9588 words (38 minute read)

Chapter 4

The day was half over by the time Thoster awoke. The low light outside was due to the sun beginning to set rather than rise. It was disorienting, to say the least, as was the pounding headache that he was greeted with. He was most surprised by the fact that his siblings hadn’t awoken him ages ago, but he could only assume that Shaylee had done her part to keep them occupied, promising them anything under the sun to be quiet and play outside so that he could sleep. That theory was only solidified as he heard the sound of the pair of them bounding into the house and rushing for his door now that he had stirred enough to make a bit of noise as he sat up in bed.

Thoster only had the space of a few breaths to brace himself as both Annabelle and Kip came flying into his room, jumping onto his bed and shaking him excitedly.

“You slept forever!” Annabelle exclaimed as she jumped on the bed to the left of him.

“I don’t think it was quite forever, little one. But it was some time, yes. I needed the sleep, you see. It’s the only way I could dream up new stories for the pair of you.” The mention of stories seemed to remind them of something, both of their eyes going wide.

“Shaylee said you would tell us a story tonight.” Kip said with a solemn nod, as if he needed to be extra serious or Thoster may not believe him. Thoster could only laugh and ruffle the boy’s hair.

“Did she now? Well, she’s right. I planned on telling you both a fantastic story that I was told in the fairy world of dreams. But… supper first. You know the rules.”

The pair of them made little whining noises, but nodded their agreement. It was the only bargaining chip Thoster had at his disposal, keeping them in line in order to hear a good story. He could only hope that the one he had to tell tonight would be worth the wait. Right now, his head was pounding as if horses were galloping over his temple at an alarming rate.

“Go on.” He urged, shooing the both of them off his bed. “The quicker you leave me, the quicker I’ll be out to sit and eat with you.” He wanted to change out of yesterday’s clothing, to splash some water on his face, and for the love of all that was holy, he wanted to get some fresh air and clear his head of this throbbing pain.

Annabelle nodded and pulled Kip along with her, scooting towards the door with a fistful of her brother’s collar. They still had a few chores to complete before Shaylee would be finished with the cooking. If they were quick about it, they could have everything finished and have nothing else to do tonight but beg for stories from Thoster.

As the door closed behind them, Thoster let out a heavy sigh, letting his eyes shut again briefly, but not daring to let sleep claim him once more. He knew that his next awakening would be in the form of a cold bucket of water. Shaylee was not fond of anyone being late for supper, no matter how hard they may have worked the night prior. Shifting to sit at the edge of his bed, Thoster rubbed one hand roughly over his face, chasing off the final bits of his sleepy haze. He pressed himself up to standing and moved to find a new pair of trousers and a clean shirt to slip over his worn body.

As he tugged off the prior night’s garments, it was only then that he noticed he was wearing leather bracers on his wrists. He examined them, curious about just where they had come from. Cal’s ship, no doubt, but why did he have them? He briefly wondered if he had stolen them by accident, but there was no way that would have gone by unnoticed, was there? Peering at them, he noticed that the style and color of thread was similar to the coat Cal had been wearing when they first met. Perhaps they had been a gift. That would certainly make more sense than any other option. Tugging them off, Thoster slipped them under a stack of clean clothing and told himself that it was something to be sorted another day.

Once dressed, he moved as quietly as he could out of his room and down the hall to the back door. By now, he knew every floorboard that creaked between the threshold of his room and the rear exit of his home. He had been sneaking out for years. As a boy, he had done it so that he could go down to the taverns and listen to the fisherman tell stories of their latest travels. They let him sit at their tables so long as he ran to pick up their drinks from the barman and hand off their gold pieces to pay their share before they stumbled up to bed for the night. His mother hated that he did it, but Thoster considered it another form of education, one that was worth more than a thousand books.

Now, as he slipped quietly out the back of his family home, Thoster just wanted a few moments to himself. After everything that had happened the night prior, he had much to think about. The crew that he had worked with were good people. They were terrifying in their own ways, of course, but that was simply part of working with their lot, wasn’t it? The gold was what he was after, and the stories. Jackson was a good man, eager to do good work, to see his strength and size used for the good of the crew. He was a simple man, Thoster thought, but simple wasn’t so bad. There were many more cunning villains out there. Jackson had the right idea, just doing right by his people. Tyrek was the quietest of them, a mystery to Thoster, still, but clearly a man with a noble heart. He couldn’t help but wonder what had caused him to leave his dwarven brethren. Thoster imagined there was a story there. Linn, of course, was the most intriguing by far. A Silvertongue in Merrowport! He couldn’t have imagined it in his wildest dreams. But then there was Vashile. He thought of the way that she had run the group of them, how she commanded them with her presence, demanded respect with a single glance. Thoster had never met a woman like her. Not even Shaylee struck a fear in him like Vashile did, but there was a part of him that was glad to be afraid. He wasn’t quite sure what that meant.

