There was still some light left as we moved into the Hlofreden harbor. The remainder of the trip had been uneventful. I had even been able to fall asleep, being woken at moments of bone grinding discomfort or a barked order from Beidrick. Captain Beidrick.
Silah was there, at times, watching over me. I felt a burden to her, being a mere shadow of the great men she had been wielded by; fragile by comparison. Yet, she looked down on me kindly as I lay on the boat. She looked unsettled, anxious. She seemed to fret in moments where she didn't think she was being observed. It set me to wondering.
The boat glided into place in Beidrick's slip, bumping against the dock in Hlofreden. Beidrick hopped over to the dock as Tad tossed the mooring ropes to him. Floki was off the boat quickly, watching the process of preparing the boat for the night from the stability of the dock. Bromm gathered the bags of live crabs while I gathered the massive legs and claws, bringing them ashore.
"I'll find someone who can make a nice seafood gumbo of that." He nodded at the piles we had deposited on the dock. He quickly moved down the dock rubbing his hands together in anticipation.
Moments later, he flagged us toward him, nodding at the sacks. We dropped them at the foot of a weathered old man outside of a dockside shanty that had a crude sign and a magnificent low and wide potbelly stove roaring away with a near boiling cauldron full of water set atop it.
The man's eyes widened at the catch as we dropped the massive legs and claws at his feet among the squirming bags of the relatively smaller horseshoe crabs. Coins exchanged hands, Beidrick getting a decent return from the haul. The man's near toothless face beamed as he carefully extracted the meat from the massive claws in an attempt to keep from damaging them.
"We'll be eating well tonight!" Beidrick clapped Bromm and Floki on the back as we walked back to the boat. Silah curled around my arm as we moved back, she was attempting to support me.
"No need. It hurts, but I'll manage." I looked down at her.
She smiled with a pained expression and then looked up at me with a strange, almost urgent, look on her face.
"I'm … hungry? I don't remember ever feeling like this." She clutched at my arm, squeezing it, lending weight to her words.
I squinted at her, thinking of the food that was being prepared, but knowing better by what she meant. Her lending me the harvested life force had taken a toll on her and I was hardly in a position to accomodate. She leaned against me as we continued our walk behind the others.
The skies were turning a deep red when the food was delivered, we all ate, overlooking the bay, watching the calming seas as an easy breeze pushed the low clouds along. I hadn't been much for seafood, with what little I had had in my life. But with a dry crust of bread, the salty and rich gravy, and the plump meaty portions of that large crab, the meal was more than satisfying for me.
I looked at the others, feeling content and at peace, though still worried. Silah seemed to be holding what she felt close as she smiled and talked to the others while she consumed gratuitous amounts of the seafood gumbo. If she was feeling hungry and couldn't sate it, I wasn't surprised by her ravenousness. I sighed, feeling I had wronged her by asking too much.
I grimaced at the thought and put down my empty bowl.
"Bromm, we have business. Shall we?" I lifted my undershirt wiped my mouth. It needed to be washed anyway, new bloodstains and the smell of the sea saturated everything I wore. I'm sure that I looked a pulpy mess above and beyond the labored breathing and grinding ache in my side.
Beidrick turned to the boys and began to gesture toward the ship, pointing here and there. Silah slurped down the remainder of her bowl and stood to join us. This may have been her third, I wasn't sure. I held my arm out to her and she took it absently, looking introspective. We started our walk to The Sea Witch.
As we neared the front door, Floki announced that he was heading off to check in on his homestead and perhaps his sister, if she was there. He moved out, disappearing into the darkening red shadow that had started to consume the city.
Bromm turned to Beidrick, Silah, and I.
"We should check on the brewery before we settle in."
I nodded; Beidrick clapped his hands together and rubbed them.
"Now that's what I'm talking about!" He exclaimed, which prompted a grimace from Bromm.
"This is business. We've got to get some barrels out to Dowry."
Beidrick shrugged, looking disappointed, "But you're paying me for transport?"
"Yes!" Bromm looked exasperated, "What do you take me for?"
