Rachel was busy fixing two mugs of tea, one for her and one for Tara, when a knock sounded on the door. As she went quickly to the door to open it, Tara got up from a chair to stand behind her. Rachel was a hand taller than Tara but that wasn’t the only difference in the two women. Rachel had short blonde hair while Tara’s was brown and long. Tara was quiet and introverted while Rachel loved being among people. Rachel worked at the Inn of the Golden Lion and Tara worked for her uncle, Captain Adrunian Koren of the town guard. What they did have in common was a concern for two small children: Matthew and Ben.
“Who is it?” Tara asked from behind Rachel. “Is it them?” She had stopped in to see if Matthew and Ben were home. When she had found out they weren’t, she had informed Rachel of her visit with the boys to her uncle’s office at Dargon Keep. Tara believed that her friend, Sharin, had been kidnapped, and the boys were the only ones to see the man whom she believed had done the kidnapping. It was a surprise to Tara to find that they weren’t home, as one of the town guard was supposed to have escorted them there.
A large man in a uniform entered. On his breast was the ducal crest. Behind him, Matthew and Ben walked into the house.
“Good afternoon. I am Sergeant Ryal. I was charged by Lieutenant Taishent to deliver these two to their home and not to let them out of my sight unless a Rachel or an Eileen was here. I’m hoping one of you is Rachel or Eileen,” Ryal said.
“I’m Rachel. I watch these boys when their mothers are working. Eileen is Matthew’s mother, but she’s working. When you return, give my thanks to Jerid for bringing them home safely.”
“I will,” Ryal said, then turned and left. Rachel turned to the boys and said, “You’ve been all over Dargon, I hear.”
“We were,” Matthew said, resigned to accept whatever punishment she gave him.
“I’ve had a *long* talk with Tara. She’s told me how you were there at Sharin’s tent the day before she was kidnapped and how you heard and saw a noble argue with her. She also told me about taking you to the keep to see her Uncle. A guard was to escort you home.
“You were supposed to be here bells ago after showing the town guards where the tent was, but you went to see Jerid instead.” She sighed as if she didn’t know what else to say. “From what I’ve been told, I can’t fault you much.” Ben’s eyes grew wide and he started to say something, but Rachel cut him off, “*But* you should have come to me before going to see Jerid. Who knows what could have happened to you between here and the keep?” Rachel knelt down in front of the boys to look at them on their level. “What would I do if something had happened to you?” she asked them. “What would I have told your mother, Matthew?” Rachel watched them shift their eyes downward, away from her. She knew they wouldn’t answer her. Sighing, she stood and took a step back.
“Tara wants to keep searching for her friend and asked me if you could accompany her on her search,” Rachel added. Matthew and Ben looked up and watched Rachel intently. They had been expecting punishment, and now they held their breath waiting to see what Rachel would say next.
“I’m going to let you go with her,” Rachel said, “with one promise. You have to promise that you’ll stay with her and listen to what she tells you.”
“I promise,” Ben said, hurriedly. He ran over to Rachel and hugged her.
“Me, too,” Matthew added.
“I’ve got to go to work soon,” Rachel said as she hugged Ben back. “Your mother is still working, Matthew. Ben, your mother …”
“I know,” Ben said quietly, stepping back from Rachel. “She probably won’t be home all night.”
“I’m sorry, Ben,” Rachel said softly. Ben’s mother was hardly ever home. When she was, she was usually drunk. There was a small pause before Rachel spoke again. “If you’re with Tara, I don’t have to worry about you, and you’re at least doing something worthwhile. Help Tara find her friend, you hear?”
“Yes,” Matthew answered. “We’d know him if we spotted him again. We’ll find him, and then we’ll find Sharin.” Ben nodded.
“Thank you, Rachel,” Tara said. “She’s the only friend I have, and I don’t want to lose her.”
“Hey, where’s Zed?” Ben asked. “I don’t see him.”
