"I don’t know what I’m going to do, Shay. I thought I’d have more time to come up with the money." A tall, lanky man sat at the table, one hand dragging roughly down his face while the other gripped thin wire-framed glasses. His shirt and vest were clean of dirt, but rumpled in such a way that it was clear he had been wearing them for at least a few days’ time.
"You could sleep, to start." Shaylee said, her tone a mixture of concern and scolding. "You’re no good to anyone dead, Matt. Least of all, me." Despite the lack of conventional comfort in her words, it drew a ghost of a smile from him. His hand dropped from his face to reach for her, beckoning her closer. Shaylee moved to take his hand, allowing him to pull her in and sit on his knee. She raised one hand to comb through the short blonde strands of his hair.
"We’ll find a way to get the money." She said quietly, trying to sound more confident in it than she truly was. "We always do."
For a moment, they sat there, quietly, as if no one else existed. It was all gone too soon, though as both Annabelle and Kip came barreling in through the front door, waving sticks in the air and shouting at one another.
"Lay down your sword and I’ll spare your life." Annabelle said, curls bouncing as she shook her head, resembling more of a wild dog than a young girl.
"Never! A knight does not surrender to the likes of you!" Kip wasn’t nearly as convincing, but he did his best to puff up his chest as he defended the side of righteousness this time around.
"Very well." Annabelle bent at the waist, holding her imagined sword with the tip trained for his throat. "Then you’ll die as foolish as you were born!" The words were practiced, memorized from a story they had heard from Thoster at least a dozen times. As she spoke, Annabelle leaped for him, sword forgotten as she tackled her brother to the ground. The snarls and harsh words quickly turned to childish giggles as the pair of siblings rolled on the wooden floor of their home.
"Are you two nearly finished?" Shaylee tried her best to chide, but couldn’t stop the slight lift to the corners of her mouth as she watched her younger brother and sister lay there in a tangled heap of limbs. She stood from Matthew’s lap and placed her hands at her hips. "Your brother told you to mind me. What do you think he’d say if he saw the state of you now?"
"Uhm.." Kip wiggled away from his sister and pushed his hair out of his eyes. "Not to let her get the jump on me next time?" He managed to pull his arms and legs free, rolling away to his side so that he could sit up and grin up at Shaylee and Matthew.
He was right, of course. Shaylee shouldn’t have expected less from Kip. Where Thoster could weave a story from nothing and Annabelle could talk herself into and out of most trouble, Kip’s cleverness manifested in the form of a razor sharp recollection of any word he’d heard or read. Even at the tender age of nine, he had been the only one of them that could parrot back the cleric’s instructions when she came to take care of their mother. Neither Shaylee nor Thoster had wanted to ask it of him, but he took the responsibility eagerly, happy to help as best he could.
"Yes, well... He would also say that you haven’t finished your chores. Go on. Sweep the steps and make your beds. It’s nearly time for your lessons." They didn’t have the money to send the pair of them to a tutor. Thankfully, Alice had collected stacks of books over the years. The rarest ones had been sold to pay for the clerics, but they still had plenty left that detailed the history of the country of Elysia. Shaylee did her best to prepare lessons for them each day, or to at least have the both of them practice reading aloud while she worked around the house. She knew better than most that when you lived as they did, being clever might be the only reason you manage to eat sometimes.
Nodding, the younger two scrambled up to standing. Annabelle took both sticks and rushed back to the room she and Kip shared, planning to keep them for future fights. Kip turned to find the broom, so that he could sweep the front steps, as he was asked. Shaylee watched as the pair of them moved, finally letting her hands drop to her sides and letting out a long sigh.
"I’m no good as a mother to them." Her voice was quiet, weary. Matthew stood from his chair and moved behind her. His hands slid over her shoulders and down her arms as he leaned down to place a soft kiss to the top of her head.
"You’re too hard on yourself. You do better with them than anyone I know. And you don’t have to do it alone, you know. Once we’re married--"
"Matt, I won’t ask that of you." Shaylee cut him off, turning and placing a finger to his lips before he could try to offer. "All of the debt your father built up? You don’t need more mouths to worry about feeding." His gaze dropped to the floor, ashamed.
His father had been a good man, but a gambler at heart. Being a tailor had never been enough of a thrill, it seemed, so he took each day’s earnings and tried to turn them into a fortune. Sadly, he wasn’t very good at knowing when to stop. More often than not, he came home to Matt and his mother with empty pockets. Worse yet, when he ran out of money, he borrowed from anyone that would let him. He had left Merrowport more than a year ago in hopes that the debt would follow him, to give his son a chance for a clean start. Instead, the brutes came knocking on Matt’s door and demanded he take up his father’s promises to them.
