DargonZine 5, Issue 4

Beginnings

- Sy 5, 1015


Pristine sails rose stark and white against the sullen sky, flapping slightly in a salt encrusted breeze. Dull sunlight raised bright patches on the ship’s worn wooden railing. Nicks and cuts caused by sword strokes and grappling hooks caught and pooled shadows like the blood that had so recently washed the vessel’s deck.

 

Tarilane sat on a barrel filled with fresh water and sadly noted the still present marks of war; a pale stain on the deck that salt water could not scour away, carefully mended rents in the otherwise perfect sails, and the swords that the sailors still wore. She touched the hilt of her own blade reflectively. The war was over, but the peace was tenuous at best.

 

Shakin had not been directly involved in the Beinison/Baranurian conflict. Located to the southeast of Beinison, the huge country had simply never felt the need to conquer the intervening territories to gain control of the independent state. That Shakin also produced the best alchemists and physicians on the continent and could deny their services to anyone, made the decision to let them alone easier. Leaving them autonomous was easier than being denied medical aid sometime in the uncertain future. The Shakinian crown, held jointly by the Royal Consorts, having no interest in land acquisition, had remained neutral, as they had throughout the war torn centuries.

 

This was not to say that they did not take part in the latest squabble between the two powers. Healers and alchemists were in high demand by both sides, and since past attempts to limit enemy access to Shakinian healing resulted in the complete withdrawal of all support, both sides were allowed to bargain for these services. If it had no other exportable resources, Shakin’s highly skilled physicians and herb mixers more than made up for the lack.

 

The country itself had remained physically apart from the war, being on the wrong side of Beinison to experience the devastation directly, until their neighbor, Kimerron, a tribal country Beinison did not consider worth their time to subdue, decided that it needed more land. Thinking their large neighbor was busy with other games, Kimerron attacked from behind, making deep incursions into Beinosian territory. After recovering from the shock of the unexpected bite, the tip of one of Beinison’s many fingered army crushed the raiders.

 

Tarilane had spent most of her life in Sahni, Shakin’s capitol, learning the alchemist’s trade. The skirmish right on her country’s border provided her with plenty of opportunities to practice her lessons–both healing and sword. Because her master, Derimiahn, was one of the most skilled alchemists of his time, he was in great demand by the crown to assist the physicians in easing the pain of the refugees and in providing components to the royal mages. He was a gentle man, who refused to use even one of the many titles the Consorts had conferred upon him during his life, but at the command of his royal cousins, travelled to the front to represent them with his art. Tarilane, his second eldest apprentice, had the honor of accompanying him, while the eldest apprentice attended the shop and the youngsters. Together, master and student labored beside healers, trying to save the lives and limbs of the young victims and beside the mages to provide ingredients to fuel protective spells. Tarilane learned more in the months spent building potions for the healers and mages than she ever could have during the normal course of her studies.

 

They had returned to Sahni a bare two weeks ago and five days after the homecoming, Tarilane found herself on her way to the nearest port, Derimiahn’s last words echoing emptily in her ears.

 

“You have learned all that I can teach you, Tari. I release you from the rest of your apprenticeship before you watch the walls of this shop grow too small around your spirit.” He placed a hand on her head in almost fatherly benediction. “Know that you have pleased me and show great promise. You will do well.”

 

And he left her.

 

Tarilane found herself standing alone in her cramped cubicle, watching the dividing curtain-wall rippling in her master’s wake. She did not follow; could not have thought of anything to do or say if she had.

 

She took her leave of the other apprentices at the night meal, which Derimiahn was conspicuously absent from, and spent hours talking with Shauvandier, the senior apprentice, plotting a destination. The youngesters helped out by packing her few belongings while Tarilane and Shaw pored over a worn map. The single, barely full bag waited by the front door with the tiny, hastily gathered pile of parting-gifts–Sonshallan, the next oldest apprentice gave her his first blown potion bottle, a lopsided affair that would barely stand upright. Castellei, next in line, gave her a writing pen, with soft apologies that he could not afford ink or a case yet, and Shaem, the youngest, gave her her favorite string of blue beads. Later she would find the green scarf Shaw had stashed in his herb storage chest for the last few months in the top of her pack; his final gift to her.