“He’s home,” Tara told him. “If we’re going to be searching all over the town, I don’t want to have to worry about him wandering off. Plus, he tends to draw attention, and I don’t want that noble seeing us until we find out if he’s got Sharin.”
“Thank you again, Rachel. I’ll have them back by nightfall. I promise.”
“See that you do. Now go on and find your friend.” Tara, Matthew, and Ben walked out the door and started down the alley.
“Where are we going?” Matthew asked.
“I don’t know,” Tara said.
“Back to Sharin’s tent,” Ben answered.
“Why?” Matthew asked.
“Because that’s where the town guards started. Why shouldn’t we?” Ben replied. Tara looked at Ben and smiled.
“Yes, why shouldn’t we?” she echoed.
They didn’t find anything new at the tent. Ben looked over the ground several times looking for something that would lead them to the noble. It was on his pass inside the tent that Matthew stopped him.
“Ben, it isn’t any use. We aren’t going to find anything new.” Ben looked up from the ground to stare at his friend. A couple of tears were forming at the edge of his eyes.
“You heard what they said,” Ben cried. “She’s probably gone by now! You heard them!”
“Ben!” Matthew yelled. “That isn’t what they meant!”
“It is so! And you know it.”
“Stop it!” Ben screamed. “It is so what they meant!”
“They said they’d find her!” Matthew yelled.
“Who said she’s gone?” Tara interrupted, concern covering her face. The boys looked like they were going to fight.
“That town guard said some things, but he didn’t really mean what Ben said,” Matthew explained. “Did he Ben?” Ben looked at the ground.
“Yes, he did,” Ben muttered. “There’s no way around it. That’s what he meant even if he didn’t say all of it out loud.”
“Mean what?” Tara asked, moving to kneel beside Ben. “What did he say?”
“Ben,” Matthew pleaded. He knew Ben was right, but he didn’t want Tara to know.
“She should know,” Ben replied, his boyish nature seemingly gone. “One of the guards said that whoever took Sharin was probably taking her out of Dargon quickly. He thought she was gone by now.”
“Who said this?” Tara asked, her voice hard and edged.
“I don’t remember his name. He was one of the town guards that was picked to search for her.”
“Describe him,” Tara ordered. “I’ll have him thrown in a cell for even thinking that! I’ll have –”
“Tara!” Matthew interrupted. “We’ll find her.”
“I’ll have him whipped,” she continued, her voice breaking up. “I’ll … I’ll …” Her voice trailed off a bit and then she started to finish her sentence, but instead moaned, “Oh, I’ll never find her.”
“We’ll find her,” Ben said.
“No,” Tara cried. “It’s me. I always lose those closest to me. I lost my family, I almost lost uncle Koren, and now I’ve lost Sharin. It happens to everyone that’s close to me!”
“You haven’t lost her yet,” Matthew said. “But if we stay here all day, we will.”
“Maybe Zed could follow her scent?” Ben asked.
“I don’t know,” Tara replied, wiping the tears from her face. “He’s never done that before.”
“Besides,” Matthew added, “he’ll draw attention. And if we find the noble, he might spot us. We don’t want that to happen. We need to follow him to where he has Sharin.”
“It’s just the three of us, then,” Tara said.
“And four of the town guard,” Matthew added, “who should have told the patrols. And Jerid, who has the keep’s guards looking. Why, with all that, this noble doesn’t have a chance.”
“Unless he’s gone already,” Ben whispered.
“Ben!” Matthew and Tara yelled at the same time.
“Come on,” Ben said, leaving the tent. “Let’s go look for this noble.” Matthew and Tara followed him out, and the three of them went to the marketplace.
It was just after midday when they completed their round through the marketplace. Tara wanted to eat at a shop there, but the boys wanted to go home to eat.
“Don’t you like eating here?” Tara asked.
“Yes,” Ben replied. “Sometimes. Last time we ate here, the food was really spicy.”
“Well, we don’t have to get spicy food this time,” she told him.