"If I could just find a bit of money to keep them away for a few days..." He knew she was right, though. At least with Thoster, the young ones wouldn’t need to hear the threats that escalated with each visit.
Shaylee could see the guilt flickering through his eyes. As much as she hated to see him feeling anything like that, the way he cared with his whole being was part of what made her fall in love with to begin with. Her hand reached to cup his cheek, urging him down to meet her in a soft kiss.
"We’ll see it sorted." She said, keeping her eyes on his, hoping that she can make it true by saying it enough times. He managed a small smile for her in return, nodding and reaching for her hand against his cheek. Holding onto her there, he turned his head to place a quick kiss to her palm. He couldn’t imagine a life without her in it.
"Come on.” Matthew said as he nodded to the nearby bookcase. “I’ll help you pick out the books for today’s lessons."
The coin purse swung heavily at Thoster’s hip as he made his way home at midday. It seemed to him that the sharp sound of each coin jostling against the others was impossibly loud. He had more money on his person at this very moment than he had earned in more than fifty days’ time, and it felt to him like everyone could tell it on sight.
"Something wrong, Chatty?" From behind, a friendly face grinned at him over his shoulder. Silky brown hair framed a pale, angular face with crystal blue eyes. Despite his shock, recognition came easily to Thoster. This wasn’t the first time he had received such a greeting. The nickname alone told him just who it was, as only man in all of Merrowport thought himself clever by calling Thoster by that ridiculous nickname, derived from both his surname, Chatwyn and his ability to talk to anyone and everyone with such ease.
"Inara take you!" He swore under his breath as his heart jumped into his throat. "One of these days, I’ll not hold back my fist when you do that, Berwyn."
"Why do you think I always come up from behind." Satisfied that he had properly startled his friend, Berwyn moved to Thoster’s side and bounced on the balls of his feet. There was little that would hide the half elf’s parentage from any passerby that came upon him. He barely stood to Thoster’s shoulder with a thin, almost delicate looking frame, and while his hair often covered his ears, the right breeze would reveal a slight point to the tips. Thoster regarded the state of the man’s dress. Black from head to toe. Either Berwyn had come from a job or was on his way to one.
"Taking things that don’t belong to you again?" The half elf’s reputation as a thief was well known across Merrowport. It was a line that Thoster struggled to see himself crossing. A coin here or there was one thing, but Berwyn had a habit of taking it too far, in Thoster’s opinion. They’d had a few spats about it over the years, but for the most part, settled on agreeing to disagree. Thoster couldn’t blame the man for feeling like the world owed him a bit more than most. He had been orphaned as a child, left on the streets of Merrowport to fend for himself. Too young to remember anything of his parents, Berwyn had been taken in by a local shopkeeper who did a fine job of keeping him clothed and fed, but wasn’t shy to hide her disdain for those that had more than her. She didn’t push him to steal from them, but she certainly didn’t say a word to discourage it.
“Who me?” Berwyn grinned and shook his head. “Nah, too early for that. Gotta give the suckers a chance to earn a few coins before I try to swipe them. Speaking of…” He reached down and gave the small black bag a tap, causing the coins to jingle lightly. Thoster stepped away quickly, his hand flying to the purse.
“Oh, come on!” Berwyn’s features twisted, offended that Thoster would ever suspect him to steal from one of his own. “I would never… Alright, perhaps I would, but not where it would be so obvious! I’m better than that.” He grinned again, this time accompanied by a wink. “But I have to wonder where you managed to make all that. Surely it’s not all tips from those songs of yours.”
A breath of a laugh escaped Thoster as he shook his head. “No. Nothing like that. Believe it or not, I’m a hired hand now.”
“And who would hire the likes of you?”
“A man by the name of Calvin Roff. He runs a ship that’s docked here for business of some sort. Says he needs someone who knows their way around town to help his men take their cargo to its destination.” Berwyn’s eyebrows furrowed at the explanation, his questions not so easily quieted.
“He paid you this much just to show them the way? And before the job is even done?”
“Aye, I thought it seemed too good to be true as well, but he seems a man that’s used to getting his way and knows just how to get it.” Money wouldn’t solve all of Thoster’s problems, but it made a great many of them hurt quite a bit less.
“And he’s… just needing the one local man?” The way Berwyn’s eyebrows creeped up his forehead spoke volumes. “Not to say you don’t know your way around town, Chatty, but I’m an expert on every street and alleyway this place has to offer.”
“Because you skulk down them, looking for little old ladies to rob!” The exclamation came with a small laugh, though. As much as Thoster didn’t agree with what Berwyn did to keep a roof over his head, he wasn’t exactly one to judge.