 

Much later, after the children were tucked away in bed, Tarilane shared a glass of mead with Shauvandier before the dying fire.

 

“Is there anything else you need?” he asked softly, watching the firelight play across Tarilane’s features, catching in her pale brown hair.

 

“Courage,” she quipped back with a faint smile that faded immediately. “Seriously, Shaw, it’s like leaving home for the first time. Except this *is* the first time. I don’t remember living any place but here. I’m really scared.”

 

“You’ll do fine, little sister.” Shauvandier pulled her into a gentle embrace. “Master’s right to send you off…I’ve watched you prowl the house and watch the road like you wonder what’s at the end. You’ll do fine. You’re good, practical, everything that it takes. Don’t worry so much. And don’t forget to keep a sense of humor,” he added, taking her by the shoulders and shaking her a little. “You get too serious sometimes.”

 

Tarilane chuckled softly, unable to deny the accusation. She could be very intense when working, to the exclusion of the gentler emotions. “You always know the right things to say, Shaw. You’re like the brother I never had.”

 

They sat in companionable silence after that, until Shauvandier shooed Tarilane off to bed. As she drifted into sleep, Tarilane remembered their ill-fated attempt to deepen their friendship into something more personal. They had just gotten themselves comfortable on the bed when Derimiahn pulled the dividing curtain aside.

 

He said nothing for what seemed like the longest time, then pulled it shut again. They had parted as soon as his footsteps disappeared down the stairs, the ardor of the moment chilled. After that, they never felt quite right about the quick kisses and stolen caresses, even though the Master never said a word about the incident. The decision to keep the relationship platonic was made not long after, and neither one could say they regretted the decision.

 

Tarilane recalled all of this with a faint flush, and chided herself for getting lost in memories. The present was what she had to worry about now, not the elusive past. Salt breeze cooled the burning in her cheeks, catching the scarf that had been Shauvandier’s final gift to her and causing it to dance. The loneliness she had been able to hold at bay during the journey to the coast rolled over her with the slap of the water against the hull.

 

“Lady?” The sea roughened voice shattered her mood like waves breaking on rocks.

 

Tarilane was glad for the interruption; she had had enough of remembering. She slipped off the keg and turned to face the First Mate, noting the cutlass belted to his side. Pirates and warships still roamed the sea, not realizing that the war was over. Or perhaps not caring.

 

“Yes? What did the captain say about the job?”

 

“Cap’n says, if’n y’ kin cook, y’ kin have passin’,” the Mate said. “With th’ clear understand’n that y’ pull y’r own weight. We won’ coddle y’. This ain’t no easy job. Fact `tis, we lost our last cook t’ pirates.” He folded his arms, waiting for her to politely decline. He either did not see or did not believe the sword attached to her waist.

 

Tarilane laughed. “Sir, I spent six months near to the war border and I don’t wear this–” she patted the hilt of the broad sword “–because it’s pretty. Sometimes it was the only thing that stood between my Master and those who would have stolen what we would have given freely. I’ll be fine. And I’m a darned good cook.”

 

“Hope so, f’r y’r sake,” said the Mate doubtfully. “‘Cause we’ll put y’ over th’ side if’n y’ can’t cook. I’ll show y’ where y’r t’ sleep.”

 

Tarilane grinned and followed him towards the galley.

 

Sy 5, 1015

 

“I really hate this,” muttered Darion, just loud enough to be heard by the youth he rode beside. The clop of the horses hooves on the cobblestones effectively prevented the whisper from traveling much farther. He hunched a little in his dark tunic and studied the houses and businesses.

 

“What?” replied his companion with a mocking grin. “Coming out in daylight or riding?”

 

“Bodyguarding,” Darion snapped, careful that his voice did not carry over the steady beat of the horse’s hooves. “I don’t like doing this. You do. I’m not a fighter.”

 

Ranth chucked, remembering their last bar fight, a few nights ago. They had gotten into a brawl with a pair of burly sailors out of Lediria over a dice game and Darion had taken quite a beating, serving more as a distraction than an actual participant.

 

“Gotta step out of the shadows sometime, my friend,” Ranth advised. “You can’t spend the rest of your life creeping down alleys. Come to mention, you have been doing a lot of midnight prowling lately. What’s been up?”