Lost in his thoughts, Thoster didn’t notice the way the door behind him slowly opened and closed again. He didn’t hear soft footsteps as they moved around the soft grass that surrounded the house in small tufts. He didn’t see a nervous hand that reached up until the sleeve of his shirt was tugged twice, pulling him out of his reverie.

Startled, Thoster looked down and blinked, looking confused as his brother Kip looked back up at him with large, intense eyes. Kip wasn’t much for words, at least not those spoken. He was better with a quill in his hand, scrawling out notes on something he had read days prior. As his surprise wore off, Thoster’s mouth curved into a smile.

“I thought you were helping your sisters.” He said, keeping his voice down, so as not to give away that they were both out back while there was work to be done before supper. He knew that Kip wasn’t the sort to avoid his share of the household chores, but he couldn’t help but wonder just what had drawn the boy out here when he had just told them to wait for him to join them.

“I was, but…” He trailed off, glancing down briefly, as if not quite sure how to phrase it.

“Yes?” Thoster prompted, patient for his brother to work it out in his own time. Kip was a gentler soul than most, too clever for his own good, but not made for the rough and tumble sort of life that Thoster knew. They were bound by blood, and Thoster would do anything for the boy, but if he was being entirely honest, there was a great deal about Kip’s mind that made little sense to Thoster. They simply didn’t see the world in the same way.

“You left last night, didn’t you?” Kip finally managed, not accusing Thoster of anything, but simply looking for confirmation. “Annabelle was asleep, but I heard you, and I followed--”

“You what?” Thoster interjected, turning suddenly and looking down at him with something closer to anger than he really intended.

“Not far!” Kip insisted, looking a little panicked. “Just to the end of the road. You turned to head towards town, so I came back. I just wanted to make sure you were okay, or to see just what it is that you do when we’re sleeping. You’ve always got the best stories, and I… I just wanted to see one for myself. I stayed up, listening for you, but you didn’t come home. Not until after I fell back asleep, at least.”

Thoster sighed and looked up at the evening sky, the purples and pinks of the setting sun mixing into a brilliant shade that had no true name. He couldn’t fault his brother for being curious, could he? He had helped to foster that curiosity, had told the boy stories for as many hours as his voice would allow. He had painted pictures of fantastic adventures and brave warriors, of treasure that needed to be sought out and captured. Thoster had made the world out to be a wondrous place, so was it any surprise that his brother had crept out into the night and followed him, hoping to catch a glimpse of a real story without needing to be told of it, second hand.

“Kip, you can’t go sneaking out like--”

“Like you just did? They don’t know you’re out here. Shay thinks you fell back asleep and plans to come kick you in another few minutes.” There was no defiance in the boy’s tone. They were simply facts that he was delivering to prove his point.

“That’s different.” Thoster insisted, eyebrows raising as he did his best to have a fatherly sort of tone. He was about twice Kip’s age, which meant close to nothing when it came to a battle of wits. When it came to proving a point, there was no besting the young lad.

“I wasn’t hurt, and I didn’t go any further than Annie and I are allowed to when we come out to play. I wouldn’t have had to leave at all if you had told me where you were going. I’m not a baby, Thoster.” His expression became firmer, and Thoster could see shadows of the man Kip would become. He saw the boyish features shifting, frame growing. He would always be thin, Thoster imagined, with long limbs and sharp features. It was strange to think of, but he knew that the day would be upon them, sooner rather than later. They would know Kip as a man, while the boy was a distant memory.

“That you aren’t.” Thoster said, placing a hand to his brother’s shoulder. “I seem to forget that from time to time. It wasn’t that long ago that mother brought you home and I tried to convince her to send you back.” The words drew another smile from him. -- It was a story that he had told too many times to count by now, the way he had first reacted to having a younger sibling. Now, it seemed funny to think of a time when he wouldn’t adore having his younger brother and sister at this side, but when he was much younger, the idea of it had been the worst thing he could have ever imagined.

“Lucky for me that mother knew better than to listen to you.” He said with a smile of his own. Kip’s smiles were rare these days. As a young boy, they had come easily, but after their mother’s passing, it took a great deal to coax it out of him. Thoster imagined it was part of why Shaylee kept Kip and Annabelle together as often as she did. Their youngest sibling was much more carefree, which likely came from barely remembering she ever had a mother at all. Kip had been just old enough to remember what life was like before the illness came.

“Aye, lucky for all of us.” He agreed, reaching his hand up to ruffle his brother’s hair. “Now what do you say we go find the girls and make sure they don’t need our help, hm?” Kip nodded and they both headed inside. The door was barely closed for more than a second’s passing before Shaylee appeared in the hallway.

“And what exactly do the pair of you think that you’re doing?” Her gaze shifted from Thoster to Kip and back again. Thoster cleared his throat and gave his sister a nervous smile.

“Just having a chat. Man to man.” It wasn’t a lie, really, but it wasn’t exactly the truth. Shaylee gave a small roll of her eyes and turned, motioning for them to follow her.