“I’d rather eat at home,” Matthew stated.
“But why?” Tara asked.
“We don’t have enough money,” Ben told her.
“We don’t have any money,” Matthew corrected him.
“Oh,” Tara remarked. “That’s a good reason. And I don’t have enough for all three of us.” She brought out her coins from a small bag that hung from her belt. Spreading them out, she realized that she would barely have enough money for her own lunch. “Would you mind company for lunch?”
“I don’t mind. And mom and Rachel aren’t home,” Matthew said, smiling. They left the marketplace and went to Matthew’s house to eat. It was a small lunch consisting of soup and biscuits. Finishing up his soup, Matthew asked where they should look next.
“Back to the marketplace?” Ben asked, stuffing the last of his biscuit in his mouth.
“Zed does hunt,” Tara replied to some unasked question.
“What?” Matthew asked.
“I was thinking about Zed. He uses his nose to hunt. Maybe he could find Sharin.”
“It’s worth a try,” Ben said. “Do you have something of Sharin’s so that Zed can smell it?”
“Lots of things. Sharin and I trade clothes all the time.”
“Back to the tent again,” Matthew sighed. Tara and Ben giggled.
The three of them, accompanied by Zed, walked toward the marketplace — again. They took Zed to Sharin’s tent and let him wander around it. Zed was a shivaree and drew attention most places he went. His body was long with long brown fur covering it. He had a long busy tail, a long snout, and short upright ears. Shivarees were wild creatures and sometimes hunted for their fur. Most people had never seen a shivaree, which was why Zed drew stares. He sniffed the ground around the front of the tent and then lifted his head high into the air. His nose twitched and he sniffed quickly. Lowering his head back down to the ground, he turned and started walking up the Street of Travellers.
“This is a long street, isn’t it?” Ben asked.
“Yes,” Tara said. “It goes from the docks through most of Dargon on this side of the river, through the business district, through the marketplace, over the causeway, and to the keep.”
“Why is it called the Street of Travellers?” Matthew asked.
“I don’t know,” Tara replied. “Maybe because it connects all the main places that travellers find themselves going to?”
“What’s that?” Ben asked, pointing to a painted sign on the front of a building. The sign showed a trio of candles, of various shapes and sizes, burning brightly. Above the candles were the words, “Trills Candles”. Zed ignored the building and kept walking.
“It’s a place that makes candles, Ben,” Tara answered. “There are several places like this throughout the business district. There are also tanners, weavers, tailors, herbalists, bakers, and all sorts of other businesses.”
“We are in the business district?” Matthew asked.
“Just like the marketplace, there aren’t any real defined boundries for the business district. It’s just a general area that expands or shrinks depending on the year.”
“The year determines if it’s big or small?” Ben asked. “That’s weird.”
“It isn’t the year that does it, but how the year goes.”
“Goes where?” Matthew asked. They were slowly walking down the road. Zed was crossing back and forth in front of them.
“If there are a lot of ships or trade caravans that come here, then the year goes fairly well for businesses. But if storms or raiders hinder ships and caravans, then the year isn’t so good for trade.”
“Why is there a business district and a marketplace?” Matthew asked.
“It wasn’t always that way. When the ships came in and merchants wanted a place to store supplies, they built the warehouses on the docks. When they wanted to sell things, they couldn’t use the docks. It smelled bad all the time and there was always some activity dealing with ships and repairs and such going on, so some merchants moved away from the docks. That’s when the business district started.”
“What about the marketplace?” Ben asked. He was looking down at the street and kicking rocks at random. He kicked a rock and it lifted high off the ground and he watched its flight.
“The farmers started that, really. When the farmers came in to sell their crops, they wanted a place to do that. Since they usually couldn’t afford the buildings in the business district, they gathered at an open crossroads to sell their crops. That’s when the marketplace started.”