“I’m just thinking maybe you can share your good fortune with your oldest friend, eh?”
“Oldest only because I didn’t have the good sense when I was a boy to keep you from following me home like a lost puppy.” He gave Berwyn a playful shove, knocking the smaller man back a few inches. “I don’t think I’m in much of a position to ask him to take on another man before I’ve even shown him I’m worth keeping on.”
“If anyone could convince him, it would be you.” Anyone that met him knew that Thoster had a way with words. He knew how to talk to people, how to keep their attention and make them want to hear more from him. Berwyn did his best to make sure no one remembered his face, but Thoster was the sort of person you could hardly hope to forget.
As much as he didn’t mind the compliments, there was little Thoster felt like he could do to help his friend at this very moment. The last thing he wanted to do was offend Cal by asking for a favor. But getting Berwyn off the streets and doing honest work? Well, that sounded appealing, he had to admit.
“Tell you what. Let me handle this job tonight. If it goes well and he asks me back, I’ll put in a good word.”
“Yeah? I knew I could count on you!” Berwyn reached up and roughly patted Thoster’s back, grinning from ear to ear. “I’ll come by your place tomorrow, if you’d like. Been too long since I’ve seen everyone.”
“You’re always welcome. You know that. I’ll tell Shay to set an extra place for supper tomorrow. How’s that?”
“Could never say no to a Chatwyn woman’s cooking.” He had eaten enough of it over the years to know just how good it could be. Thoster couldn’t count the number of nights he invited himself over just to hope for a bit of whatever his mother had made that night. Berwyn was never picky and always hungry. “I’ll see what trouble I can get into between now and then.” With another clap to his friend’s shoulder, Berwyn stepped back and headed off, down a nearby alley to push himself deeper into the city.
The remainder of Thoster’s walk was quiet and uneventful, which was a welcomed change from the rest of his day. Part of him was still uncertain about Calvin Roff and the offer he had made, but he couldn’t deny how nice it felt to know he had gold to bring home that would keep the children fed for the next several days. Beyond that, as much as Shaylee hoped to keep Thoster’s nose out of it, he knew that Matt’s shop was in some sort of trouble. He imagined it had something to do with the reason his father left so suddenly last year, but any time he tried to get information out of his sister, she told him to stay out of it.
As he neared his modest home, he was reminded again of the window that needed to be fixed. Then there was the roof that would surely not last another hard storm as they had last season, and the poor cracked boards in the steps that nearly gave out under his weight each time he ventured up or down. Cal’s money could do a fair bit to put their home back to its proper shape. Perhaps his misgivings about the man shouldn’t outweigh the good it could bring. Just as he reached for the door, he could hear Kip inside, reciting from one of their mother’s books.
“--which is why the capitol shall be named Silverwood, after the great King Lionel and his wife the Queen Elysia journeyed from the Far World on their silver dragon to bring peace to the warring tribes of the land. In the six hundred years since, there has been no war in all of-- Thoster!” Glancing up from his reading, Kip stopped mid-thought to greet his brother, a grin lighting up his face.
“Don’t stop on my account.” Thoster laughed as he closed the door behind him. The wood barely had the time to settle before both Kip and Annabelle managed to throw themselves across the room, two sets of arms wrapping around his waist. He let out a short, hard exhale, as if they could knock the wind out of him by the impact. It was all in jest, of course. The pair of them combined couldn’t have weighed even half of him. Placing a hand on the top of Annabelle’s head and on Kip’s shoulder, Thoster looked down at his younger siblings fondly.
“We were very good, you know.” Annabelle said, before he could think to ask. Kip nodded his agreement enthusiastically as Annabelle continued. “We did our chores and our lessons and played quietly and-”
“Quietly isn’t really the word I would use.” Shaylee chimed in before Annabelle could ramble on further. Glancing up, Thoster found her gaze and saw the humor still lingering in her expression. He at least could tell that the children were no less trouble than they would have been on any other day.
“If these two did anything quietly, I’d wonder if they’d fallen ill.” Thoster ruffled his brother and sister’s hair before gently prying their hands from him so that he could have a seat at the table. He pulled the book Kip was reading from over to him and cleared his throat dramatically.
“In the six hundred years since, there has been no war in all of Elysia. The six tribes were given equal share of the land that surrounded Silverwood, giving them no cause to want for more. And so the southernmost tribe called this place Rinall, after their leader’s eldest son.” He closed the book and set it back on the table, leaning towards his younger siblings and grinning. “And in Rinall, lies a great city called Merrowport where two very clever children will go spend some time playing with their friends while I talk to Shaylee.” Kip and Annabelle seemed to deflate, obviously hopeful that Thoster’s early return would mean more time spent with him telling stories. Reluctantly, they nodded and made their way outside to find their friends, a few houses down the road.