“The table needs to be set. Kip, you know it’s your turn for it.” Kip nodded and hurried forward, slipping past Shaylee like a ghost, barely ruffling her skirt as he moved into the main room of the house to get plates for supper. Before Thoster could join him, Shaylee moved her arm out and stopped him in his tracks.

“Is he alright?” Shaylee had a tendency to worry over Kip more than the others. Annabelle was always talking about things she thought or felt, and she knew better than to worry too much about Thoster, seeing as he took care of himself for the most part, but Kip was so quiet. She hardly knew what to think when it came to him.

“He’s fine, Shay. He just wanted to check in on me. Seems to be something of a family trait.” He nudged her ribs with his elbow, gently teasing. “You don’t need to worry about him, you know. He’s a clever young lad, and he’s going to become one hell of a man. He’ll be alright.”

Shaylee didn’t seem so sure, but there was little she could do about it right now. She only hoped that she was doing her mother proud in the way that she was raising her younger siblings. So much had fallen on her shoulders when their mother had passed. She wouldn’t have it any other way, but gods there were times when she wondered if she was making all the wrong choices.

Sensing her hesitation, Thoster leaned over and pressed a kiss to the top of his older sister’s head. They didn’t talk much about the responsibilities they shared ever since their mother died. It was something left unspoken but understood between them. Shay had taken on the brunt of it. All Thoster really did was try to keep enough gold in their pockets to buy food. He didn’t see that as much of a task at all. Shaylee was the one who held their family together.

“She’d be proud, you know.” He said quietly, knowing that she needed to hear it right now. “Of you. Of us.” The four of them, sticking together through everything. Alice Chatwyn saw family as the ultimate priority. Nothing else mattered so long as you had family. It was part of why she could never settle down and choose just one man. None of them were good enough to be part of her family, none of them would measure up.

“I hope so.” Shaylee responded, her voice little more than a whisper. For all the ways that she exuded confidence, this was one area where Shaylee felt a bit less sure of herself. She wanted only the best for her siblings, so it was important to her that she give them everything she could muster, even at the expense of herself.

Thoster gave her a gentle smile and a nod, urging her to keep walking so that they could join the younger ones before they found some trouble to get into. She didn’t fight him on it, putting on a smile before she stepped out of the hall and into the kitchen.

The room was full of a mouth watering scent, chicken roasting away on the fire. Kip was working on the last of the table setting task he had been given. Annabelle was putting away the toy swords she had pulled out earlier in the day. It was the picture of exactly what Thoster was doing his best to preserve. As he took his normal seat, Thoster glanced around the room, a bit confused.

“Is Matt not joining us tonight?” He asked. The man was at supper nearly every night. It was almost troubling to not see him already at the table, awaiting Shaylee’s delicious meal.

“He had to work late.” Shaylee explained, not meeting her brother’s gaze. It raised more than a little alarm, considering the trouble he knew Matt was in these days. He wouldn’t get into it with Kip and Annabelle in the room, but there was more to the story, he was sure of it. Instead of saying any of that, he just nodded once and let the matter drop.

“More for us then, hm?” Smiling wide, Thoster’s response drew a laugh out of Annabelle who hurried to the table to sit beside him. Thoster lifted her chin up with one finger, examining her face.

“Did you wash up, lass?” He asked, seeing a few smudges on her cheeks.

“No, but--” Annabelle started to protest, but one look from her oldest brother caused her mouth to snap shut. Her lower lip jutted out in an exaggerated pout.

“Don’t give me that look. It’s gotten you your way plenty before, but it won’t work on me. Now go.” He pointed her in the direction of a small basin of water in the corner of the kitchen. With a huff, Annabelle hopped down from her chair and moved to go scrub her hands and face clean.

A moment later, the front door to the home flew open without warning. Thoster jumped up from his seat in an instant, ready to jump into action and fight an intruder if he needed to. He wasn’t sure just what he would fight them with or what skills he would use to do so, but he hoped that instinct would take over at some point.

It wasn’t an intruder though, or at least not an unwelcome one. Matt stumbled across the threshold, collapsing on the hard wooden floor, his face beaten bloody, clothes torn. Staring at the sight, Thoster couldn’t move at first, too shocked at the sight of the man. Shaylee, however, was there immediately, falling to her knees and turning him over to his back so that she could look at his face.

“Matt? Oh, what did you do? I told you not to talk to them... “ She touched his face gently, blood staining her palms, but she hardly noticed it. Matt drew in rasping breaths, each one sounding more labored than the last.

“Thoster- water. He needs water.” Nodding to his sister’s instruction, Thoster hurried to fetch some water and a rag to clean him up if she wanted to make an attempt at that. This was Pava’s work, he assumed. There was no one else who would think to harm a kind soul like Matt. Coming back with the water and the rag, he handed both to his sister who thanked him quietly before she tried to coax Matt to take a small drink.

As soon as the water passed his lips, Matt sputtered, droplets of blood and water erupting from him, hitting Shaylee’s dress. His body lurched upwards slightly as his mind seemed to slip in and out of consciousness.