 

Darion opened his mouth to respond, but the man they were following interrupted harshly.

 

“Pipe down, you two,” he ordered, without looking back.

 

“Yes, my lord,” Darion and Ranth said in chorus. The man did glance back at this, and glared, one hand on the heavy, peace-bound dagger at his hip. He hated when his proteges did this, and they knew it. The knife promised what would happen to them if they did it again.

 

Darion and Ranth traded glances as he turned back to study the heavily trafficed avenue. Lord Silvas was in a poor mood today, and they did not know what had caused it. Deciding that being silent on the matter would greatly increase their life span, they made no further comments.

 

Lord Silvas was not a man to be trifled with. A high ranking member of Comarr’s booming Thieves Guild, he had taken the pair in when they were just runny nosed urchins on the streets. To Ranth, the larger of the two boys, he gave an education in combat and arms. For someone of his age, just over eighteen years, he was quite handy with any weapon that came into reach. He would make a fine guard or mercenary in the not so distant future.

 

Darion was taught the art of spying. Tall, slender and agile he could sneak into and out of places with ease, and, unlike his partner, Darion was literate, so that he would know exactly what parchments to acquire on his regular trips into Ciara’s merchant quarter.

 

Since the day Silvas picked them up, Ranth and Darion were a team. They did everything together, from their first drink, to their first theft. Though not exactly a kind master, Silvas did teach them the necessary skills to survive on Comarr’s seedier side, as well as other cities.

 

Buildings grew up around the little group as they rode deeper into the Ciara’s business district. The air filled with the sounds of hurrying people and street haukers; mingled scents of new bread and garbage drifted out from taverns and inns. Above it all, a faded blue sky reflected the smoke from the many chimnies, confusing the true white clouds.

 

Lord Silvas pulled to a halt before a dry-goods shop and dismounted. His bodyguards followed suit. Darion’s gaze scuttled restlessly along the avenue, marking the people who passed, the dusty goods in the store’s display window, an odd mark burnt into the shop’s door jamb, and the bar across the street.

 

He nudged Ranth, who was keeping an eye out for obvious threats, and motioned quickly at the building across the street. Ranth wiped his answering smile off his face as Lord Silvas turned to them.

 

“Keep an eye on the horses,” he ordered. “I have some business to attend to. I will return shortly.”

 

“Yes, my lord,” Ranth and Darion acknowledged, careful to not do it in chorus this time. Silvas disappeared into the shop in a swirl of cloak.

 

“Hot out, isn’t it,” Ranth said, after a pause, eyeing the bar. When Silvas said `shortly’ that usually meant long enough for a drink.

 

“Sure is,” agreed Darion, as he watched a gaily painted carriage rumble past.

 

“Could stand for a drink to cut the dust.”

 

“Same here. So long as you’re buying. It’s your turn.”

 

“Since when?” Ranth glared at his friend. “I bought the rounds last night!”

 

“Yeah, you did,” confirmed Darion. “But I paid Olivia for you last night, because you’d drunk all your silver. You owe me at least a drink for that, if not more.”

 

“You did?” Ranth looked confused.

 

“Sure did.”

 

“Did I have a good time?”

 

“I assume so. I had to carry you home.”

 

“Oh.” Ranth studied the stitching on his horse’s tack. “In that case, I’ll buy you a drink.”

 

“Or three,” laughed Darion. “Let’s go.”

 

Leaving the horses tethered in front of the shop, the pair trotted across the cobbled street and into the Silver Platter. The interior was well lit for a tavern, and much cleaner than the ones Darion and Ranth were used to frequentinging. The smell of alcohol was strong in the air, but the floor and tables were clean and the patrons fairly well dressed. Ranth looked a little out of place in his battered corslet, but, as usual, that did not bother him in the least.

 

They walked up to the bar, noting that the place was doing steady business despite the earliness of the hour.

 

Finding a space was easily done; Ranth squeezed his bulk between a half drunk merchant and a tipsy youth. He pounded his palm on the counter a little.

 

“Two glasses of ale,” he called over the high pitched babble of the common room when the woman behind the bar turned in his general direction. Two battered mugs appeared a second later and passed into Ranth’s possessions after an exchange of coin.

 

“You know,” commented Darion as they sipped at the frothy glasses in a corner. “I’m broke. I spent my last copper on that spice cake this morning.”