"Well, you are your dad's son." Beidrick's words prompted a warning glare from Bromm, which quieted him down.
I gave an amused look to Silah, who was still distracted—focused internally.
The brewery door was ajar when we got there. Bromm immediately pulled out a pistol, and I looked to Silah, who had remained within arms reach. Just inside the door there were piles of supplies on a rolling cart. Bromm peered into the darkness of the warehouse.
"Anyone here?" He called out, pistol pointing up, ready to aim.
"What? Yes? Who is it?" It was the voice of Erland.
Though our initial run in with Erland was less than pleasant, he was an excellent manager, and, sometimes, enforcer. He moved to Bromm's employ after Richter Holdings purchased the Shatterhammer brewery. Bromm offered him a job and he had been loyal ever since. Although, I wasn't sure that what we were seeing here was loyalty.
"Bromm. What are these barrels doing here?" He called out the question with a tenuous edge.
"Those? Yes." He moved into view looking weary, "The storage—"
He made a muffled grunt and put his hands up when he saw Bromm's pistol drawn. Bromm immediately holstered it.
"You can never be too careful." Bromm said simply. "So, what happened with the storage."
Erland took a moment to overcome the shock to his system, eyeing the lot of us with a new level of unease.
"Yes, the storage. There was another break in. Blew the doors clean off, they can't even find them! Everything was untouched, though, so we brought it down here as soon as possible. It took all day." He mopped at a sweaty brow smearing dust and dirt from the effort.
Bromm nodded, looking impressed.
"We should talk about what you're getting paid."
Erland gave him a sidelong look, eyebrow raised, "Sir?"
"I appreciate a man with initiative. You've more than proven yourself." Bromm said, nodding appreciatively.
Erland smiled, unsure how to take such a direct compliment.
"Well, thank you, sir. Just doing my job." Erland nodded, still smiling.
"What can you tell me about the break in?" I asked the question a little too forcefully, feeling the tension rise in me.
The old mine shafts behind the storage areas were deep and held some incredibly old secrets. There is a portion of the mine that touched an ancient portal. Ancient, because, the Dwarves themselves didn't seem to know what they had stumbled into. One of the survivors wandered around town babbling to himself to this day, his mind burned by what he saw there.
It caught Erland off guard.
"It looked like something getting out more than something getting in. There was a hole in the back of the storage, but I didn't investigate. The city wouldn't post any guards there, so we had to get the storage out as soon as possible." Erland stammered.
"No. What got out? Did anyone see it?"
"It?" He looked concerned, "What do you mean it?"
I shook my head, getting nowhere with the line of questions. I turned to Bromm.
"We might want to look into this sooner rather than later. There could be some real trouble in the city."
"Wha...?" Erland's concern turned to worry.
Bromm looked at me, "Have you seen yourself, man? You look like death warmed over. I doubt you'll want to be stickin' your neck out just yet. It'll keep. We'll get to it soon enough."
His tone smoothed me out, bringing things into perspective. I calmed down, then looked at Silah. Her brow was furrowed wondering what had gotten into me. I nodded to her. I'd explain to her on the way back.
Erland quieted, but then turned back to us, "If you want me to help, you're going to have to let me know what we're up against."
"Yes. Not a doubt. But we shouldn't jump to any conclusions, just make sure business is wrapped up with whatever was in storage, and then keep your distance for now." Bromm said evenly, "We'll investigate further when we get back."
"Easy enough, this is the last of it." Erland motioned to the stack just inside the doorway.
"Then there shouldn't be any other problems. You've done good work today, Erland." Bromm clapped him on the shoulder. "One more thing, if I may. The current batch. How it is coming along?"
"Very well, we should be able to get it in casks by first light." Erland was pleased to report.
"I'll have someone come and pick them up, then." Bromm nodded and we moved back through the open door.
We started making our way back to The Sea Witch. Silah moved up to me, cradling my arm as we walked.
"What's this about?" She slid into my head immediately.
I sighed, arranging my thoughts in order to be coherent.