Glancing over, Thoster noticed that Annabelle and Kip were huddled in the far corner of the room, trying to stay out of the way. He could only imagine what thoughts were running through their minds. Moving over towards them, Thoster knelt and put a hand on each of their shoulders.

“It’s alright. He’s going to be alright. But why don’t you two go to your room so that Shaylee and I can take care of this, hm? I’ll be by in a few minutes to check on you.” He spoke in a soft, low tone, trying to keep his voice as calm as possible to try to soothe the fear he knew was likely running rampant in their young minds.

Kip nodded, and without a word, he took Annabelle’s hand and guided the both of them back to their shared bedroom. Thoster wondered just how much his brother would have to grow up before his time, just how many moments like this he would see before the gods decided he had seen enough pain.

Once the younger ones were safely tucked away, Thoster turned back to Shaylee. Crouching at her side, he put a hand to her shoulder.

“Do you want me to fetch the cleric?” They had money to pay for it now, so there wasn’t much use in waiting. Shaylee gave a tearful nod, unable to say a word. She could only hope that they weren’t too late.

Thoster gave her shoulder a brief squeeze before he rushed out the open door, running full speed through the quiet streets. He didn’t stop for breath until he was at the doors of the church. Raising a hand, he knocked loudly, hoping that there was at least one of the clergy at the ready to help them. A moment later, the large wooden door creaked open and an older, elven man peered out.

“Please. A friend of mine is badly hurt. Can you help?” He worried that this man appeared too frail to run back with him, that time would be lost getting back to their home, that Matt would bleed out on the floor before a single ounce of magic could be used to save his life.

“Of course, young man.” The elder cleric said, opening the door wider and stepping outside. He wore the traditional gray robes of his order and carried a tall staff with the symbol of Wrynell, the patron god of Merrowport. “Where is this injured friend?”

“Back at my home. I can take you, but we must hurry.” Panic crept into Thoster’s voice, but the cleric just shook his head and held out his free hand.

“Wrynell is a god of travel, boy. Simply take my hand and think of where I am needed. We will be there.”

For all that Thoster told stories of magic and adventure, he wasn’t exactly an expert on the subject. The trick Vashile had pulled to silence him on the docks was his first true experience with magic being used on him. This would now be the second. It seemed his life was growing more interesting by the moment. The hesitation in his gaze only lasted for a moment before he put his hand firmly into the cleric’s and gave a nod. His eyes shut and he imagined home, just as he left it.

There was a tugging sensation in the pit of his gut, like something within him was being yanked in all directions at once. With his eyes still closed, he saw darkness and light, all colors and none. He felt like the air was yanked from his lungs in a vast emptiness that expanded into eternity. The feeling only lasted a moment before he heard the familiar creak of the kitchen floorboards and the surprised gasp of his sister. Thoster’s eyes opened and he realized that it had worked. He was home. The old elf gently guided Thoster out of his way so that he could kneel beside Shaylee to get a look at Matt and his injuries.

“You found me just in time.” He said with a grim look. -- “He’ll survive, but that was not the intention.” He raised his eyes to Shaylee, trying to impart on her the seriousness of the situation. With tears in her eyes, all she could do was nod.

“Please…” She pleaded with the cleric, “Please save him. I don’t know what I would do--”

“You won’t need to find out, child.” He said with a nod as he raised a hand over Matt’s injured frame. A blue light spread from his palm, enveloping his hand and moving towards the injuries. Before their eyes, Matt’s flesh began to knit itself back together. Blood still stained his skin, but no new drops poured from broken skin. His bones shifted as they moved back in place, mending the cracks that a heavy hand had caused. A relieved moan slipped past Matt’s lips as his body felt the effects and his mind could catch up. Slowly, his eyes fluttered open and the light from the cleric’s palm began to fade.

“Shaylee..?” He croaked out as his gaze turned to find her. All Shaylee could do was let out a small laugh of relief, her hand smoothing over his cheek as she rocked the both of them.

“I’m right here.” She whispered before turning her gaze to the cleric and reaching for his hand. “Thank you.”

The old man nodded and gave her a gentle smile before standing. Thoster was there to help him up, only just pulling himself out of the shock of the whole ordeal. He had never seen anything like that. The clerics that had treated his mother had come too late to be able to use powers like that. The disease had taken too deep of a hold, or so they had told him. Thoster now wondered if maybe they had just gone to the wrong cleric. This one made it all seem so easy. Leading the old man outside, Thoster closed the door behind him before he tried to bring up the next important question.

“How much do we owe you?” He knew that he had money, but clerics’ services didn’t come cheap, and he had a feeling that the sort of work that this one just did would cost quite a bit.

“Five hundred.” He said with a grim nod. It was clear to Thoster that he didn’t enjoy this part of things, but he imagined that being part of a church put him in a tough spot. “If you don’t have it now, we can work something out. You seem an honest fellow.”