“Look at that bread!” Ben shouted. He had noticed the bread while watching the rock fall. The discussion of economics was forgotten as the three of them stared inside an open door of a baker’s building. The loaf of bread was easily twice as large as a normal loaf, maybe three times.
“You’d have to have a big oven to bake something like that,” Tara said.
“And a big belly to eat it,” Matthew replied. Ben giggled.
“Straight,” Tara said, pulling them away. “We’ve got a noble to find, not a loaf of bread.”
“And Zed,” Ben added. “I don’t see him anywhere.”
“Get out of there!” a man yelled from somewhere up the street.
“Oh!” Tara snarled. “That’s Zed, and he’s gotten into something.”
They ran, looking for Zed or the man who was yelling. There were three people staring inside a building. “He’s got to be there,” Tara said, heading for the people. When they got there, they found that Zed had located a place where meat was smoked. It looked as if he had tried to grab some of the raw meat and the owner had caught him in the act.
“Zed!” Tara yelled. “Get out of there!”
“This is your beast?” the owner asked, anger tinting his voice.
“He’s mine. I’m sorry if he’s caused any trouble.”
“Aye, he’s snatched some of my beef from the rack.”
“How much?” Tara asked. This sort of thing happened all the time to her when she took Zed out.
“He couldn’t have eaten that much! Five Floren.”
“It was good beef. Eight Floren.”
“Done,” Tara replied and dug the coins from her purse. “Come on Zed.”
“Was he following the smell of the meat all along?” Ben asked.
“Most likely,” Tara answered. “I told you, he’s never done this sort of thing before. I don’t think we’ll ever find her.”
“We’ll find her,” Matthew said. “Look, Zed seems to have picked up another scent.”
“I know,” Tara said, but she didn’t sound as if she believed herself. They continued following Zed up the Street of Travellers toward the docks.
“Where are we going now?” Ben asked.
“We’re going to the docks,” Tara said. “Or at least Zed is going towards the docks.”
“We aren’t walking towards the marketplace?”
“No. Look up at the sun. See, it is on our left. That means we’re walking north, or somewhat north.”
“Oh,” Ben said. “And the docks are north?”
“Yes,” Tara answered, but didn’t say any more.
The docks were fairly large and spread out. Commercial Street intersected the Street of Travellers in a T fashion near the docks. Around the docks, the whole area was granite cobbled. Commercial Street also ran alongside the docks and widened up to become not only a street but also an area for the loading and unloading of ships.
They searched the open areas next to the actual docks first. It took them some time as the area was heavily congested, Zed went over areas several times, and they had to keep out of the way of the workers. After that, they moved inward some and searched around the fronts of the buildings and warehouses facing the sea. It took them less time to search the areas behind the buildings, and in the end, it was fruitless.
“She’s gone!” Tara cried out as she sat down on the ground. Zed curled up next to her and used his nose to pry her hand away from her body. He moved back and forth under her hand, and she unconsciously began to scratch behind his ears.
“We don’t know that,” Matthew said.
“Have we found her?”
“No, but –”
“No, we haven’t,” Tara sighed. “She’s gone.”
“Maybe the guard found her,” Ben added.
“And maybe not!” Tara snipped. “She’s gone, I said! Don’t you understand that?”
“You don’t have to yell at Ben,” Matthew told her. “It isn’t his fault, you know.”
“If he hadn’t wanted that stupid dragon, then maybe that noble wouldn’t have found her,” she replied.
“You can have that ‘stupid dragon’ if it’ll get Sharin back!” Ben said, tears forming on his face. “I never wanted it back as much as her!” He turned around and began crying.
“You didn’t have to say that,” Matthew told her. “If he didn’t want that dragon, no one would have gotten a look at the noble. Your chances of finding her would have –”
“I’m …” Tara started. “I didn’t mean that. Ben? I’m sorry, okay? I just don’t want to lose my best friend. I’ve lost too many people in my life already.”
“It’s okay,” Ben whispered, barely loud enough for them to hear. “I’d feel the same way if Matthew disappeared.”
