Tara hated missing time with her friend, Sharin, but her uncle needed her help, and so she spent the entire day working with him. Her uncle, Captain Adrunian Koren of the town guard, usually had her working on the guard schedules or the paperwork for expenses. Today was no different, except that he wanted the schedule done before she left. By the time she finished, it was late afternoon. She had wanted to spend the day with Sharin wandering through the marketplace looking for new cloth. Melrin was coming up, and she wanted a new dress for the festivities. She was hoping to salvage some of the day and was hurrying to Sharin’s tent. Zed, her pet shivaree, loped along beside her.
Zed always drew stares when she took him out in public. Even though he wasn’t any bigger than a large dog, his weasel-like appearance gathered attention. Not many people knew what a shivaree looked like, but they noticed Zed’s bushy tail, long body, short legs, rough brown fur, and pointed snout. While people stopped, stared, and talked about him, their attention piqued his curiousity and that always got him into trouble, so Tara was forced to keep a close eye on him.
Since it was near dark, the marketplace was almost empty. A few vendors had stayed, hoping to sell more of their wares. Most others were long gone by now, though. One vendor called out to her to buy his still fresh bread. She ignored him and continued on down the street. As she walked through the center of the marketplace, she sighed. “No looking for new cloth today,” she thought.
As she neared Sharin’s tent, she heard voices inside and slowed down, not wanting to disturb her if she was with a customer.
“You’re crying,” a voice inside the tent said.
“Ben!” someone else hissed. She heard a small grunt, and quietly moved closer to the tent opening.
“He wasn’t a nice man, was he?” the first voice asked. Both voices sounded like they came from children. She hesitated to open the flap and interrupt a business conversation, but then she heard crying from inside. All hesitation gone, she hurried into the tent.
“What’s going on?” she asked. Inside she saw Sharin leaning against her workbench with her face buried in her hands. Her long dark hair was covering half of her face, almost hiding her hands.
“Sharin? What’s happened?” Tara asked. She quickly went over to her friend. Sharin threw her arms around her and started bawling. Sharin’s tall thin body shook as she cried. Tara hugged her tightly.
“Look Matthew!” Ben nearly yelled. “That’s the same thing as the figurine!” He was pointing to Zed. “But bigger!” Zed looked from Sharin to Ben before going over to sniff Sharin’s leg. Tara moved to see what Zed was doing and Sharin took a step back.
“She’ll be okay, Zed,” Tara told the shivaree. Zed turned around and moved to sniff the two boys. “They’re okay, too, Zed,” Tara huffed. She didn’t want Zed biting anyone, especially two young boys. Both were dressed in warm winter clothes, but the clothes were old, worn, and patched. The smaller boy had light brown hair that was cut short, while the taller boy had slightly longer and darker hair that hung down to his shoulders. She watched Zed twirl around twice before settling on the ground at their feet.
“It is bigger,” Matthew stated. “I wonder –”
“Who are you?” Tara interrupted. “And what happened? What did you say to her?” When she had entered the tent, she hadn’t noticed anything that would cause Sharin to cry. She had not seen any broken figurines. The small desk in the back of the tent that she sculpted on was a cluttered mess, but that was normal. A long workbench on the right held stones and tools and that was normal, too. She could only guess that the boys had said something to upset Sharin.
“Huh? We didn’t say anything!” Ben replied. “It was that man that was here that caused it.”
“What man?” Tara asked. Turning her attention to Sharin, “Stop crying and tell me what happened.”
“A noble threatened me,” Sharin said between sobs. Her crying was lessening, but she was still breathing in gasps. “Just like my brother. It’s going to happen all over again. I’m going to end up just like my brother!” She started bawling again.
“What brother?” Ben asked. Sharin’s crying reached another level of intensity.
“Ben!” Matthew scolded. “You’re just making it worse!”
“But I didn’t do anything. I just asked about her brother.”
“Her brother is dead,” Tara replied. Turning her attention back to Sharin, she said, “And you aren’t going to end up like him, either! Do you hear me?” Sharin nodded and wiped her face on the sleeve of her shirt. “Now, I still don’t know what happened.”
“It started with a dragon –” Ben began.
“A dragon?” Matthew and Tara asked in unison. Sharin looked at the two of them and giggled through her crying, almost making her choke.
“A dragon, Ben?” Matthew asked. “How did this start with a dragon? It was that noble that made her cry.”