“I have it.” He said, waving a hand. The last thing their family needed was more debt looming over their heads. “I just need to go get it from inside. Wait here.” Without another word, Thoster moved back into the house, quietly slipping past Shaylee and Matt, who had now moved to the table, sitting in a pair of chairs. Shay was still fretting over him, mopping the blood from his face with the rag he had brought her. Thoster moved to grab the coin purse Cal had given him, digging around to pull out a few coins to keep for their family, enough to get by for a few more meals. The rest, he sealed off and carried back outside with him.

“This should cover it.” He said, trying not to think about how it was all they had, all that their future had rested on, and now it was gone. The cause was good, surely, but it didn’t make it any easier to watch it slip away.

“May the gods watch over your family.” The cleric said, taking the coin purse with a gracious nod before he disappeared with the same magic that had brought them back to the Chatwyn home in the first place.

Alone, Thoster let out a shaky breath and tried to tell himself that it would be alright, that they would find something to keep them afloat until Cal called him for the next job. He still had some of their mother’s jewelry that he could sell, after all. There was always a few coin to be earned from singing at the taverns, as well. It wasn’t much, though. It had barely kept them afloat for all these years. He had just gotten used to the idea of maybe not needing to struggle for the next meal, to be able to breathe a little easier.

Using the gold to make sure Matt kept breathing at all was a suitable use of it, though. He wouldn’t regret that choice for all his years. Shaylee would have been devastated if Matt had died. Thoster couldn’t imagine allowing that to happen if it was in his power to change it. Taking a deep breath, he told himself that it would be tomorrow’s problem and headed back inside.

“--come back, Shay. You know, Pava. She’s not going to give up so easily.” As Thoster entered, he caught the tail end of what Matt was saying, but it wasn’t anything he didn’t already know. Shaylee glanced up, tears still on her cheeks from the night’s events.

“Keep your voices down. The little ones are just in the other room.” He said, shaking his head.

Shaylee nodded, agreeing with him that they couldn’t talk about this right now. Standing from her chair, she went to check on the food that was still on the fire. It would be a bit dry, but not inedible. While she did that, Thoster went back to check on his younger siblings. He knocked on the door to their bedroom before slowly opening it.

The pair of them were settled on Kip’s bed with a blanket wrapped around them. Kip had one of his books out and was reading quietly while Annabelle leaned her head on his shoulder. As the door cracked open, they both glanced up with worried expressions.

“He’s alright.” Thoster said immediately, knowing that they would want to know that first. “A bit tired, but we got him patched up, just like I said we would.” He gave them both a smile, trying to seem less frazzled by the ordeal than he truly was.

“Can we…” Annabelle sniffed and rubbed at her eyes, wiping away a few tears. “Can we see him?”

“He’s staying for supper, so I think you can do more than just see him. You can talk with him, too, but you must both promise me that you won’t ask him about what happened. I don’t think he wants to think about it right now. Can you do that for me?” They both nodded. “Of course you can. Never met a better lass or lad in all my days.” He reached out both of his hands so that they could each take one, leading them both out to the table.

It was a somber evening meal. Any conversation that was had seemed quieter, dulled by the weight of what they had experienced. The children were the most well behaved they had ever been, and honestly it was unsettling for Thoster. He would have given anything for one of them to throw a piece of food at the other, just to see that they weren’t losing part of the spark of light within them.

After supper was finished, Shaylee and Matt retreated to her room to talk while Thoster cleaned up the plates and cups. Annabelle and Kip sat quietly at the table, waiting for him to finish. When the job was half done, he stopped and looked at them, neither of them talking, just staring at their hands in their lap. It broke his heart to look at them like that, to know that the reality of the world had brought them to such a low place for the night. Stepping away from his cleaning, he resolved himself to leaving the job half done as he cleared his throat.

“I think you’ve earned an extra long story tonight. Why don’t we get the pair of you into bed and I’ll see if I can deliver my best one yet, hm?” They both sat up straighter, a bit of the light returning to their eyes. All Thoster wanted was to see that rekindled as best he could. They were too young to know how cruel the world really was. They should only be worried about the fate of a princess trapped in the tallest tower of the castle. They didn’t need to be worried about if a dear family friend would collapse dead on their floor before the evening meal.

Thoster helped the both of them change into night clothes and got them settled into bed before he pulled up a chair between their beds and let out a long breath.

“Have I ever told you two about the greatest magic users in all of Rinall? They’re a people called the Silvertongues, and there was a time when they were more powerful than kings, richer than any other soul in all of the six lands. You see, the Silvertongues could make anyone do anything they liked with just a whisper of a word. And I? Well, I’ve met one…”

Once the two of them were sound asleep, Thoster left the room, closing the door softly behind him. Pausing by Shaylee’s door, he could hear the whispered argument his sister was having with Matt.

“You can’t go back home, Matt. Once they realize you survived, they won’t stop until they’ve finished the job.” Shaylee’s voice was strained, holding back new tears.

