“Can you see her?” Durvin Karrick whispered loudly. Storn Mard, a good head taller than his companion, had no trouble finding the woman and her child, even at a distance from the crowd that had gathered for Dargon’s annual blessing of its fleet of ships. He watched as the little girl trailed behind her mother, clutching a chewy-apple in her grubby hand. From his vantage point in the alley, he followed their weaving path along the edge of the milling throng.
“She’s heading towards the dock.” His look was appreciative — she was a fine woman, worthy of more than one glance even when not being followed.
“You’ve got to get close to her.” Durvin’s breath reeked of ale and Storn shoved him away.
“Just get away and leave me to it.” Impatient to get on with the plan, he found his target again. She bent down to swoop her daughter into her arms and he could hear her light laughter as she examined the brown sticky mess all over the little one’s face.
“Go now!” Durvin said insistently.
Storn shrugged away from Durvin’s hand on his back and stepped into the road, sweeping his cloak over his shoulder and turning to keep his eye on the woman. He did not want to get too close; his timing would have to be perfect. He glanced back to see if Durvin had left the alley. It would all come to naught if the idiot got himself recognized by one of the town guard. Thankfully, he was gone from sight. Storn inhaled deeply and lengthened his stride.
The citizens of Dargon seemed in a festive mood as they ambled around vendors’ stalls, even though a thick gray blanket of clouds hinted at possible rain. Squeals of delight rang out from a group of children as they tossed hard-shelled flingers onto the rocks and rushed to collect them. He edged his way past the row of people waiting to have their fortunes revealed from the broken flingers and wondered whether his future would show a sudden increase in wealth. A guardsman cast a keen eye over him and he hurried on past. He was virtually a stranger in these parts following a lengthy absence from Dargon and there was no need to draw attention at this stage of the plan. For a moment he lost sight of mother and daughter, then saw the small head of dark curls bobbing up and down to his right as the young woman tried to adjust the wriggling child on her hip. She had joined a group that was making i ts way towards the dock where the ceremony would be performed. He changed his pace and moved in behind them.
Up close, he could see that the woman had tiny flowers pressed into the braids that swung across her back with each step. The little girl had noticed him and he gave her a big wink. She tucked her head down and scrunched her face into her mother’s slender neck.
“Ginny …” the woman reprimanded gently, twisting away from the small gooey hands that had suddenly been flung around her neck. Storn slowed his pace and bent down, adjusting his boot clasp but watching the figure in front of him from under his fringe of hair.
She started to move again and he rose quickly, moving to her side as they neared the edge of the dock. A swift glance assured him that everyone around them was absorbed with the pending arrival of the priests. Storn nudged closer, aware that the tot’s big blue eyes were locked onto him. The moment was right he decided, and sneaked his hand to the little girl’s leg and gave it a playful tweak. The effect was immediate: the face crumpled and the little mouth let out an almighty wail. The woman stopped short and Storn gave a loud gasp of surprise as he tumbled to his left over some netting and ropes, and plunged into the murky waters below the dock.
As he rose to the surface spluttering, he heard the urgent calls for help and saw that mother and daughter were huddled most concernedly just above him. Storn also realized that the water was cold and smelled foul, and in his head, he cursed Durvin. He looked for a foothold, but was forced to tread water. Someone tossed him a rough rope. His body thudded into the dockside pillars as they hauled him up, but within a mene, several hands were clutching at him and boosting him onto the dock. He twisted his head and coughed.
“I am so sorry. So, so sorry,” the woman he had been following said anxiously to him as he slumped onto the wooden deck. Other voices asked if he was all right and he nodded his reassurances, spitting into the water and tugging off his cape. With the excitement over and a clamor growing nearby as the priests approached the fleet, people began to head off, leaving Storn hunched over, wringing out his sodden cloak. The woman waited.
“That was cold,” he announced, looking into her guilt-laden eyes and inwardly breathing a sigh of relief that she had not bolted. She had a protective arm around her daughter.
“I didn’t realize …” Her remorse was genuine.
Storn smiled. “No harm done, madam. Just a bit of a soak.” He dropped his cloak and extended a hand. “Storn Mard is the name.”
His disarming smile had the desired effect: the tension eased from her face and she slipped a soft hand into his clasp. “I’m Della,” she said, “and this little mischief maker is Ginny.”
Storn focused on the tot, who was cowed in her mother’s arm. “Hello, Ginny.” He tousled her curls and gave her a conspiratorial wink. “I suppose we had better get up.”
He straightened, water dripping from his drenched clothes. Della stood up too, and a bashful Ginny buried her face in the folds of her mother’s skirt.