“Either things went very well or something’s wrong.” Shaylee said once she could see the younger ones were out of earshot. “I’m not sure if it’s wise of me to hope for good news.” Thoster regarded her carefully, still uncertain how he felt about the day’s events, but knowing that there was really only one way to start. Untying the coin purse from his belt, he opened it and let the contents spill out across the table. More than fifty gold pieces spilled out across the table, spreading over the wood like a river of riches.
Shaylee gasped at the sight, one hand reaching for her throat, as if her heart might leap out of it if she wasn’t careful. Her mouth was dropped open, but no sound came out. She simply looked at the gold, then back up to her brother, a silent question burning in her eyes. Had he stolen it?
“I met a man today. He bought a necklace of mother’s- the one with the moonstones.”
“You can’t seriously mean you fetched all this for one necklace. Thoster, that’s-”
“No. I don’t think the necklace mattered much at all. The man owns a ship that’s docked in the city. He has cargo to unload and needs someone from town to help his men find the way. This is apparently what that task is worth to him.” Thoster gestured for his sister to sit, but she seemed in too much shock to manage it. It was only then that he noticed Matthew lingering by the doorframe of Shaylee’s room. He nodded to him, not wishing to keep secrets from the man who would soon marry his sister.
Shaylee finally sat at the table, still not touching a single gold piece. She had never seen this much money at one time in all her life. As she marveled at it, Matt approached and rested a hand on Shaylee’s shoulder, his long fingers wrapping over the slender curve there.
“Can you trust him?” Shaylee seemed to snap from her awe to ask what she considered the most important question. Thoster wasn’t a stupid man, and more than that, he had a sense for people. Perhaps it came from telling stories, painting the image of villains and heroes with his own words. You had to know what sorts of things make up a person to be able to tell their story.
“I don’t know yet. But his money is good. And it’s here for the taking. He offered it to me before he even told me about the job, Shay. It’s one night’s work. That’s all he wants. But he says if I get it done tonight, there’s more where that came from.” Thoster didn’t miss the way Matt’s hand tightened around Shaylee’s shoulder. He knew a bit about the trouble at Matt’s shop, the rumors that Matt’s father had gotten in over his head and run out on the family. Thoster had known the old tailor for all of his life. It was only out of respect for his sister that he didn’t pry into the matter further in the past, but it was hard to deny now that the rumors were likely true. Matt needed more money than any of them could scrape up with an honest living- at least the sort that Merrowport had to offer.
“I don’t like it, Thoster.” Shaylee said, shaking her head. Even as she said it, though, her hand crept out to take hold of one of the gold pieces, running her fingertips over the stamped image of the royal crest of Silverwood. “Men with money like this are dangerous.”
“Aye, but children without money like this can starve to death.” He understood her hesitation, but there was a part of him that knew that he couldn’t afford to turn away from the opportunity. “I’ll see what the job is like tonight. If it seems too dangerous, I’ll get it done as quick as I can and decline anymore work from him. How’s that?”
Shaylee remained quiet for a long time, her eyes searching her brother’s face, as if she wasn’t sure if he was telling her everything that there was to tell. Eventually, her shoulders sagged with acceptance and she nodded.
“Settled, then.” He did his best to give her a reassuring smile, tipping his gaze back up to Matt as well and trying to silently communicate to the man that it was now his job to keep his sister from worrying while he was gone that night.
“I hope you’re not leaving for this job of yours anytime soon, though.” Shaylee added with a sigh, looking out the window where they could see their siblings running up and down the street with their friends. “Kip’s been telling us all day how you promised them a story, and how it would be better than any other story you had ever told them.” Thoster’s eyebrows raised a bit at that. It was a tall order to fill, but he did like a challenge.
“I’m not due anywhere until nightfall. There’s plenty of time for a story. And supper, too. Why don’t you and Matt take a few of these into market. I’ll spend some time with them while you’re out, so hopefully you won’t have to hear them go on and on if the story isn’t what they hoped it might be.”
Shaylee nodded, grabbing a handful of the coins to slip into a pocket of her dress before letting Thoster sweep the remaining coins back into the purse. She reached up for Matt’s hand before standing from her chair and leading him to the door.
“We’ll be back soon.” She hesitated for a moment before releasing Matt’s hand to cross back to Thoster’s side, leaning down to press a quick kiss to his cheek. “Thank you.” She whispered, a weary smile appearing on her face for the briefest moment before it was gone again. He didn’t say anything, but then he didn’t really have to. Giving a small nod and managing his own small smile in return, Thoster watched as Shaylee and Matthew opened the door and slipped outside.