“I can’t stay here, Shay. I can’t risk them coming after you or the little ones. You know I have to go back. Just to pick up a few things. After that, I’ll have to leave Merrowport for awhile. They’ll forget about me soon enough. I’ll write to you once I find a town to settle in. Maybe this will be good. We could start over, you and me.” For as much as he tried to sound convincing, it was easy to hear that Matt didn’t really mean it. Merrowport was the only home he knew, and he had no desire to see another part of the world.

Thoster’s hand rested against the door, palm flat against the rough wood grain, but he dared not knock to announce his presence. He knew a way to fix this, but if he offered it, he was sure Shaylee would refuse.

Quickly and quietly, Thoster slipped through the house and back outside. The cool night air greeted him once more, pushing gently at his back as he moved along the empty streets of town, into the heart of the city.

Without a job planned for tonight, Thoster knew there was a good chance that he could find Cal at the local taverns, enjoying a strong drink with his crew or placing bets on games with locals. They had first met in the tavern, after all, even if Thoster hadn’t realized that he was talking to a captain at the time.

He moved with purpose, jaw clenched tight as he walked briskly through the city he knew so well, taking a few shortcuts as he neared the tavern. As he turned down a final alley, a dark figure jumped in front of him, stopping him dead in his tracks.

“Just where do you think you’re going, Chatty?” Even in the dark of night, Thoster could recognize the familiar look and sound of his best friend. The half elf was in all black, as he always seemed to be, with a hood up to cover his long hair and pale face. The moonlight above caught in Berwyn’s blue eyes, making them appear all the more mischievous for it.

“I don’t have time right now, Berwyn.” Another night, he might be more jovial, but right now, he was on task.

“Ooh, something serious, eh? Well, come on! Out with it. You know you can trust your old friend to help. Anything you need, Chatty. You know how it goes.” For all that Berwyn was a no good thief, he was loyal to his friends, and Thoster knew that when an offer like that was extended, he meant it with everything he was.

“Family’s in a bit of trouble, that’s all.” He said with a sigh, shaking his head as he tried to think of how to phrase it without spilling too much of Matt’s business out in the open air. “I’m going to look for that ship captain to see if he has another job for me, to try to earn a little more coin to help us out.”

“More than you had before?” Berwyn let out a low whistle. “Must be some sort of trouble. Well, no sense wasting time. We’ve got a captain to find.”

“We?” Thoster shook his head again. “This is my business, Berwyn.”

“And your business is my business. Don’t be stupid, Chatty. You really think I’m going to just go strolling down the road while I know you need help? I know you wouldn’t turn your back on me if I needed help, so fair’s fair.”

The half elf had him there. Thoster didn’t like the sound of involving anyone else in this, but Berwyn offered a particular skill set that Thoster just didn’t have, so maybe it would open up some other options when he talked to Cal about trying to do some work for him. Reluctantly, Thoster nodded and pointed down the alley.

“I know he likes the Sparrow’s Nest. That’s where we met before to discuss business. I’m hoping he’ll be there tonight and be in the mood to chat about it again.” It was his only hope in making this right, in saving Matt’s life and his sister’s future. He couldn’t imagine how Shaylee would cope with Matt leaving town, with the idea of not knowing when she would see him next. She was a strong woman, but there wasn’t much that could be done when a broken heart does its best to break your spirit as well.

The pair walked the short distance to the tavern, stepping inside and glancing around at the bustling crowd. At night, the establishment was always busy, people of all types filling the tables and filling their bellies with drink. Most evenings, the sea of faces meant a good night for Thoster, a good chance that he could find more than a few patrons who would pay him to sing a few songs. Tonight, it brought about a sense of panic, as he couldn’t quickly spot any of the crew, let alone the captain.

“Thoster!” A gruff voice from the back of the poorly lit tavern drew his attention. Standing on a chair was Tyrek, the dwarven fellow that had been on the last job with him. His hammer was nowhere in sight, replaced with a large mug of ale. Even from a distance, Thoster could see that the man’s cheeks were dusted pink from the effects of alcohol. Giving Berwyn a nod, he pressed forward into the crowd, making their way back towards the table where the dwarf was seated.

“Glad to see you Tyrek. I was hoping to find you and the others.” He didn’t have time for many pleasantries, not when they were on borrowed time. -- “Is the captain around?”

“Ah, he’s around here somewhere. Think he went out back to help Jackson clean himself up. Poor boy can’t hold his ale as well as some of us. But don’t tell him I told you that. He’s very sensitive about it.” He gave an exaggerated wink, as if he was imparting some secret that was to be guarded with one’s own life. Thoster, sadly didn’t have the luxury to see the humor in it.

“I see. Berwyn, why don’t you stay here and join my friend in a drink. I’ll just be a moment.” Berwyn looked as though he wanted to protest, but Tryek was already ordering the half elf a mug of ale. Turning down free anything just wasn’t in the cards for the little thief. Begrudgingly, he sat down and began to chat up the dwarf while Thoster moved towards the back door.