“Yes, how did it start with a dragon when there are no dragons?” Tara also asked.
“Yes, there are!” Ben replied.
“No, there aren’t!” Matthew stated.
“That man said there are dragons,” Ben said. “And you believed in them once before.”
“Yeah, but that man explained that there *were* dragons, but there aren’t any now,” Matthew said.
“He said they were –”
“Enough!” Tara yelled. “I don’t care about dragons. I want to know what happened to make Sharin this upset.”
“We don’t really know,” Matthew told her. “We just overheard a man talking to her inside this tent. We were outside and the flap was closed, but we could hear them talking.”
“Yeah, especially when they both started yelling at each other,” Ben added.
“The man wanted her to come with him and do sculpting for him, and she didn’t want to go. He said that she would eventually, whether she wanted to or not.”
“Is that what happened?” Tara asked Sharin. Sharin nodded, her breathing and her tears almost under control.
“He … he was … some noble,” Sharin stuttered.
“Who was he?”
“I don’t know. He just started asking me questions about my figurines and then he wanted me to work for him. He said he had money to buy me good tools, a proper work area, or anything else I wanted. I started to get upset and never asked him his name. I just wanted him to leave.”
“He almost knocked us onto the ground when he left,” Ben added. Tara looked at the boys and saw that Ben was sitting on the ground next to Zed, rubbing behind the shivaree’s ears. Zed was leaning closely against Ben with his head in Ben’s lap and his eyes closed. She looked at Matthew, who was still standing looking at her. Their eyes met, and he looked down at the ground.
“He did almost knock us down,” Matthew said.
“So, I have a noble threatening my friend, no one knows his name, and he tries to knock kids onto the ground? Is there anything else?”
“He was mean,” Ben added.
“And that makes a mean noble with no name who knocks people down,” Matthew re-stated.
“He had a small scar above his left eye,” Sharin said, remembering some of the details about the noble. She had stopped crying, but was still a bit shaken.
“I guess that makes him a mean noble with no name who knocks people down and has a scar above his eye,” Ben said.
“He didn’t have a beard, either,” Matthew remembered. “That makes him … um … a mean noble with no name and a scar above his eye without a beard and … oh! … who knocks people down!”
“He was plump, too,” Sharin giggled. “That’s a mean noble with no name who’s plump with a scar above his eye and no beard who knocks people down!” Ben broke out laughing, which caused Zed to look up to see what was going on.
“I don’t want to know anymore,” Tara laughed. “I have a hard enough time remembering half of what you’re saying let alone adding more.” She noticed that Sharin had stopped crying and was smiling, although her eyes were still slightly red.
“You don’t think he’ll do anything, do you?” Sharin asked Tara.
“No. I don’t think he will. Most nobles think of themselves as the center of the world. What they want, they try to get. Most times, they do get it, but people are different. You don’t see nobles buying people in the marketplace, do you? You can’t just buy people here in Dargon,” Tara explained.
“I’ve never seen a noble buying a person in the marketplace,” Ben said.
“Who are you?” Tara asked again, realizing she didn’t get an answer the first time.
“I thought you didn’t want to know anymore,” Matthew asked, smiling.
“About the noble. You knew what I meant,” Tara replied, smiling also.
“My name is Matthew. Ben and I are best friends.”
“They came to get a figurine,” Sharin told Tara. “It’s the dragon one over there,” she said, pointing towards the corner of the tent. Matthew and Ben followed her finger, for they hadn’t seen the dragon, yet.
“It’s great!” Ben exclaimed as he went over to it. He bent down to get a closer look at it. The wings were outstretched and open with the wing bone showing through the membrane along the forward edges of the wings. It was reared up as if to take flight, the forearms raised outward, talons extended. Ben ran his hand over the wings, over the body, over every part of the dragon. He stopped at the head where two horns protruded from above the eyes.
“It’s beautiful,” Matthew whispered. “It almost looks like a real dragon. Or what a real dragon would be if they were real.”
“They are real,” Ben insisted. “And they look like this.” Ben picked the dragon up and stood. He held it close to his body as he turned it over, looking at every detail.
Matthew turned and walked back to where Sharin was standing. “Thank you,” he told her. “We’ll show it off to everyone we can.”
“Show it off?” Tara asked.
“It was our deal,” Sharin replied. “I make it for them, and they go out into the marketplace and show it to everyone they see. Tell the people where they got it from. I was hoping it would bring in more business. Things haven’t been too good lately.”