Only once the door had closed did Thoster let out a long breath. It felt as though he had been holding it in since he left the tavern with Cal’s gold hanging from his belt. His eyes closed while he replayed the morning’s events, wondering if he had made the best choices he could have. He wasn’t the type to doubt himself, but something about all of this made him hesitate. Had his luck really changed this drastically?
He considered himself a man rich in many things. Love, humor, wit. But luck had never truly been on his side. If it had, he doubted that his mother would have been taken from their family by a sickness that came without warning and without cure. There was very little that a cleric’s magic couldn’t eradicate. Then again, there were very few ailments like Kreal’s Cough.
Named for the town in which the first case arose, Kreal’s Cough attacked at random, appearing in a city with no warning. It did not discriminate against the rich or poor. There was no stopping it, no warding it off. Some said that it was a curse from the goddess Inara, or some wicked magic cooked up by her darkest followers. Whatever the origin, Thoster had watched with horror as his mother fell to the cough, leaving them no choice but to do what they could to make her comfortable. The clerics had given them some potions for the pain, but there was nothing they could do to save her.
The sound of the front door to their home flying open shook him violently from those thoughts. Kip and Annabelle came barreling into the house, rushing for him and tugging on both arms.
“You promised a story!” They demanded, nearly in unison. If Thoster didn’t know better, he would think they had practiced this part. In truth, they likely had, but it made him love them all the more for it.
“I did, didn’t I? Well… I think you’ve waited long enough to hear one, don’t you?”
Long ago, a princess named Leanna was the keeper of an impossible secret. Her father, the great King had entrusted her with the most sacred treasure in all of the Far World. He did not tell her what the treasure was, or the true amount of its worth, but she and she alone knew the precise location of this precious treasure.
The princess, being as bright as she was, knew that her life would be in danger with every step she took. Even within the palace, she didn’t know who to trust, so she enlisted the help of her bravest knight, Percival. The man was strong as an ox, standing head and shoulders above any other knight within the order. But it wasn’t his strength that gave Leanna cause to trust him so well to protect her. No, the princess and the knight had loved one another since the day their eyes first met. He would give his life to save hers, without question or hesitation. It was because of this that the princess knew she was safe to walk through the gardens with her trusted knight
“The kingdom grows more and more unsettled with each day, it seems.” Leanna sat near her favorite fountain, but the sight of the rippling water did nothing to ease her troubles. Percival came to kneel beside her, taking her hand in his.
"You are safe here, my love." He said. "As you have always been." He placed a kiss to her hand, gentle as a morning breeze.
But just as his lips pressed lovingly to her skin, a crash came from the far garden wall. The princess and her knight both stood to face the sound, alert and ready for whatever dared to disturb their moment of peace.
Loud steps rumbled through the palace garden. THUD. THUD. THUD. THUD. Percival moved to stand in front of his beloved princess, sword drawn and gleaming.
"Get back!" Percival urged the princess, hoping to keep his love safe from the dangers this creature surely possessed. But Leanna stood her ground, refusing to leave her knight’s side. She feared if she left the garden now, it would be the last time she ever saw him alive.
The beast drew closer to them, shaking the tall bushes with the weight of its thundering steps. Bursting through, it let out a howl of a cry, and Princess Leanna’s eyes went wide at the sight.
The creature was easily twice as tall as Percival with gray skin, thick like leather and a mouth full of sharp, gnashing teeth. It wore simple armor, plain and unmarked. If the beast served a lord, it did well to hide it.
The knight approached the beast, sword drawn, threatening if it dared to step closer. The creature let out a howl and charged the knight, only to be sliced along one arm by Percival’s sword. It snapped at the knight’s arm, hoping to tear it off and leave the sword useless. The creature’s teeth wrapped around the armor plating, locked at the hinges of the arm piece.
“Percival!” The princess cried, stepping towards him, despite the danger present. She seemed not to care about her own life, not above his. The creature, spotting the Princess, tossed the knight to the side, leaving him sprawled on the garden floor. Leanna took a step back, shaking her head as the creature stepped closer.
“The treasure belongs to us, Princess.” It spoke in a low, gravelly tone. “Time has come to give us what’s ours.”
Thoster paused, leaving his siblings leaning forward, eyes wide and waiting for him to continue. He could tell they wanted the rest of the tale. Of course they did. He did his best to make sure that he never finished a story all on in one go. Where was the fun in that?
“You’ll get the rest soon enough. Only if you’re good enough to earn it.” He winked and gestured for them to both get up and and go about their business.
“But!” The two whined in unison, scrambling up to standing and each grabbing one of his arms.
“You can’t just stop there!” Kip said, eyes pleading as much as his tone. “What about the princess?”