The alley behind the tavern was poorly lit and poorly maintained. Old remnants of half eaten dishes and soiled papers lined the alley way, the worst of the filth of the city made its way to this spot, but even through the muck and the stench, Thoster found what he was looking for. Two shadowy figures stood a few feet away, one leaning heavily against the wall while the other braced the larger form. Stepping closer, Thoster’s eyes adjusted and he eventually could make out the unique coat that Cal always seemed to wear. Jackson’s large frame was easy enough to spot as well. He gently cleared his throat to announce his presence.

“Hate to interrupt, but I was hoping to have a word with you, captain.” Both men glanced up at the same time. Jackson’s face was pale, mouth hanging open as a bit of vomit clung to his lower lip. His palms were both pressed flat to the outer wall of the tavern, panting as his stomach lurched again, spewing new filth onto the stonework of the alleyway..

“Now isn’t really a good time, lad.” Cal said with a laugh as he gently patted Jackson’s back. Thoster wondered if the captain was always this way with his crew. He would almost say it was fatherly, the way that Cal was taking care of his man, making sure that he wasn’t going to pass out from exhaustion or dehydration as he emptied the contents of his stomach at his feet.

“Won’t take long at all. It’s important, though. Wouldn’t be bothering you if it wasn’t.” Thoster tried to stress that, to make it very clear that he truly did need to speak with the captain, not just want an audience with him.

Cal stared at him for a long moment, as if searching his eyes for some sort of answer. Whatever he found there must have been in Thoster’s favor, because he gave a quick nod of his head before patting Jackson on the back.

“I’ll be back for you, lad. Just give us a moment.” Stepping away, Cal reached for Thoster’s shoulder to guide him to turn around and walk down the alley, towards the front of the tavern. Once there, he folded his arms over his chest and raised both eyebrows, asking a silent question and impatient for the answer.

“I need to work. And soon. Whatever job you’ve got, I’ll take. I’ve got a friend of mine with me who’s good with… acquisitions, as it were.” He tried to delicately give Berwyn’s thieving credentials without saying it in so many words. “But anything you need, I’m your man. I just need to work.”

“You came all this way just to tell me you want to work for me?” Cal blinked and looked a little annoyed by the realization. “I already told you that I would come to you if I was in need of your services.”

“I know, but something’s come up. I need to work now if I can. I figured I would ask you first. If you can’t help me, that’s fine, but it means I’d have to start looking elsewhere, which would mean I may not be around when you do need me.” It was a bold move, trying to back Cal into a corner like that, but it was all he had going for him right now. This was his only shot.

Cal was silent, studying Thoster with cold, dark eyes that seemed to swallow up what little light the street had to offer from the nearby torches. Thoster felt suddenly small, like a child who was about to be scolded for speaking out of turn. He had to fight the urge not to apologize. Thoster could see now why Cal was such an effective captain. He couldn’t imagine any of his crew stepping out of line when he had the ability to give them a look like that.

“I may have something.” Cal said finally, his voice calm and even. “But it won’t be an easy task. I was looking for the right crew. You and your friend will do nicely, but if you’re going to do it, you’re doing it alone. None of mine are suited for it, which is why I wasn’t sure just how to get the job done.”

“What’s the job?” Thoster wasn’t sure if he wanted to know. It sounded as though it was something much more dangerous than he really wanted to involve himself with. He didn’t have much choice right now, though. And Berwyn would agree to anything if the price was right and Thoster asked.

“There’s another ship docked here that belongs to a woman by the name of Gwyn Cinderhorn. She owes me a great deal of gold, but thinks that she can keep it hidden away at her sister’s home here in Merrowport. I just learned that she arrived this evening and plans to bring a great deal of coin and gems to store here instead of paying me what is mine.”

“So you want me to collect her debt to you.” It seemed a bit dirty, considering the fact that he was doing this to try to clear Matt’s debts from Pava, but he wasn’t really in a position to be picky. This seemed like a different situation entirely, though, as this woman apparently had the means to pay Cal back but just chose not to do so.

“Is that a problem?” Cal asked, head tilting a bit as he studied Thoster’s response.

“None at all. Just looking to make sure we’re on the same page. Just how much does she owe you?”

“Five thousand gold pieces.” He snarled the words out, as if the very mention of it made his blood boil. “It was meant to be a gesture of goodwill between our ships, but she’s gone sour on the deal. I am not a cruel man, Thoster, but I do take my business quite seriously.”

It was hard not to wonder just what Cal would have done if Thoster had decided to run with the money he had been given for the first job. He never would have, of course, but Cal had no way of knowing that. Was that part of the fun for the captain? Seeing just what people were made of and testing them like that? Thoster had to shake off the thoughts and focus on the task at hand.

“I’ll get your gold back, captain. Just tell me who her sister is and I’ll be sure to find her and fetch it for you.” He didn’t know any Cinderhorns, so he assumed the sister was married or had some other family name tied to her own.

