Andrew MacDonnel walked into the Lazy Madame, a small tavern on the north side of Port Sevlyn’s waterfront district. He adjusted the angle of his new, wide-brimmed hat — a very costly thing to have, for a sailor — and stepped up to the bar. The brass pipe circling the wooden bar top hazily reflected the candlelight in the room. A waitress walked between crowded tables, decorating them with an assortment of pitchers and mugs. Someone played a small accordion at one of the back tables. Andrew smiled. He was home.
A large man, one who used to shovel coal onto a ship’s catapult while enemy fire splashed on the deck around him, walked up to Andrew from behind the bar. He looked at Andrew’s smiling face for a moment, and tried to stare behind the whiskers on his face and the odd felt-and-feather hat sitting on Andrew’s head. Andrew smiled back at the man and wondered how long this would go on. Finally, a large hand reached out to Andrew and gently removed the hat from Andrew’s head.
“Andrew MacDonnel!” the older man roared. “Cephas be praised! How are you? Where’ve you been for the last thirteen months? Never thought I’d see you here, again, that’s for sure. What’re you drinking these days? Lederian port? Are you hungry? How about a leftwich? Damnedest thing, Sandy was just wondering how you and Jack were doing. Sandy,” Kenneth called over his shoulder, “come see who’s back.”
A short woman stepped out from the kitchen door. Her cropped red hair was slightly matted with grease and sweat, and the apron around her waist was brown from days without cleaning. When she recognized Andrew, she smiled a nearly-perfect smile, the missing lower front tooth all that kept her from seeming angelic. The dirt around her face didn’t hide the few wrinkles she’d acquired in the last year, just as her long sleeves didn’t obscure the fact that she hadn’t eaten as well as she might have. Still, she was a welcome sight, and Andrew opened his arms to hold the woman for whom he had returned from war.
“Hello, Pumpkin,” he muttered in the embrace.
She smiled. “Hello, Slick,” she responded, hugging one of the two men she’d promised to marry, if they came back from the war. The other still hadn’t returned. “How’ve you been?”
“Tired, hungry … All in all,” he pulled back from the embrace and looked into her nut-brown eyes. “Same as usual.”
She squeezed him one more time before letting go. He backed away comfortably, looking towards the old man behind the bar to catch the welcoming wink to which he was accustomed. “How ’bout that meal?” Andrew asked, and the old man laughed.
“Sit yourself down, lad, and ol’ Kenneth will have you loosening your belt in no time.”
One nourishing meal later, and Andrew was indeed loosening his belt, the last of his meat and potato stew settling into his stomach. He leaned back in the chair, held both arms out to his side, and groaned as he stretched his muscles. His stomach felt more than full. He grasped the glass of Lederian port beside his plate and brought it to his lips. Sandy smiled to him from across the room as someone yelled out “Bring another round!” She waved to the other waitress to take care of the order as she skirted around the sailors, slapping a few groping hands along the way.
As she sat down at his table, a more serious look overtook her. Andrew knew what was coming next, and he sat forward. She reached out for his hand when she found the nerve.
“Have you seen Jack lately?” she asked.
Andrew shook his head. “Not since five months ago, when we were in the Dargon fleet.”
She looked surprised for a moment. “I thought the two of you were going south to fight on the border?”
“Well,” he replied, “we’re sailing men. Better off manning the deck of a supply ship, or piloting a course along the west coast, than fighting man-to-man. We knew we weren’t foot soldiers, Pumpkin. We couldn’t just run up to the front lines and die, now, could we?” He let his gaze fall to the table. “We had something to come back for …”
“What’s the last you heard of him?” She stopped for a moment. “I don’t mean to sound disappointed … I loved you both, truly … but I have to know.”
“We were on the same ship, funny thing. Figured we’d be separated, put on different crews when we got to Dargon, but there was an enemy fleet sighted and they hurried us on as quick as can be. One weapons master, one pilot. Two men needed on the same ship. We joked about neither of us making it back.”