 

“Then I guess it’s time to earn another stipend,” said Ranth, swallowing a great mouthful of ale. “Picked out a bird yet?”

 

“The scarlet jay you stood next to at the bar,” Darion replied, nodding in that direction. “He’s paid in silver twice and doesn’t show any sign of leaving.”

 

“All right. I’ll distract him, you pluck him.”

 

Darion disappeared into the crowd, while Ranth shouldered his way through the bodies to the bar. In the process he tipped the remainder of his drink all over the front of the red clad man’s fancy tunic.

 

“`Ey! Wash it, y’ clunsy oav!” The man rounded on his attacker, slopping rich purple wine out of his glass as he turned.

 

“So sorry, my lord!” apologized Ranth, brushing futilely at the spreading brown stain, causing more wine to spill. He glanced quickly down and saw that the purse was gone and Darion was no where in sight. Ranth set out to extricate himself from the situation. “Terribly sorry. Let me buy you a drink to make up for the trouble.”

 

“I don’ wan’ a drinth,” slurred the merchant, weaving around, trying to orient himself on the youth. “`Y damned bashterd!” And he cut loose with a wide roundhouse swing that missed Ranth entirely, but ploughed satisfyingly into the next nearest person.

 

Ranth ducked away into the crowd as the merchant swung again and the cry of `fight’ rocked the rafters.

 

***

 

Darion sauntered back across the street, casually tucking the stitched leather pouch into his pocket. He leaned against the flank of his horse and watched the entry to the Silver Platter. The sound of a soft crash drifted across the bustling street and he winced a little. A soft rustle behind him caused him to turn quickly.

 

“Ready to go, my lord?” he asked, seeing Silvas stepping out of the shop. Darion’s sharp eyes noted the dagger at his side was no longer peace bound and he filed the scrap of information away to contemplate later.

 

“Where’s Ranth?” Silvas asked sharply, straightening the sleeves of his dark tunic, baleful gaze pinned on Darion.

 

“He–had to go to the alley,” lied Darion quickly. Not original, but better than telling the lord that they had left his horse unattended so they could both get drinks. A loud crash sounded from across the street and the youth forced himself not to turn to look.

 

The stool flew out the splintered shutters of the Silver Platter and skidded to a halt in the middle of the street, nearly tripping a horse.

 

“Then he can catch up,” Silvas decided, mounting. “Let’s go.”

 

Darion did look back to the bar at that statement and Silvas turned his glare onto him. “Are you worried that Ranth can’t handle his business on his own?” he asked bitingly. “Or did he go somewhere else.”

 

“Uh, no, my lord.” Darion mounted quickly and fell into position behind his master without another backwards glance. Ranth was perfectly able to take care of himself, Darion reminded himself. He was a natural with most weapons and could hold his own in either a formal fight or a brawl. Better than Darion could, in fact.

 

Hard on the heels of this thought came the clatter of hooves and Ranth pounded up to his place beside his partner.

 

“Have fun?” asked Darion in undertone.

 

“Yeah. Took a right cross for you.”

 

“Everything come out all right?” asked Silvas caustically, without looking back at the pair.

 

“Yes, my lord!” Ranth responded quickly. “What did you tell him?” he demanded quietly of his friend.

 

“Nothing terrible,” grinned Darion. “Stick close, though. He’s in a mood again.”

 

“Figures.”

 

“I’ll give you your cut when we get back,” Darion added after a second.

 

“Good.”

 

“Any other stops, my lord?” asked Darion when his master turned to glare at the pair of them. The innocent look on his face fooled no one.

 

“No. Now shut up.”

 

***

 

Tarilane clutched the straps of her bag and surveyed the streets and buildings past the bustling pier. Like the port city Karine of Shakin, Ciara was busy, filled with people ignoring one another, hurrying about their business. Salt air mingled with the smell of tar and fish, smell she had gotten used to during her time aboard ship. Dappled afternoon sunlight speckled the sky and a stiff breeze caused her cloak to flap sharply. Reflexively her fingers reached up to make sure the dark green scarf around her neck had not blown away.