Before Bromm and Sig bought the place, there was a break in at the storage he was talking about, but nothing was stolen. It had actually gone unnoticed until something, maybe a wind spirit, attacked and nearly killed the guards that were posted there by the city. After that, it was locked up tight until we went in to investigate.
Knowing she could see what was in my mind, I thought on the structure of the mine, the central shaft and the rickety wooden platforms. The footprints from the person who had broken in earlier. The large black widow that nearly killed me and thousands of large insects eating the fungi off the walls. The blustery wind spirit that we barely contained. The droves of spiders in the side hallway that we sealed.
I could see her eyes watching the proceedings. I was on the stage and her massive presence lingered, eyes glittering while observing my visual recounting.
Then I moved on to the final descent into the bottom with the pumps being handled by Rana. Then fighting off the massive, slimy bottom-feeding creature with the paralyzing poison. I quivered at the memory, knowing how close I came to falling to that creature. Then the sunken hallways and the cart full of raw gold ore.
And then, I recalled the other direction where Bromm, Danin, and I found the bright portal at the end of another sunken tunnel, this one ending at a bright portal. Moving through the portal and encountering the tentacled creature that kept repeating "Kalipot". Where I was frozen in fear as the being advanced, reaching out. Bromm pushed us back through the portal and we returned to the group shaken.
I shook myself from the memories. Still seeing her visage, weighing what she had seen.
There is so much terror that could come from that hole in the ground.
She remained silent, her face at my side reflecting the pensive gaze of her massive visage.
I had lost track of my feet. We were almost already to The Sea Witch. Bromm and Beidrick were heartily engaged in conversation. Beidrick continued on to talk to his boys about picking up the six barrels that Erland was planning on preparing for shipment.
We pressed through the door to The Sea Witch. I felt it again, that settled feeling of coming home. All the usual fixtures were there: Macaulay tending bar, Faolan strumming away, and Robyn, at her usual place far down the bar, sitting alone. Well, not quite alone. A youngling was there, trying to entreat her for whatever purpose. Him thinking it would be a good idea was his first mistake. The bored look and her fidgeting was apparent. Bromm nodded her direction and settled in closer to his brother the bartender.
Behind me, Beidrick entered moments later and called out to Macaulay as he walked through the door.
"A round for my friends, here, and keep them coming!"
"Oh, you don't need to do that." Bromm grinned, "We're practically paying ourselves by drinking here."
Beidrick looked a little hurt.
"Why can't I buy my friends some drinks?"
"By all means!" Bromm did a sweeping gesture to the bar and Macaulay, "Let the gentleman buy us drinks."
Macaulay grimaced and leaned in toward Bromm, whispering something in his ear. Bromm's expression didn't change other than him nodding at the exchange. I had sat just long enough to get one of the Shatterhammer ales, I looked toward Silah and tapped Bromm on the shoulder.
I was feeling inordinately sober. I drained one of the ales almost immediately to take the edge off of the evening, then asked for another.
"I'm going to go talk to her." I said low to both of them, taking my refreshed ale from the table.
Silah held her seat and gave me a mildly perturbed look. Beidrick saw his opportunity, and quickly replaced me at the bar facing Silah. As I walked away, I could hear banter starting between Macaulay, Bromm, and Beidrick.
I moved close to the young man trying to engage the ever aloof Robyn.
"Bugger off. Be somewhere else." I growled at the boy, feeling my loose ribs rattle with the malevolence.
He turned to protest with some fire, but I saw his eyes widen as found himself in my shadow. He cowered slightly and eventually spoke, finding his voice.
"Yes, fine. I'm leaving." He stammered.
"Don't expect me to thank you." She patted the stool next to her and then looked me over, "Are you dealing death or taking it? It looks like you're closer to the losing side."
"Degrees of both." I said, facing forward to the bar, hiding the more swollen part of my face. "Got some excellent seafood for the trouble."
"You and the boys been away for a while. Is this thing with Beidrick and your girl new?" She peered at me sideways, keeping her ale mug close to her lips.