Matthew thought about what she said before asking, “If you aren’t doing good, why didn’t you want to work for the noble? You would have gotten more money. What’s so bad about that?”
“He was mean,” Ben replied quickly.
“Besides that, Ben,” Matthew said.
“My brother used to work for a noble,” Sharin began. “He …”
“You don’t have to tell them,” Tara said.
“I know, but I’ve held it inside too long. It’s still upsetting me, and maybe if I talk about it … It can’t be worse than it is now.”
Tara hugged her friend and went to go look at the dragon, letting Sharin tell her story in her own way and in her own time. Ben was right, she noticed as she saw the dragon. It looked life-like. A dragon captured in miniature and turned to stone. She wondered where Sharin got the ideas to sculpt such details. It was something she would have to remember to ask about later.
“My brother … was not from here,” Sharin began. “I am not from here. I am Lanoam and my village is a great distance from here. The children that were born into our village were always deformed. The healers worked to correct the children’s bodies, but there were so many being born that way. My brother, however, was born whole and healthy.
“As he grew, he realized that our people needed help. It was taking stronger and stronger magic to heal the children. He pleaded with the village elders, but they would not listen to him. After nineteen summers, he convinced the elders to let him search out other people and find something that would save the children. He believed that other people would have magic that would help us, and so he left in search of them.
“One day, a summer after he left, a sparrow came to me with a message from my brother. He was in trouble, and I left our village to go to him. When I found him, he would not look into my eyes; he would not hold me close in a loving embrace. He only told me of what happened to him after he left our village.
“He searched and searched and found a noble who promised to help him in return for aid from my brother. My brother told the noble that he could heal and sculpt and strengthen metals so that they would not break. The noble forced my brother to use his talents only for destruction. He was forced to heal only the noble’s soldiers, to strengthen swords and other weapons so that the noble could conquer neighboring territories.
“My brother was maimed when he did not comply with the noble’s wishes. And after he told me all of this, he took his own life.” Sharin sobbed. Her crying had started again. She cried for her lost brother and she cried for herself; she was lost just like her brother.
“I’m sorry,” Matthew whispered. “I’ve never had a brother, but if I did, I wouldn’t want to lose him, either.”
“You’re afraid the noble will treat you like the other one did your brother, aren’t you?” Ben asked. He held the dragon figurine close to his body with both hands.
“Yes,” Sharin answered.
“You might as well tell them the rest, Sharin,” Tara told her. “So that they understand all of why you don’t want to end up like your brother.”
“I returned to my people after my brother’s death,” Sharin said. “Less babies were surviving birth. I told the elders what had become of my brother, and I also told them that I would finish his quest. They agreed, and I left my home again to continue the search for someone or something to help my people.
“I came through Dargon many summers ago, and that is when I met Tara. She helped me through some trouble that I had. I left soon after and continued my quest. It wasn’t long before I felt lonely and afraid. Tara had been the only person that I had met that showed me kindness and love.
“So, I returned to Dargon. Perhaps instead of searching for someone to aid me, I could stay in one place that many people travelled through and search for them as they came to me.
“The fate of my people is on my shoulders. Should I end up like my brother, I will have failed him and my village.”
“That’s why you were so upset after he left your tent, wasn’t it?” Ben asked.
“Do you always ask silly questions?” Tara asked him.
“Yes,” Matthew answered for Ben, smiling. “He always does.”
“Do not,” Ben replied.
“Do too,” Matthew said.
“You two enjoy arguing, don’t you?” Tara asked, and then realized she had just asked a question Ben would have asked. She laughed at herself, and the two boys stopped arguing to look at her.
“What’s so funny?” Ben asked, which made Tara laugh harder. Sharin shrugged her shoulders, as she didn’t understand the joke either.
“Nothing,” Tara managed to say. “Just something that was funny to me,” she giggled.
“You haven’t found anyone to help?” Matthew asked, changing the subject. Sharin shook her head.
“Tara has helped me search this past year. We’ve been to all the temples in town, and asked the visiting priests when they came to Dargon. We’ve bothered and asked just about everyone we could think of.”
“It’s dark out, Matthew,” Ben said, interrupting. “We should have been home already. Rachel’s going to yell at us.” Matthew turned around to peer outside. It was dark outside.
“I didn’t realize it was this late,” Matthew said. “We’ve got to go.”