 

The scents from Shauvandier’s herb chest still clung to the silky fabric and Tarilane felt the now familiar tug of loneliness and homesickness. She sighed and made her way off the pier. Letting herself sink into depression was hardly the way to achieve anything constructive. She set her mind to working out her upcoming problems.

 

She needed to find a place to stay first, so that she could start to make serious plans. Tarilane wanted to open a shop of her own–an apothecary. She had grown up in Master Derimiahn’s shop–could not remember living any place else, in fact. He claimed that he found her sitting on his doorstep one day, a precocious two year old, with no way of telling where she had come from. He had kept her because it was more trouble to try and take her into town, than to simply raise her. At least, so he said. Tarilane always suspected there was more to it than that, but had never been able to find anything else out, and eventually, it did not much matter any more. After sixteen years surrounded by the work, she realized that she did not want to live or labor anywhere else.

 

Watching Derimiahn mix potions was one of the earliest childhood memories she had. As she grew older, Tarilane was allowed to join the Master and his apprentices, never less than five, usually seven or eight in all, on their forays to gather wood and herbs. At the age of nine, she was officially apprenticed and started learning to identify plants in all seasons, learned how to blow the little glass bottles that would eventually contain the concoctions they made; learned to prepare the condiments that mages would eventually use to produce miracles–the liquid and powder magic that was the trademark of the alchemist, that mages could not work wonders without. She spent tedious hours learning to read, write, and figure, keeping the shop’s tally-books current and accurate. Long hours spent learning, before she was ever allowed to create anything.

 

Since the day she had made her first simple potion, Tarilane realized that she wanted nothing more than to have an apothecary of her own, and her Master, seeing the drive and the talent, taught her everything he could. Now, freed from the onerous duties of an apprentice and ready to pass through journeyman to master, she did not know how to proceed.

 

`Inheriting a shop would have been easier,’ Tarilane sighed to herself. `But no use in wishing for what I haven’t got, so I’d better make the best of what I have. Enough silver and coppers to put a roof over my head for a few days, at least, and the food the Captain gave to me should last about as long.’ One clean set of clothes, the heavy cloak around her shoulders, the pack, and her parting gifts were the sum total of her possessions. Hardly enough to open a shop with, not that she would even consider selling them. `I’ll start looking for a job tomorrow…’

 

The scuffle of Tarilane’s salt encrusted boots was lost in the general bustle of the street traffic.

 

***

 

Lord Silvas’ residence was well suited to his high rank in the underground and to his front as a wealthy merchant. A six foot stone wall surrounded the house and the small, tree filled garden secluded him from the outside world. Traps were hidden in the green expanses, just in case a guild member got greedy. The house itself was only two stories tall and constructed of grey stones a little darker than the wall. Gates kept out any curious passers-by.

 

Inside, the house was subdued rather than ostentatious. Nothing spoke of overt wealth, but everything had the stamp of quality. There were a few extravagances. Glass window panes replaced dull common shutters and heavy velvet drapes concealed the interior from all outside viewers. Rugs, in the few places Silvas was willing to have them, were plush and colorful.

 

Ranth and Darion sat in the fanciest room in the house, the front room, usually used for receiving guests. Pictures and tapestries covered the walls and the furniture was deep and comfortable. Sprawled in velvet covered chairs they played cards with their latest pickings as stakes.

 

Ranth flipped a well worn card at his partner and waited. Darion studied it, then compared it to the others in his hand.

 

“Well?” Ranth said impatiently.

 

“Well what?”

 

“What’s your bet?”

 

“I’m thinking about it.”

 

Ranth waited, tapping his toes against the heavy rugs on the floor.

 

“Young masters.” The quiet voice caused both youths to jump. “Lord Silvas requests your presence in his study immediately.” A slender woman stood in the doorway, in the black gown Silvas had all his house staff wear. Ranth and Darion were positive the woman worked for the Guild, but so far had not been able to prove it. Her manner was ever that of a well trained servant, and they always seemed to be too busy to follow her when she had her day off.

 

She waited patiently by the door while the pair redivided the pot and made a show of reshuffling their hands back into the deck. Ranth pocketed the deck as they followed her into the hall.

 

Lord Silvas was seated in a comfortable chair, taking advantage of the late afternoon sunlight to read a letter that had arrived while he was out. He looked up as Ranth and Darion entered the room and arranged themselves before him.