“I don’t know!” He stared at her for a moment, then reached for his glass and forced some of the red liquid into his body. “I don’t know for sure … he should be, that’s certain.” He sighed, and brought the cup back to his lips.
“We were on the Argean — he’s mastering the catapult at the fore, me piloting her at the Captain’s side — when we went in. Damn fool nearly got us all burned, not firing when the Captain ordered, but you know Driftwood: got to do things his way. Well, he was right, the arm didn’t have the range if he’d fired right off. We ended up just toasted by the fire, and he dropped three buckets into one of the lead ships.
“We passed into the fleet … ships speeding past us, not particularly worrying about a tiny, pieced-together boat. We looked like a dinghy with a catapult on top. What’s to worry, right? Well, one of the last ships worried. Dropped a bucket of cinders amid-ship, sails catching like tinder. Crew got it under control, but not before we lost our wind. Sitting dead in the water, with an enemy ship each starboard and port. Port decides to latch on, but with no mage on that one, they went scrambling for the buckets. Fire burned their sails and started working their masts. Archers on the starboard, though … they forced us down in a flight of arrows and a whole new meaning of the word hot started up center of the ship.
“Captain yells ‘Let her burn, latch on to starboard!’ so we did, trying to take her down with us. We latched, arrows flying by our heads, and we fought between the smoke and the flame, and I didn’t have a clue as to where ol’ Driftwood had gotten. Only knew we were going to die, and there was no two ways about it. Should have all died. Every last bleeding one of us.”
Andrew rested for a moment, wiping the memory of the smoke from his eyes. Sandy waited patiently, still gripping his left hand with both of hers. He took his time. He thought about what happened before trying to tell her.
“It wasn’t exactly clear … still isn’t, entirely. Somehow, while the fighting was going on, and the ship was burning, Jack took five men, lowered one of the dinghies-”
“He didn’t run!” she stared at him in amazement.
“No. No, he lowered the boat and tipped it, filling it with water. Five men pumped their hearts near bursting, ’bout ‘majin, raising that load and dumping the water all over the deck. Smoke came from everywhere, but most of the burning had stopped. Someone called for the lines to be cut, and next thing I know I’m alone on a Beinison ship facing half a crew of Beinisons with a half-broken cutlass in my hand. They just started forward when someone pulls me by the neck and throws me overboard. It was Drift, soaked to the bone, covered in coal, and bleeding from one eye. Looked like a ghost of the deep. I hit the water pretty hard — and probably some splinters of wood — and next I know the battle’s over, Dargon’s free, and Drift ain’t been heard of since.”
He reached for his glass and sipped some wine. “And that’s all I know.”
Sandy sighed, looking past Andrew to an ambiguous point on the wall. “Well. You’re home, now. At least I’ve still got one of you.” She half-smiled at him.
“Yeah,” he answered. “Not a total loss.” He stared down at his glass.
Sandy stood up. “Well,” she said as she looked away. “I need to get back to the tables.”
“That’s it?” he asked. “No ‘Welcome back, Andrew … I’ve missed you … how are *you* doing … why did it take you so long to come home?’” He stared at her, but she didn’t return his gaze. He was a veteran sailor who had been through a war, but his stomach suddenly felt queasy.
Sandy returned to the tables.
The next morning, Andrew came down from his room and sat at the bar. Kenneth came out of the kitchen accompanied by a small cloud of smoke and the smell of eggs and bacon. He sat a plate down in front of Andrew and gave the sailor a fork and knife.
“Forks?” Andrew asked. “Moving up in the world, are we?”
Kenneth frowned. “Taking advantage of other people’s losses. When the Beinison army marched through here, last summer, hundreds were killed. Entire families, just for resisting the enemy. I don’t really need the forks for the lot I get in here, but there was a young girl selling her parent’s things, and I bought them off her for a cheap price. It was more than I could afford, seeing as I had to get this place fixed up, but she needed it more than I did, I’m sure.”