“And the knight!” Annabelle added, nodding enthusiastically. “We need to know!”
Thoster just shook his head and pulled them both closer to embrace them warmly. “You’ll hear their story in due time. But I won’t tell you a single word more of them ever again if you don’t get your room picked up and mind your sister while I’m gone tomorrow.” This earned another whine from his siblings.
“You’re always gone.” Annabelle pouted, climbing onto his knee without asking permission. Kip nodded, keeping his feet on the kitchen floorboards but agreeing with his sister.
“Aye, I know. But it’s all for the both of you. You know that, don’t you? It’s not that I don’t want to be home. I just don’t have much of a choice. We’ve got to eat, after all.” He didn’t like telling them much about their state, the way that their home and the food on their table was holding on by a thread. But he thought that they were owed at least something of an explanation about it all. They were as much a part of the family as he and Shay were, after all. It wasn’t as if he could rightfully keep them in the dark just because they were the youngest.
Kip nodded, clever boy that he was. “We know. We just miss you.” Thoster sighed and drew his brother in for an embrace, his other arm squeezing Annabelle tight and placing a kiss to the top of her head.
“I know you do. I miss you both, too. Terribly. And we’ll have plenty of time together soon enough. I just need to see to a few more things before then.”
Making their way into the market, Shaylee slipped her hand from Matt’s and walked a few steps ahead. She had a habit of doing this, not that Matt could ever mind. She took the lead, blazed her own trail. She had always been more independent than other women he knew. But that was part of what made him fall in love with her. He knew that he’d never find anyone like Shaylee Chatwyn.
People said it was a bit like watching her mother move through the streets of Merrowport, a stubborn chin jutted out to lead the way and a curtain of straw colored hair waving in the wind of her wake. She haggled as fiercely as any man, knew the fair price of goods and was not afraid to raise her voice to be heard above the crowd. Matt had learned early in their relationship that she was far better at this than he could ever hope to be. There was no shame in it for him, though. In fact, he took a certain level of amusement in seeing her at work. There was not an ounce of her being that he wasn’t madly in love with.
While she spoke to the butcher about the right cut of meat, Matt leaned his shoulder against a nearby wooden post and crossed his arms over his chest. He kept close, but also out of her way. A smile played on his lips as he watched her hands move to her hips, a sure sign of her voice raising, arguing her logic in the price she had presented. He could catch bits and pieces of what she was saying, enough to not be surprised when Shay and the butcher shook hands to seal their bargain.
The victory was short lived, however, as murmurs spread throughout the crowd. An unease crept up Matt’s spine, the sound of thundering footsteps causing his stomach to twist. Slowly, he stood straighter and let his arms fall to his side.
"Shaylee..." He spoke, but the sound was too quiet, the anxious feeling welling up in him too much to overcome right away. "Shay." This time he spoke up louder, not shouting, but the single syllable pierced the distance between them and caused her to turn. Confusion creased her brow, shaking her head at him. She wasn’t done here, and why on earth was he interrupting her?
Matthew had no chance to explain, no hope to say a thing before a large man appeared, grinning darkly at Matt as if he had found supper. The man stood easily head and shoulders above Matt, wearing simple brown leather with a patch roughly sewn on to mark him as a hired hand for the Akira clan. They were a roving clan, spread all across the six lands of Elysia. They were thieves at their hearts, but not all of them stole directly from your pocket. Matt’s father had struck a deal with one of them, a woman called Pava.
She was known throughout the southern lands as one of the harshest to borrow from, but her gold came quickly and in abundance. Matthew’s father owed her more than twice what his business was worth.
"Time to pay up, tailor." The large brute sneered as he raised a crude club and rested it against his shoulder. "Pava has been patient for the last time. Now you deal with me."
Matthew swallowed hard and tried to find his voice, but when he opened his mouth, it was Shaylee that spoke up before he could even try.
"Pava has plenty to feed the hungry mouths at her table. She can stand to wait a few more days." Shaylee’s voice was steady and cold. It was a side of her that rarely needed to be seen. For as much as she was nurturing and kind, she could be just as ruthless when it came to protecting the people she loved.
"You need a woman to fight for you, tailor? A coward like your father, then. Pava says what I cannot take in gold, I should take in flesh. Coward’s flesh will work just the same." When he smiled, jagged, yellowed teeth came into view. His chuckle echoed through Matt’s mind like a dark promise.
"Tomorrow." He sputtered out, keeping just behind Shaylee, trying to tilt his chin up with more confidence than he truly had. "I’ll have the money tomorrow." Shaylee glanced at him over her shoulder, nervous about just what he intended to do about all of this in one day’s time.