 

“You’ve learned quite a bit in the last few years,” he said, closing the letter with a low rustle. He studied the pair for a minute before continuing. “Now it is time for you to practice what you’ve learned on your own. I want both of you out of the house by sunset tonight.”

 

Darion and Ranth stared at him in shocked silence.

 

“You’re kicking us out?” asked Ranth.

 

“Isn’t this a little sudden?” said Darion at the same instant.

 

Silvas looked amused, the faint smile smoothing the worry lines around his eyes for just an instant.

 

“Yes, I’m kicking you out.” He directed his first comment to Ranth. “And no, it isn’t sudden. You’re both capable of taking care of yourselves and I don’t want to deal with you any more.”

 

“We’ll do fine,” said Ranth confidently.

 

“I don’t doubt it. And I’ll be checking to make sure that you only take what’s yours, so…” Silvas let the sentence trail off threatingly, dark eyes piercing the two youths. After a moment he found his place in his letter again and started reading.

 

Ranth and Darion recognized a dismissal when they saw one and headed for the door, trading uneasy glances.

 

“Don’t forget to watch your backs out there.” Lord Silvas’ voice followed them out into the hallway. “The Guild will contact you when you have proven yourselves.” When Darion glanced back, the man was still busy with his letter.

 

The pair climbed the stairs to their room in silence, with the black clad servant trailing after them.

 

Packing was a five minute affair; Lord Silvas had not encouraged having many possessions. Darion had leather armor that he had purchased just a month ago, a short sword, and some daggers, plus an extra set of clothing and his lockpicks. Ranth carried a full broad sword and a battered metal corslet that provided better than adequate protection. Both weapon and mail were highly polished, for if Ranth had any loves, it was that of weapons and combat. He too had a spare set of clothes, and each carried a pack, where they were able to stash several days worth of food when they thought the servant was not looking.

 

They found themselves staring at each other as the front gate was shut firmly behind them.

 

“We never did find out if she works for the Guild,” commented Darion irrelevantly, watching the woman make her way back inside. He turned back to his partner. “So what do we do now? I feel like I’ve just been stabbed in the back.”

 

“We always knew this would happen,” countered Ranth. “Just not this soon…” He sounded less confident than he looked.

 

“Why did he say `The Guild will contact you when you’ve proven yourselves’?” Darion wondered aloud. “The Guild’s always eager to make up the money they spent on training people as soon as possible.”

 

“He probably just forgot,” Ranth said, looking up and down the street.

 

Darion turned to look back at the house through the heavy gates. “He didn’t forget. He *doesn’t* forget. You know that.”

 

“Ah, forget it,” Ranth pulled his friend away from the gate. “We’ve got things to do. Tomorrow’s the first day of the rest of our lives.”

 

“So what do we do today?” asked Darion.

 

“We go get drunk. Then we find a place to stay.”

 

“Sounds good to me.”

 

***

 

The Sailor’s Rest Inn was not exactly on the wharf. It was well over five blocks away from the port, in fact, the scent of the sea and fish barely tainting the air. The worn sign had a sailor in classic pirate costume laying in a hammock painted on it and was nailed just above the front door. Inside, the common room was large, lit by ship’s lanterns giving the place a ship-like atmosphere.

 

Tarilane found the place after wandering around the city streets for several hours. It was the cleanest places she had run across all day, and with night falling, the young woman decided that it would do for the night. Bargaining with the innkeeper brought the price down to something reasonable and Tarilane had gotten dinner in the bargain.

 

She sat beside one of the greasy windows overlooking the street, picking at the fish stew she had been served. At least the bread was almost fresh and the ale was not bad, and was cheaper than the mead she wanted to buy.

 

Tarilane watched the people coming and going from the inn as she slowly finished her meal. Lower ranking ship’s officers, rather than rough sailors made up a good part of the crowd, along with lesser merchants and people who could not afford a better place, but would not go to a cheaper one. People like herself.

 

Ordinarily she had no interest in watching people, but in a strange city keeping track of the patrons gave her an odd sense of security. And it beat thinking about what she was going to do tomorrow.

 

As she watched, an armed man entered the inn, followed by a heavily painted woman, and a second later by two youths about Tarilane’s own age. All four stopped briefly at the bar to get drinks, then the woman wandered off into the crowd. The man stayed at the bar and the youths commandeered a table as close to a corner as they could get.