“Well,” Andrew said, “let me be a paying customer, for once, and help ease the cost.” He reached into his pouch and pulled out a Round. He slapped it down on the bar top and said, “I’ve finally got some coin to pay you back for all those times you bought my beer … and food … and gave me a place to sleep.”
Kenneth protested, sliding the silver coin towards Andrew. “Now, now … you know you and Jack never had to pay for a thing, here. You more than earned everything I ever gave you.”
“Yes, but now I’m not doing odd jobs … chopping wood in the back, keeping drunks from starting fights.”
“Call it your ‘Welcome Home’ meal.”
“Best welcome I’ve gotten, yet,” Andrew said bitterly.
“Now, Andrew,” Kenneth started. “Don’t go feeling bad about the girl. She truly missed you while you were away.”
“Wouldn’t know it from last night.”
There was a pause while Andrew cut into his eggs. Kenneth got a rag from behind the bar and began to wipe the top of the bar. “So where’d you get the money to buy a meal?” Kenneth asked. “You never had it before.”
“I drank it all away, before. Drift and I, both. Every time we made some decent money. Just needed the shirts on our backs and a place to rest our heads. Slept next to your dog out back, many a night, I can tell you. Or someone else’s.”
“So how do you come by it now?”
“Spent a few months working with the longshoremen in Dargon.”
Kenneth scoffed. “A land-lubber!”
“Hey, it was good money! Besides,” he continued, “I didn’t have anyone to leech off, in Dargon. You were always good enough to ‘accidentally’ leave the bar off the back door, when it got too cold, and more than once Drift and I found steaming hot bowls of soup in the kitchen.” He looked up appreciatively at Kenneth. “Just happened to be left out on the counter.”
Kenneth looked down at the counter and diligently wiped it with his rag. “That *was* a lucky thing, wasn’t it? Wonder what made me so forgetful …”
Andrew was about to continue when he heard someone coming down the stairs. When he looked over, he saw Sandy approaching the counter.
“You’ll want some bread with your breakfast,” Kenneth quickly surmised. “It’s only a day old, shouldn’t take me long to steam it up.” He went through the door and into the kitchen.
Sandy sat down next to Andrew. “Hey,” she said. Normally, he would answer in kind; this morning, he did not. “I was hoping we could talk.”
“Don’t know what else to tell you,” he said bitterly, “can’t think of anything about Jack that I didn’t cover last night.”
“That’s not what I mean,” she said.
Andrew stared at her, waiting for her to continue.
Finally, she stood up. “You’re being impossible.”
“I’m being impossible?” Andrew asked, surprised at the statement. “I’ve been gone for over a year!”
“And, what,” she replied, “were you doing during that year? Bouncing around on a ship, having an adventure, being irresponsible -”
“Fighting a war,” he interrupted her.
“Well the war was here, too, Andrew. Lots of people died. Lots of close friends.”
“Did you promise you’d marry them, too?”
Kenneth came through the kitchen door with a small loaf of bread in his hands. “Now you listen to me, Andrew MacDonnel,” Sandy said. Kenneth immediately turned around and went back into the kitchen, muttering something about needing cheese with the bread. “I counted the days that passed while you and Jack were away. I heard about the fighting in Pyridain. I heard about Gateway. I heard about the Dargon fleet. Then the war was over, and people were returning to Port Sevlyn. But not the dead. And not you and Jack. So what was I supposed to think?” She picked up the rag Kenneth had left on the counter and started using it on the brass bar.
“We might have been injured-”
“But you weren’t,” she yelled, slapping him with the rag, “were you?” She hit him again with the rag, threw it on the counter and walked out.
Andrew sat in his own silence.
After breakfast, Andrew walked around town. He wanted to see the old sights and find some of the old gang he used to know. The old gang wasn’t a very close group of friends, and there weren’t a lot of them. Mostly, they were people who used to drink and fight together, more often among themselves rather than with anyone else. But there was an odd bond between them — a level of respect — and Andrew hoped he could find it there again.