“Lucia Danill.” He said simply. “Her husband is a fisherman. They live very modestly. All part of Gwyn’s rouse, I’m sure. I’m told they live quite close to here. I was just about to see if her husband was in the tavern when Jackson started having trouble, so we stepped outside. Perhaps you’ve saved me the trouble. Take your friend and go pay Lucia a visit. If she’s a smart woman, she’ll hand over the gold without any trouble. If she’s not? Well, I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

Thoster didn’t dare think that the captain meant for him to actually harm the woman. She was just a means to harbor the treasure, after all. She wasn’t the one doing the stealing. He didn’t dare say anything to that effect, though. The last thing he needed was to anger the captain while he was getting the chance to earn the gold that his family desperately needed to clear Matt’s debts.

“Aye, sir. I’ll be back as quick as I can. Should I meet you here or at the docks?”

“The ship will do nicely. I think we’ll be headed back that way before long. Had our fill of drink, I think.” He glanced back over Thoster’s shoulder to Jackson who was still heaving against the tavern wall. Cal made a slightly disapproving noise, shaking his head. “Go on, then. No sense wasting anymore time on chatter.”

Thoster nodded and hurried back inside to grab Berwyn, who at this point, was on his third ale and had his arm slung around Tyrek’s broad shoulders.

“You know.. I always thought dwarves were rude and smelled of horse dung, but you? Well, you reek of dung, but you’re just the nicest dwarf I’ve ever met.” Thoster knew Berwyn well enough to see just what he was doing. He wasn’t nearly as drunk as he was acting. It was all a ploy so that he could get closer and have an excuse to touch his mark. While he jostled Tyrek with the arm around his shoulders, his other hand slipped behind his back to gently tug at the ties of the dwarf’s coin purse, pulling it free and pocketing it for himself. Thoster stood a few feet away and folded his arms over his chest, clearing his throat with a disapproving raise of his eyebrow.

Giving a roll of his eyes, Berwyn pulled the bag out in front of them and dropped it on the table. Tyrek looked a little startled by it, but Berwyn just gave a shrug and kissed the top of the drunk dwarf’s head before slipping away and heading to stand in front of Thoster.

“So what are we up to now, Chatty? Got any other drunks to keep me from stealing from?”

“Not exactly. What do you know about Lucia Danill?” Thoster knew that if anyone had information on this family, it would be Berwyn. “More specifically, about her sister Gwyn.”

Berwyn’s eyebrows rose and he let out a low whistle. “That’s a name I haven’t heard of in ages.” It was all the confirmation that Thoster needed to know that they would be able to complete the task. If Berwyn knew about this family, then he’d be able to help him get the gold back for the captain.

“We’ll talk about it on our way to the Danill home.” He couldn’t just have a chat about their official business while standing in the middle of the crowded tavern, after all. Berwyn nodded and the two men turned to leave, the roars of drunken merriment fading as they slipped outside and Berwyn began to lead the way to the house in question.

“You’re telling me you don’t remember little Gwynny and Lucy from when we were kids? Gwyn was the only girl I ever knew that could talk louder than you and Lucy…” He put his hand to his heart. “Broke my heart when she married that fisherman. I still say he must be wielding a broadsword in his breeches, if you know what I mean.”

“Get on with it, Berwyn.” Thoster said with an exasperated sigh. Strangely, he didn’t remember the girls, even though his friend seemed so certain that he should.

“Right, anyway. So Lucy settles down and Gwyn’s sure she’s going to make a name for herself. She finds a ship that will hire her, real basic work from what I hear. But time goes on and she starts really getting the hang of things. Word is that she owns her own ship now. She comes into port every now and then to see her sister, but doesn’t ever stay long. I haven’t actually seen her since we were kids. You really telling me you don’t remember her?”

“Really am. Might be for the best. Apparently she owes Cal a good deal of gold and has been storing all of her treasure with her sister to keep it hidden from him. Our job is to go get what’s his. So if you think you can talk to Lucia and convince her to let us have it without any trouble, all the better.” Thoster didn’t want to see a fight over any of this. He wasn’t armed and Berwyn was better at hiding than fighting. They weren’t exactly the best two to send in for any sort of scuffle. But talking? Oh, talking, they could do.

“I can do my best. It’s not like I know much about her life now. After she got married, she sort of disappeared.”

“And you didn’t find that odd?”

Berwyn gave a shrug, “I just assumed she was too busy trying to have a few guppies of her own.”

“Or she’s been too busy hiding her sister’s fortune to fuss with anything in town.” Thoster wasn’t quite sure what was going on with these sisters, but there was more to it. He just had a feeling.

“You really think?” Berwyn glanced forward and pointed to a small house just ahead of them. “That’s the one. Doesn’t look like much, eh? Wouldn’t ever guess that some pirate queen was keeping her gold there, but I guess that’s the point.”

Thoster wasn’t sure that calling Gwyn a pirate queen was all that fair. He still didn’t know just what to make of her part in all of this. It seemed odd to him to think that someone who had so much success would really go out of their way to keep from paying an old debt. Seemed to him that if she had as much as Cal made it out that she did, that she would just pay off the gold she owed the other captain and be on her way.

Like any good story, he needed all the parts of it in order to see just how the beginning met the ending.

Next Chapter: Chapter 5