The brute snarled, his fingers adjusting and gripping tighter around his club while he thought it over. Slowly,he raised his arm, a sinister look crossing his face as the club was pulled over his head. For a moment, he paused, as if weighing the options of how best to pummel the two of them.
"Tomorrow, then." He continued to pull the club back, slipping it into a holster on his back. "But if you are lacking in gold by tomorrow’s time, tailor? Even your woman will not be able to save you." He glanced at Shaylee, giving her a lewd, appraising once over before he chuckled and turned to leave the market. The crowds parted to give him room to make a hasty exit, whispers echoing between smaller groupings, glances darting back towards Matt and Shaylee.
As soon as the hulking man was out of sight, Matt sagged against the nearest solid surface, his heart hammering in his chest. Looking at Shaylee, he noticed she still had her eyes trained on the path from which the brute had left. Her hands were curled into small fists. It was only then that he realized that his fiancé had actually intended to take on Pava’s thug. Knowing her, he wasn’t quite sure if it was so ridiculous to imagine her winning.
"Shay..." He called out to her quietly, reaching a hand towards her, coaxing her to step back with him, to breathe again. "He’s gone."
"Until tomorrow." She reminded him. Her thoughts drifted to the pile of gold that Thoster had brought home. Sadly, she knew that Matt’s father owed Pava twice that from years of wicked gambling. Besides, how could she ask her brother to give up all the gold he’d managed to fetch from this captain? It was the first boom their family had seen in ages. She couldn’t expect Thoster to just hand it off to another man just because he happened to be the man Shaylee loved. This was her problem, hers and Matt’s and no one else’s.
"I’ll--" Matt hesitated, shaking his head. "I’ll think of something. Old Lyle next door has been asking me to sell him the store for ages. Maybe he could-"
"Sell it? But it’s been in your family for generations!"
"A lot of good it’s done us." He said with a sigh, pushing his glasses up to rub at the bridge of his nose. "What good is the shop if I’m dead, Shay? I have no doubt Pava would have me killed for lack of payment. And she wouldn’t stop there. She’d come after you next, and then the little ones."
Pava wasn’t a cruel woman, normally, but she took her lending quite seriously. She considered it her own form of justice. There was nothing personal in her punishment. In fact, it was all rather calculated, structured. She had even allowed Matt a brief reprieve after his father died before she came to collect from him. In her eyes, that had been kindness. Shaylee knew he was right, as much as she hated to admit it.
"Let’s just finish getting everything for supper and we’ll talk about this more once the children are asleep." Shaylee needed time to think this one through, to come up with a way out of this that didn’t involve him giving up his livelihood...or his life.
While Annabelle and Kip worked to tidy the house before their sister came home, Thoster sat outside on the wooden railing around their small porch. He left the door cracked just enough to hear if the two of them got up to any mischief, but for the most part, his attention was directed to the slowly setting sun. The sky was washed in reds and purples peeking over the highest branches of the nearby trees. With the hour edging towards twilight, he knew it wouldn’t be long before Shaylee returned. The market would be closed by now, so it would only depend on how quickly his sister walked.
Glancing down, his fingers rubbed over the surface of a single gold piece from his purse. The rim of it was worn, some of the shine from the metal dulled by time and years of being passed from merchant to merchant. He wondered what sort of story a piece of gold might tell. How many dirty deeds had this coin been exchanged for? How many suitors had used it to buy a trinket for the person they loved? How many mothers bought something sweet to take home for their children?
As he pondered this, a low hum started in the back of his throat. For as long as he had known how to speak, Thoster had been singing. His mother always told it that his first words were sung, but he didn’t know how much of that was true. He found comfort in music, like an old friend you can turn to whenever you’re in need. The melody that came to him now was something new, something hopeful.
This coin could solve a lot of their problems. Joined with its brethren, he could make sure his family had everything they could possibly want. Books for Kip. A real sword for Annabelle. A proper house for Shaylee to start her life with Matt. As for Thoster? Well, he’d be happy just to have a warm meal and a soft bed to come home to every day. Seeing his family safe and happy took care of the rest.
"Working on a new song, Chatty?" Thoster’s quiet contemplation was interrupted by Berwyn’s sudden arrival. The man was too quiet for his own good, sneaking up on people even when he didn’t intend to do so.
"Something like that." He sat up straighter, slipping the coin back into his pocket and gesturing for his friend to take a seat on the rail beside him.
"Gonna need to pick something a little more upbeat if you want to get the crowds going." Berwyn quipped as he hopped up beside Thoster. His feet kicked, never content to be still for more than a moment. Thoster often wondered just how he managed to steal things without being caught, as he imagine Berwyn hated to hide, hated being still as the dead in a dark shadow of someone’s home. Perhaps it was better for Thoster to know less about those dubious deeds.