“Quiet!” Matthew ordered.
“What now?” Tara asked.
“Shhh!” Matthew hissed. Tara shut up and Ben turned around.
“It’s him,” Ben whispered as he heard what Matthew had heard. “I’d know that voice anywhere.”
“Yes, that’s his voice,” Matthew agreed. “Now be quiet and let’s see if we can find him.”
“Without him seeing us, first,” Tara added. They crept along the alley to peer out into the open area of Commercial Street. Zed appeared curious as to what they were looking at. He started forward to see, but Tara held him back. Listening to where the voice seemed to come from, they found a group of men clumped together talking.
“That’s him,” Matthew said.
“Which one?” Tara asked.
“See the man on the far left?” There were four men with their backs to the group, and they seemed to be talking about a ship.
“Yes. Is he the one?”
“No, but the one to his right is.” Matthew pointed to the second man from the left.
“How can you tell? His back is to us.”
“I just know that’s him,” Matthew answered. The men turned around. The man that was second from the left wasn’t the noble. However, the man third from the left *was* the noble. “Well, I knew it was one of them.”
“If he’s still here, then it’s likely that Sharin is still here,” Tara whispered.
“Do you think she’s on a boat?” Ben asked.
“I don’t know,” Tara replied, turning to look at him. “I hope not,” she said finally.
“He’s leaving,” Matthew said. “We’ve got to follow him.” It wasn’t easy for them to follow the noble. He didn’t walk, he rode. They had to walk quickly to keep up with him, sometimes running to keep him in sight.
“You think he knows we’re following him?” Tara asked.
“I don’t know. You’d think he’d run or confront us or something if he did,” Matthew said. “He’s just riding along as if nothing was wrong.”
“I wonder where he’s going?” Ben asked.
“We’ll find out as long as we don’t lose sight of him,” Matthew replied. They managed to keep up with the noble. Zed seemed to enjoy the fast pace and made a game of it. He would twine in and out between the three of them without making them trip.
The noble went through the business district and the marketplace. He rode down the Street of Travellers and just before the causeway, he turned onto the Duke’s Highway. It was the road that ran parallel with the Coldwell. The local farmers used it to bring their tithings to the duke, their crops to the marketplace, and the merchants used it because it was a well-worn road. The main gates to Dargon stood across this road. No one guarded the gates, though, as they were always left open. The wall around the city wasn’t finished and it was useless to guard the gates.
The noble rode down this road for a league and turned off onto a path that led to a medium sized house. There was a small porch on the front, a few windows around the sides, and slate tiles on the roof. Overall, it looked like a well kept house. Beside the house was a large field of newly sprouted wheat, and behind the house stood a grove of pine trees. After the noble tied his horse to a wooden post, he entered the house. Matthew, Ben, and Tara looked for a spot to hide that was close.
Most everything around the area was flat. The wheat was just beginning to grow, the grove of trees was on the other side of the house, and there was nothing near the road.
“There’s a small ditch over there,” Ben said, pointing. Matthew looked to where Ben pointed and nodded.
“It’ll have to do for now,” he said. They moved to the ditch. “What now?”
“We call the guard,” Ben said.
“We see if she’s in there and if she is, we get her out of there,” Tara said. “And soon.”
“How are we going to do that?” Matthew asked.
“One of us goes to the front door and draws their attention, while the other two go to the back door and look to see if Sharin is there,” she explained.
“What’s this one at the front supposed to do?”
“I don’t know. You’ll figure something out.”
“Me?” Matthew asked. “Why me?”
“Because Ben is going to go with me,” Tara answered.
“I am?” Ben asked. “Why am I going with you?”
“Because I may need someone to help free Sharin once we get inside.”
“Why can’t I go in the back door with you?” Matthew asked.
“Because it’s my plan!” Tara hissed. “You get to go to the front door.”
“I think getting the guard is a better idea,” Ben remarked.