“I’ll walk you home,” Tara said. “I’m not so sure Zed will want to come, though. He’s asleep.” The boys turned and looked at Zed. The shivaree was rolled over on his back, feet in the air, sound asleep.
“I forgot he was there,” Matthew said.
“So did I,” Ben echoed.
“I’ll walk with you,” Sharin added.
“What about your shop?” Tara asked. “Aren’t you afraid someone will steal some of your figurines?”
“No,” Sharin replied. “Help me get the ones outside back in here, and I’ll explain.” The four of them went outside to get the figurines, and Zed woke up. He rolled over, yawned, and slowly got to his feet. “I made a deal,” Sharin started to explain, “with some shadow boys. They watch my shop whenever I’m not around, and I either pay them or I sculpt something for them. There’s always one or two around the marketplace, so I just look for them and let them know I’m going to be gone.”
“Shadow boys? You trust them?” Tara asked as she carried a figurine inside. Zed was headed for the opening as she entered and she was forced to step over him. “Oh, Zed, you’re awake. Good, but stay out of the way.”
“I trust them as long as I pay them,” Sharin said, smiling. “And so far, they haven’t demanded much in payment.”
“Liriss would have charged you a lot if you were dealing with him,” Tara told her. “In fact, I’m surprised he hasn’t approached you. Although he has been busy with other things lately. Or so my uncle says.”
“Who’s Liriss?” Ben asked.
“Who’s your uncle?” Matthew asked.
“My Uncle is Captain Adrunian Koren of the town guard, and Liriss is no one you need to know about,” Tara stated. “And someone I hope you never meet.”
“Ben, you need to leave the dragon here,” Matthew told his friend. “We’ll come get it in the morning.”
“Can’t I take it home?”
“We haven’t worked for it, yet,” Matthew explained. “It’ll be here in the morning.” Ben frowned as he set the dragon sculpture on the ground. He looked at it one final time before he left the tent.
“That’s it,” Sharin said, tying the tent flaps closed after all were outside. “Let’s find a shadow boy, and then we can walk you two home.” Sharin led the way as she knew the places where the shadow boys normally would be. It wasn’t very far before she found one, and told him that she would be gone a bell or so. He nodded and whispered something to her before running off. “He’s going to get someone else because he has something to do. That and he wanted to know what the dog was.” Sharin grinned, and Tara frowned. “I told him it was a shivaree.”
“I met some shadow boys before,” Matthew said. “A long time ago, before I met Ben, I wanted some friends. There was this group of boys that played near my house. They always seemed to have fun, and I wanted to play, too.
“One day, I asked them if I could join in their game. One of them yelled at me and told me to go home. He said they didn’t have any homes.”
“They don’t,” Sharin said. “And it’s good that you didn’t end up with them. Most of them aren’t very nice. I don’t know why they watch my shop for the meager pay that I give them. Maybe they like the stone sculptures I do for them. But if they thought I had money stashed away in my tent … well, they would rather rob me than work for me.”
“Yes,” Tara agreed. “Shadow boys have to survive on the street. They don’t have homes. They’ll cheat or steal to get something, but most of them won’t beg. They’ll kill before they’ll beg. The only family they have is each other. Even then, they have been known to turn on one another.”
Another shadow boy ran up to them and they stopped their conversation. The shadow boy told Sharin that if she wasn’t gone longer than two bells, he could watch her tent. More than two bells, and she was on her own.
“Where do you live?” Tara asked the boys.
“That way,” Ben said, pointing. Matthew looked in the direction Ben was pointing, thought about the way the streets were situated, and guessed that Ben was right. But he didn’t understand how Ben knew that so quickly.
“Lead the way,” Sharin told Ben.
“Are you two good friends?” Ben asked as he led them down the street. “Matthew and I are best friends. Well, he’s my only friend, really. But still my best friend. And I was wondering if you can have more than one good friend.”
“We’re good friends, yes,” Tara replied. “We’ve been friends ever since we met.”
“Tara is the only friend that I have, too, Ben. And she’s my best friend,” Sharin stated.
“What about your village?” Matthew asked.
“I didn’t really have friends there. I played with other kids when I was young, but no one that I could call a friend. Not like Tara is.”
“That’s Matthew’s house,” Ben said, pointing. “Matthew, his mom and Rachel share the house. I live two houses down, but I’m mostly at Matthew’s house.”