"Oh, and you’re the expert now, are you? I didn’t realize I needed musical advice from a thief."
"Hey, I’m just trying to help, Chatty. You know as well as I do that your best nights are when you get the whole tavern on their feet. That slow stuff’s real pretty, but you’re not going to make half as much that way." He gave a shrug, not meaning it as an insult. It was just the way of things.
"Not every song is meant to earn its weight in coin. Some just need to be sung." It was a concept that Thoster knew Berwyn would never understand. As important as earning money was to him, Thoster had too much respect for the music to see it only as a means to an end. If his melodies happened to earn him a few extra coin to take home, he was happy for it, but that wasn’t why he sang. He sang simply because it felt as though he was meant to do little else. His heart felt heavy when he went too long without a song on his lips.
Berwyn laughed, as if he had heard a terribly funny joke. The intensity of it shook this lithe frame, causing him to rock forward and nearly tumble off the railing.
"Ah, Chatty, you always make me laugh. Good lad." Berwyn gave his friend a quick pat on the back before he jumped off the railing and pointed down the road. "Your sister’s coming. Think I should hide inside and try to spook her."
"Now may not be the time for--" But before Thoster could finish, Berwyn was gone, dashing inside to find a hiding spot. Thoster turned to glance through the partially open door and saw his younger siblings cramming the small man into a cupboard. With a shake of his head and a tired laugh, he decided to let them have their fun. It wouldn’t be his head that took a thumping when the prank was pulled.
"The Princess and the knight return victorious!" Thoster said with a broad smile, arms outstretched to greet Shaylee and Matt as they stepped up towards the house. "Slay any dragons while you were out?"
"I’m no more a princess than you are a wizard, brother. I take it you’ve given them their story?" Thoster nodded and held the door open for them, peeking around the corner to make sure Annabelle and Kip weren’t giving away Berwyn’s location straight off. He did his part to protest the stunt, as a good brother should, but in truth, he liked seeing Shaylee shriek just as much as his friend.
Once inside, Shaylee moved to unload the food they had purchased from the market, grabbing a knife to begin cutting the vegetables. There was quite a spread, from what Thoster could see from across the room. It was amazing the sort of meal you could make when you had money to pay for it.
"Matt, get that chicken on the fire, dear. I’ll start working on the--oh!" At that moment, Berwyn rolled out of the cupboard, twisting his frame to push off the floorboards and jump up to standing at her side. The shock on Shaylee’s face was priceless. Annabelle and Kip clapped from the other side of the room while Thoster hid a smile with a cough.
"Forgot to tell you we have a guest tonight." Thoster did his best to keep a straight face, but amusement crinkled at the corners of his eyes. "There’s plenty of food, I’m sure."
"Plenty more when I cook us up some fresh elven meat, isn’t there?" She narrowed her eyes and held the knife, pointed right at him. "You should know better than to scare me when I’m so close to a sharp knife, Bernie." Shaylee had taken to calling him by the nickname when they were children. She meant for it to annoy him, but he was never much bothered by it. There had been a time when Thoster wondered if Berwyn fancied his older sister, but he found that the only thing Berwyn really fancied was getting under Shaylee’s skin. He was a trickster at heart, but they all loved him for it, or in spite of it, in some cases.
"Ah, you’re not gonna hurt me, Shay! You’d probably kill me if you tried, and you’d miss me to much if I was gone." He grinned at her, dusting off his trousers before moving towards the table. Annabelle was quick to run to his side, insisting on having the seat next to him, as she always did. She even put both arms on the table and cradled her face in both hands to mimic his posture. Seeing the pair of them like that, Shaylee couldn’t help but smile, despite her best efforts to keep her scowl firmly in place.
"So what’s for dinner?" Berwyn quipped. The question seemed to settle the group back into the evening rhythm. Matt finished his job with the chicken, setting it up over the fire to cook. Shaylee continued her work with the vegetables while Thoster saw to setting the table. They were quick and efficient at their tasks, having done these jobs and worked together in this way for some time. Even before Matt and Shaylee were officially together, Matt came over to help with the young ones. It was just his way, good man that he was. Thoster appreciated everything he had done for their family. He only wished he had some way to help with his troubles while still providing for his siblings at the same time.
As the family sat down to eat that night, Thoster was quieter than normal. There were enough people at the table to keep conversation going, so his voice wasn’t much missed, but he could tell that his mind was distracted, his thoughts far from their little home. The day’s events seemed too good to be true. So much money for such a piddly job. He had to wonder if the unease in his gut was simply nerves at the great unknown that awaited him, or if his luck had swung too far in one direction, and the fall would swiftly follow.