 

Tarilane’s attention wandered to the next arriving people and to the last few bites of fish stew still left in her bowl.

 

***

 

Out of the corner of his eye Darion kept a close watch on the shifting humanity that surged past the edge of their table. The location was not far enough out of the press of bodies as he would have liked, but it afforded a reasonable view of the room, and Ranth could always watch his back. His eyes skipped over the people, and settled on a young woman seated near the front window of the inn. She was reasonably good looking, so when she stood and made her way past the table, he smiled up at her, hoping to gain company for the night. She did not seem to notice.

 

Ranth laughed at him when he swore.

 

“That’s twice,” he grinned, taking a large swallow of beer. “You’re going to bed lonely tonight.”

 

“Not a chance,” retorted Darion. He took a long pull from his mug and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. This was the pairs second tavern for the evening, and both were more than a little tipsy. Darion poured himself another mugful of beer and set the jug down in the middle of the table.

 

“Hey, leave me some!” Ranth snatched the pitcher back. He refilled his own mug, managing not to spill to much of the dark brown liquid.

 

“We’ll need to get a job tomorrow,” Darion advised as they slowly went about emptying their glasses again. “Want to check with the Guild?”

 

“Nah. Let’s try something different for a change,” said Ranth.

 

“Like what?”

 

“Caravan guarding?”

 

“You trying to get me killed?”

 

Ranth chuckled, then hiccuped. “Let’s talk about it in the morning, when you’re sober enough to listen to reason. We should find a place to stay for the night. And before you ask, no, we can’t afford to stay here.”

 

“Think one of your so called friends’ll put us up for the night?” Darion’s eyes gleamed in the flickering lantern light and his red cheeks took on a burnished orange glow.

 

“We can always ask. Let’s go.”

 

Ranth lumbered to his feet, followed by Darion. While not quite drunk, both were sufficiently inebriated that they did not walk quite straight. As they passed one of the barmaids, Darion tripped over a crack in the floor boards and stumbled into her.

 

“Hey, beautiful,” Darion smiled at her, helping her to steady herself. “Want to get off your feet for an hour or two?”

 

Ranth had to help Darion steady himself after the maid’s slap knocked him sideways.

 

“What’d I say?”

 

“I’d say you’re going home lonely,” snickered Ranth.

 

“Thanks a lot,” muttered Darion. “I don’t feel so bad though. You don’t have anyone either.”

 

“I’ve got you and I haven’t even been trying.”

 

They stepped out into the warm summer night. The air was still and almost as hot as the interior of the inn itself. The street was quiet and empty, with street lanterns shedding pale light over the cobblestones. Out of habit each checked a direction for potentially dangerous oncoming traffic.

 

“Let’s stop at the alley,” said Darion abruptly.

 

“You should have gone before we left.” Ranth veered to the left and into the dark alley-way. “Bet I can hit higher on the wall than you can.”

 

“No way!” retorted Darion, following him in. “Not a chance. And no hands this time,” he added, unfastening his breeches.

 

“You’ve got to be joking!”

 

“Don’t think you can do it? Silver says you can’t. There. Just try and beat that!”

 

“No problem. Hah! You owe me a silver.”

 

“No way! That is not–” Darion cut himself off abruptly and held up a hand so that Ranth would not jump in.

 

“What?” hissed his friend.

“Listen!”

 

“To what?”

 

“Shhh!” Darion cocked a hand to his ear, exaggerating the order for his friend to keep his ears open.

 

Ranth cocked his head to one side and concentrated. He heard the soft chatter of children’s voices just seconds before the pack burst out of the shadows to mob them.

 

Shouts bounced off the walls as the group divided and attacked each of the young men with sticks, rocks, daggers, and their little bare hands. Surrounded on all sides by raggedly dressed urchins, neither was able to get an arm free enough to successfully defend himself.

 

Someone yelled in triumph as Darion stumbled.

 

***

 

Tarilane opened her eyes to the dark beamed ceiling, the voices from her uneasy dreams solidifying into reality and drifting through her window. Annoyed, she pulled open the shutters to give the little brats a piece of her mind, just in time to see one of the youths from the tavern bowled over by a pile of children.

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