“I’ll find a spot out of the way to dry off.” He looked up at the overcast skies, and then offered a further explanation. “I’m staying at the Feathered Pig.”
He watched as Della grasped the predicament, as the inn was a good way out of town.
“I live nearby,” she said. “I suppose you can come and dry off in front of a fire.”
“I wouldn’t want to impose.” Storn squirmed from one foot to the other and the water squelched in his boots. There was no need to feign the coldness he was feeling; every shiver came from the bone.
“It’s no problem,” she said. “After all, we did knock you into the water.”
“Well, if you are sure.” He shuddered involuntarily. “If the foul water doesn’t kill me, the cold surely will.”
“It’s not far.” Della picked her daughter up onto her hip.
Storn smiled warmly again. “Just lead the way.” He had reeled her in as easy as eating honeyed pie. This was the reason he was known as the best swindler in Baranur he thought smugly as they left the docks behind.
The house on Ramit Street was unusual. Judging by the worse-for-wear forge that now served as a stove and fireplace, it had once been a smithy. Storn looked about while Della sat the little one at the table and produced a wheat cake from a pottery jar, then turned her attention to stoking up a new fire with some wheezing bellows. Things were going far better than he had expected. He had heard much about Della from his partner Durvin, and had thought it was an exaggeration, like so many of Durvin’s tales, until he met her this day. He wished Durvin had provided a bit more detail. After all, Della was Durvin’s former wife. Storn found his eyes straying to her gentle curves and slim waist. She looked up and he glanced away.
“I’ll just be a mene,” she said, and disappeared into a back room.
He looked around — there were no cupboards or cabinets. A few pots and pans hung from large hooks above a small table. The place was sparsely furnished, but had a comfortable feel. Storn saw a few bolts of cloth on a low bed in the corner and a half-completed dress spread out on the kitchen table. If Della had the money Durvin claimed she did, then she was using it sparingly.
He suddenly realized that she was back and that her eyes were on him — and on the puddle that was forming at his feet.
“I appear to be making a mess of your neat home,” he said.
She offered him a pile of clothes. “You can use that room to change.”
He shrugged off his cloak and she took it from him.
“The clothes may be a bit tight, but they’re dry.” Then she added hastily by way of explanation, “They belonged to my late husband.”
Storn repressed a smile as he pictured her “late husband” Durvin propping up the tavern counter and downing yet another ale. It was somehow fitting that he should be dressing in Durvin’s clothes.
“Thanks.” He squelched across to the doorway, pausing to undo the twist of curtaining draped above the lintel.
This room was also bare: a bed, a nightstand, a chest and a makeshift shelf. With his ears pricked, listening to Della’s lively chatter with her daughter, Storn undressed. As he stripped off his shirt, he looked for possible hiding places: the little treasure trove that Durvin had promised would be there somewhere. He let his boots thud to the floor as he hurriedly searched the nightstand drawer, then crouched down to peer under the bed. In the dark, he could make out a loose floorboard that jutted slightly askance. He felt a sense of elation as he finished undressing and pulled the dry clothes on, tugging as they stuck to his wet skin and sighing when he saw how short the sleeves were. At least the leggings were a better fit, but if he had been a modest man he would have been a tad wary about the close cut that clearly accentuated his masculinity.
“Are you all right?” she called, and Storn realized that he had taken his time. He pulled back the curtain and she fought to suppress a smile.
“Your mirth is not appreciated, madam,” he said in a mock stern tone as she gave a spontaneous laugh.
“I’m sorry. You do look odd though.” Della laughed again. She reached for his wet clothes and draped them over a bench and a chair, which she had moved closer to the forge. Storn padded across the floor in bare feet and placed his boots close to the heat.
“Do sit down, Milord Mard.” She gestured to the clothes that had now started to give off wisps of steam. “They may take a while to dry.” There was only one chair left, and he hesitated. Della resolved his dilemma by swinging Ginny onto her hip and sitting down on the edge of the bed pallet in the corner.
“I should really leave,” he said, as he sat down on the edge of the seat.
“You should at least stay until your boots have dried out some more.” She settled a sleepy-looking Ginny on the bed. “Let me get you something to drink.”
He watched as she got up and walked past him. He had not pictured her like this at all. From Durvin’s description, Storn had expected Della to be cold and humorless — more like the “nagging, demanding, selfish, high and mighty hussy” he had been told about. He had met Durvin at Jo’nass’ Tavern in Port Andestn about a year before, and their common background — both formerly from Dargon — had been the basis for their partnership in crime. Storn was the charming swindler in their partnership. He would befriend lonely widows; and as he wooed, he would watch and note the little details of their homes. What better alibi than to be with the widow herself when some dastard thief broke in? It had proven to be a smart plan that netted both Durvin and Storn a goodly hoard. Unfortunately, there were only so many widows, and it had seemed a good idea to leave when Storn’s charm started wearing off because of rumors.