“You can run and get the guard, then,” Tara snapped. “I’m going to free Sharin.”
“No, I want to help free Sharin, too,” Ben muttered.
“What am I supposed to tell them?” Matthew asked.
“I don’t know. Think of something. Give us some time to go around back and then knock on the front door. When we hear you start talking, we’ll go in the back door,” Tara said. “Keep Zed here until we’re around the house. He should stay in the area, but I don’t want him following me into the house.”
“Okay,” Matthew said as he watched the two of them run around the house. Zed had found something interesting and hadn’t noticed Tara leave.
Matthew got up, walked over to the front door, and knocked. A large, burly man answered. It wasn’t the noble and Matthew wondered just how many people were in the house.
“What’ya want?” the man asked.
“Um, well …”
“Spit it out boy!”
“Have you seen a dog around here?” Matthew said, his voice just a bit louder than normal. “I lost my dog, and I was wondering if you’ve seen it?”
“What’cha yellin’ fer?” the man asked. “And I seen lots of dogs ’round here. What’s yer dog look like?”
“Well, he’s kind of, um, small. He’s brown and –”
“Looks like a brown dog over there,” the man said and pointed toward Zed. “Now go away!” the man started to shut the door. Inside, voices started yelling, and Matthew could hear Ben and Tara. He pushed the door open and ran past the man into the room. “Hey!” the man yelled. “Come here, you!”
Matthew ran from that room into the next, where he saw Ben and Tara. Two men were holding each of them. He was about to say something when he felt hands clamp around his shoulders.
“What’s the commotion?” someone yelled from upstairs. Matthew and Ben recognized the voice as the noble’s. Sounds of feet on the stairs told them he was coming down.
“Children!” the big, burly man yelled. “I think they were trying to steal from us.”
“Children?” the merchant asked. “What would they be doing here?”
“They look like they’ve been living in the streets. They’re all covered in dirt and their clothes are torn,” the man replied.
“Not all of them are children,” the merchant said as he walked into the room. He eyed Tara up and down. “Not all, indeed. Clean you up some, and I’ll bet you’ll fetch a good price at a slaver’s auction.”
“I’ll –” Tara began.
“You’ll what? You’re dirty, unkempt, and probably don’t have a living relative,” the merchant interrupted. “Take her to the food cellar with the other one.”
“What about the other two?”
“Get rid of them,” the merchant said. “I don’t want them to interfere with anything else. Understand?”
Matthew and Ben were silent trying to follow the conversation to find out if Sharin was in the house. Matthew almost asked who the other one in the cellar was, but held his speech to see if he could learn anything more. He noticed Ben look over at him with a questioning look.
“I want extra for this,” the man said.
“Fine, I’ll throw in another Sterling, but get it done. You can bury them in the pine grove.”
“Bury me?” Ben asked. “What do you mean? You’re going to bury us? Alive?”
“No, you dense leech,” the merchant snapped. “He’s going to slit your throat first, and then bury you!”
“No!” Ben yelled. “He can’t do that! You can’t kill me!”
“Oh, shut him up!” the merchant complained. “And take them out back now. I don’t want to hear their whining!”
Ben started to kick and scream. The two men beside him had to readjust their hold, but they got his flailing arms stopped. Ben’s legs continued to lash out at anything and everything.
Warned from Ben’s activities, the two men holding Tara tightened their grip and led her out of the room. The man behind Matthew picked him up and carried him outside. The two men and Ben were out the door already, and down the steps. Ben was screaming, but Matthew was silent. He knew he couldn’t get away, so he didn’t fight. He was hoping the man would relax his grip so he *could* try.
The five of them, three men and two boys, entered the pine grove.
“Kill them,” one of the men holding Ben said.
The man holding Matthew quickly plunged his knife into him. Ben stopped kicking and screaming as he saw his friend fall to the ground. Matthew groaned as he collapsed. Ben started screaming for help as he knew he was next.