“Ben’s mom isn’t home very much,” Matthew explained. “She’s gone all night usually, and sleeps most of the day away. So Ben stays at my house. Rachel watches us when my mom isn’t there.” Matthew opened the door to find Rachel sitting in a chair, sewing. Jerid was leaning against a wall, his laughter cut short as the door opened. Both looked over and Rachel frowned.
“You should have been home bells ago,” she scolded.
“They were helping me,” Sharin said as she and Tara entered the house.
“Who are you?” Jerid asked. “Oh! Tara,” he said as he noticed her entering.
“Hello Jerid,” Tara said with a smile on her face. “Uncle Koren,” she thought, “would love to hear about this.” Jerid was a Lieutenant in the Keep’s guard, and Koren was a Captain in the town guard. Koren was always trying to find out more about Jerid, as the two of them were rivals — professional rivals — in Dargon.
“You know her, Jerid?” Rachel asked, very interested in the answer.
“Yes, she is Adrunian Koren’s niece. If the boys were with her, they were in no trouble, and probably safer than with a town guard escort. Zed’s with you, isn’t he?”
“Yes. He’s just outside. I didn’t want to frighten anyone in here, so I told him to stay there. Besides, we have to be going. Uncle Koren will worry, too, if I’m not home soon.”
“What’s this?” Eileen asked as she stepped through the door. “I just get off work and find more people here than at the inn. Who are you?” Turning to her son and Ben, she asked, “Why aren’t you two in bed?”
“Mom,” Matthew explained, “this is Tara and Sharin.”
“Wasn’t there a brown furry creature outside?” Tara asked Eileen.
“He’s wandered off again. Zed!” she yelled as she went out the door.
“I should go with her,” Sharin said as she went out the door, too. Both girls heard Eileen ask what was going on. Then they heard the boys start in on what happened with Rachel’s voice trying to be heard over them.
“Zed picked the best time to wander off,” Sharin remarked.
“Zed!” Tara cried. “Yes, he certainly did! I’m going to lock him in my room next time I go anywhere.” She jumped as she felt something brush her legs. “Zed!” she scolded as she looked down and saw it was the shivaree. “Don’t scare me like that!”
“You did jump,” Sharin giggled. “And don’t be mean to him. He did come when you called. Didn’t you Zed?”
“Are you going back to the tent?”
“I have to,” Sharin replied. “All my sculptures are there. I don’t want any of them to get stolen.”
“Why’d you bring all of them to the tent?”
“Because I was hoping to sell them all! I need the money or I won’t have a room to sleep in. Not that I’m going to sleep in it tonight; I have to sleep in the tent.”
“You’re not sleeping in the tent,” Tara told her. “That’s too dangerous.”
“It isn’t. The town guard walks through the marketplace all the time at night. Those other merchants don’t want their wares stolen, either. Even if they have a nice building to lock them up in.”
“I’ll stay with you, then,” Tara said.
“And have your uncle worried to death? No. I’ll be fine for tonight. You’re right, though. I shouldn’t have brought all of them. Tomorrow, will you help me take them back to my room?”
“I could go tell my uncle and then come back. And yes, I’ll help you tomorrow.”
“No, that’s a wasted trip, especially at night. No use wandering Dargon alone any more than you have to,” Sharin told her. They were close to the tent, and Sharin looked for the shadow boy. She found him sitting down, leaning against a shop, asleep.
“Aren’t you supposed to be guarding my tent?” she asked him. He jumped up when she spoke and looked around wide-eyed.
“Ol’s balls,” he cursed. “I’m sorry. Don’t tell anyone, okay?”
“You watch her tent for another two bells, and she won’t,” Tara interrupted, seeing a perfect opportunity to have someone watch over Sharin. The shadow boy looked at Sharin, who nodded.
“Okay,” he muttered and sat back down. Looking up at them, he added, “And I won’t fall asleep again.” They left him there and went to the tent. Tara helped clear off the workbench to make room for Sharin to sleep. It wasn’t quite long enough, but it would have to make do.
“You’ll be okay?” Tara asked her friend.
“Yes. My tent’s never been bothered before, and no one knows I’m staying here except you. I’ll be fine.”
Tara hugged her and left. She made sure Sharin tied the tent flaps closed before she left to go home. Sharin would be fine, she told herself. Now she, on the other hand, had better be alert. Even with Zed, walking through Dargon at night, alone, wasn’t exactly the safest thing to do. Fortunately, she ran across a town guard patrol and they escorted her home.