“Where are you from, Milord Mard?” she asked, interrupting his thoughts.
” I was in Dargon to check on a valuable shipment, but need to return to Port Andestn.” Storn decided on a vague mixture of the truth. “It just seemed like a good idea to see the blessing of the fleet.”
“I’m sorry that we ruined the festival for you.” She set up two mugs.
“Not much to regret. The fleet will be blessed again next year,” Storn said, knowing that he had no intention of being in Dargon next year. After this little caper and their activities in Port Andestn, he and Durvin would have to seek the anonymity of some or other town — possibly Hawksbridge, or even the city of Magnus — for a while.
A sweet spicy scent wafted his way as Della decanted some short mead.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t offer you anything warmer to wear.” She handed him a mug.
“I suppose I would have been luckier if my rescuer had been a tailor instead of a seamstress.” He gestured to the dress and bolts of cloth.
“A man in a dress — now that would make an awful sight.” She tossed her hair back and laughed, and Storn found himself laughing too.
“What happened next?” Durvin was hunched over the table, glaring at Storn who was seated opposite him in the otherwise deserted Rogue and Quiver.
“Keep your voice down, fool,” Storn said angrily, checking to see if they were drawing any attention. The tavern owner was leaning against the counter, cleaning his fingernails with a short dagger, and the only serving wench present was sprawled across a table, polishing silver tankards in a bored daze.
“The stupid sow gave you my clothes,” Durvin said.
“Do you want to hear what I found, or not?” Storn waited as Durvin picked up his ale and took a swig, then leaned back against the bench. “I think you may be right about the money.”
“You see!” Durvin clanged his tankard down. “Bitch took my money, ran me off with threats to expose me, and now she is living in noble style.”
Storn decided to ignore Durvin’s sullen outbursts and instead presented the facts, as he saw them. “She says she is working as a seamstress, but there wasn’t much work lying about. She dresses well, but the place is sparsely furnished.” He pictured it again in his head. “She has also spent money recently. The walls look like they have just been whitewashed and she was wearing a fine pair of shoes for someone counting their rounds.”
“Well it certainly ain’t from an inheritance. Her mother died little more than a pauper,” Durvin interjected. “No great loss there — the old woman was a real curmudgeon.”
Storn expressed his doubts. “I really don’t think we are talking about a lot of money, Durvin.”
“You don’t know Della like I do, Storn Mard. She’s a hoarder, that one. Set aside every coin that came into the house when we were married, and turned it ten times before it went out.” Durvin snorted and spat on the ground. “She took a big pile of my plunderings too. Della’s a devious one, I tell you.”
“Well, I still have to find out where she is hiding it.” Storn recalled the loose floorboard, but decided not to reveal it just yet. “We just have to make sure she isn’t there when we go look for it.”
Durvin snarled, “So what do you propose we do? Spend a few more weeks here until we see our chance?”
“No. Perhaps it’s simpler than that,” Storn said slowly. He had just figured out a way to do it. “I think she’s already taken a fancy to me.”
“She’s not a widow, you bastardly jack-a-dandy. She’s my wife!” Durvin cried out.
“Not any more.” Storn sucked in a deep breath, wondering what a beautiful woman like Della had ever seen in a fool like Durvin Karrick.
“The mighty Mard,” Durvin said sarcastically. “Truth is you are always thinking with your pecker, aren’t you?”
“The truth is that this plan has worked well for us before,” Storn said, annoyed. “It will work fine here too.” He leaned back against the bench and clasped his hands behind his head.
Durvin scratched his beard and slowly rubbed his hairy throat before he spoke. “Straight, Storn. You get the woman and a third of the loot –”
Storn smacked his hand on the table. “A *third*! We agreed on half, you screegull scum!”
“Ah. But that was before you planned to sleep with my wife.”
“Former wife, you stupid lout. You left her, remember?” Storn said. “Or perhaps you still have feelings for her?” he asked in an accusing tone.
“I forgot that bitch a long time ago,” Durvin said with a sneer.
“If you go anywhere near her, she’ll report you to the town guard.” Storn reminded him. “Somehow I don’t think *they* have forgotten how you murdered a guardsman.”
Durvin grunted and swore under his breath. “All right!” He glared at his smirking partner, who knew too well that he had to stay out of sight in Dargon or risk being arrested. “You can take half.”
“Fair share partners!” Storn declared and thrust his hand out. Durvin gripped it.
“So be it,” he stated.
Storn smiled and lifted his tankard. “To good fortune — no matter whose we claim!”