessories," like horses. Where on earth do they come from?

Anyway, let me know what you think. Anything done poorly? What was done well? What did you like? What didn't you like? As always, I prefer feedback of any sort, so give me your opinions, and thank you for reading!