Passing through the town, he saw a lot of familiar faces. People with whom he once had drinks, or whose dogs were particularly hairy on cold winter nights. There were even a few fathers he would have avoided, if they had known where their daughters were on a warm summer night. At one house, he stopped and saw a man and asked after his daughter. The man lowered his gaze somberly and walked away. She had not survived the invasion.
Andrew also ran into a few of his old acquaintances. People that had hired him for odd jobs, in the past. He asked if they needed any more help, but they declined. They had no money and little food. One person did tell Andrew about Smitty needing help to tear down the old smithy. As Andrew made his way down to the smith, he remembered the times he and Jack had snuck into the smith at the end of the evening to find some coals. They would steal a few from the cooling bellows using the smith’s iron pail, and then start a small fire in Coleman’s Field, using driftwood they found on the edge of the Laraka. Jack would tell Andrew how the driftwood had probably seen more of the country than most people, just drifting down the river. Perhaps it had s een the walls of Gateway, or even come from the edge of Magnus itself!
Suddenly, Andrew didn’t want to help Smitty tear down his old smithy. He did not want to chop wood, plow a field, or keep the peace at the tavern. He realized that he wanted to see Jack again. Driftwood. His best friend. But no matter where in town he went, it wasn’t the same. He wouldn’t run into Jack at Smitty’s, or the Lazy Madame. He wouldn’t be building fires in Coleman’s Field. And if he did build them, even if Sandy came out to join him, it wouldn’t be the same.
He had not returned to Port Sevlyn to find Sandy and marry her. He had come back looking for the life he used to live, only to find it was no longer there.
When Andrew returned to the Lazy Madame, it was near dusk. There was a troubadour singing songs in the back, near the fireplace, and Sandy was walking through a scattered crowd of locals. The music was mellow and serious, about a man who travels the world searching for love and finding only hardship along the way.
Sandy joined Andrew when he sat at the bar, and Kenneth quietly moved to the other end to help some customers that were sure to arrive at any minute. “Andrew, I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s alright,” he replied. She looked at him quizzically. “Look, I know you care about me. I care about you, too. But it’s different, now. Things have changed, and there’s no going back.” He sighed.
“Maybe,” she said, “something will bring us back to the way things were. Not exactly, but close. Maybe there’s still something, somewhere, that we need to find. To make it like it was.”
“There’s nothing like that,” Andrew said. “It was Jack. He was the dreamer, the one that told the wild stories and convinced people to do things that they wouldn’t normally do. I just went along, like everyone else.”
“No,” Sandy returned. “You were more than that. You were his favorite. He once told me he’d rather have no one around at all than have a crowd of people doing things when you weren’t around. And besides, your good looks are what brought all the women around for him to tell stories to.”
Andrew smiled. “We made a good team.”
The troubadour’s song changed, picking a light tune about summer and love and the mischief men find themselves in during the season. Andrew saw three strangers walk into the room, an older couple and their daughter. By their wardrobe, Andrew figured them to be travelers, and not without money. The father and mother seemed to be in their mid-thirties, and their daughter about seventeen.
“What will you do now?” Sandy asked him.
“Well, I went looking for work around town, but I don’t want to be doing the same old thing I used to do. But there’s always work at the docks for a longshoreman, or if I’m lucky I’ll find a boat to pilot along the river.”
“Why do you need money now? You’ve got some coin, according to my father, and enough to live on for a while.”
“Well I want to settle down, Pumpkin. Maybe you’re not available to me, anymore, but I’m sure there’s a lovely young lass in the town that might find me a good catch!” Sandy smiled as caught a familiar glimmer in his eye.
“In the mean time,” he continued, turning himself on the stool to glance at the daughter, “I’ve bait enough to catch a few fish and test out the waters.”
Andrew smiled. He was home.