I looked back, seeing Beidrick cozying up to Silah and she responded in kind. Beidrick caught my eye and raised a mug in my direction. Silah's eyes glittered with a knowing look, rubbing salt in the wounds.
"You left her side, mate!" Beidrick said through a laugh.
I shook my head, feeling the heat rise up the back of my neck.
"You should have taken me up on what I suggested earlier." She said, turning forward with a smile, taking a sip.
I took a drink, then looked back at her.
"Heh, speaking of me having no money to speak of. We ran into someone looking for," I turned toward her, "someone fitting your description."
She looked annoyed.
"Don't make me shoo you off like you did to that one." She nodded to the young man who was still lurking in the growing crowd.
"I'm kidding, really." I said, realizing that I was pushing the edges of our friendship. I thought to smile, but remembered how that likely looked to others.
It was obvious that Robyn had problems trusting others and I had seen how she dealt with it. I cared for her, though. She was good people, even if overly aggressive at keeping others at arms length. If I hadn't tried to care for her when she was heavily wounded, I likely wouldn't have gotten a second word from her. I carefully pulled the parchment from my belt pouch and handed it to her.
"Does that description remind you of anyone? It sounded awfully familiar to me." I continued quickly, seeing her mood starting to sour further, "Do you know the Salamanders? They were posting these around Dowery. Bromm and I wanted to get here to warn you..."
"Wait, if… if I knew this person, let's say that you actually know who this person is. Wouldn't, say, a poor barbarian such as yourself want all the money they've listed here?" She turned to me and raised an eyebrow.
"Money is money. Good people are hard to find." She let out an involuntary snigger at the comment, but I continued, "Bromm and I care about what happens. I'd never make the decision for you, but I thought you should be informed so you could do what you will."
Bromm scooted back from the bar and approached, I stood offering him my seat and stood close to listen in for the moment.
Bromm's approach was much smoother, showing that he knew how to approach her far better than I did. He elaborated on the position of the Salamanders and how it seemed off, more like a bounty than a finder's fee.
"Perhaps it's time for me to return home."
She had a far away look in her eye with the words. There was a heavy feeling that an inescapable fate had caught up to her.
"You don't have to face this alone. We'd gladly stand by you." Bromm said, I nodded.
"Why would you want to? Whatever happens is only meant for me. But it is sweet of you to offer." She nodded to Bromm, eyes glistening.
The conversation turned more personal and I moved away, leaving them to talk in private.
I turned, back toward where Beidrick and Silah sat. He was very close, very friendly, talking and gesticulating. Silah's back was to me, but she was engaged, nodding her head. I remained reticent even with the aggravation gnawing away at the sight. Sure, Silah was bonded to me, but I wanted her to know that she wasn't mine.
Maybe… maybe, I need to reconsider.
My lip curled at the thought. I remembered Robyn's offer of advice. I would love some insight into the female mind. I was regretful with the thought, but then an idea came to mind. I waited for a lull in their conversation and came up beside them.
"Beidrick. I'll make you a wager. Have you ever arm wrestled?"
He raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, but, " he looked me over, "isn't this a little stacked in your favor?"
"Always operate from a position of power. A wise person once said that to me." I said, looking to Silah with a smirk who looked back curiously at me, wanting to know what I was getting at, "Although, I'm not in very good shape right now which might even the odds a bit."
"You're on, muscles." Beidrick gave a wry smile, "What's the wager?"
"How about the privilege of buying that woman a drink." I nodded to Silah. "And, who knows, maybe even a chance to win her over?"
"Oooh," Silah crooned, steepling her hands together and putting them to her lips, "This is going to be fun!"
Her reaction settled it immediately. The room gathered around us as we settled in at one of the sturdy round tables.
"If you don't think it's fair, we can always choose another game." I said, nodding to him.
"I'll match you just fine, you'll see." He grinned at me from across the table as he sat, baring his arm, patting his flexed muscle, and placing aggressively.
I settled into the chair, giving enough room as to not crane my back and set my ribs grinding again. I grimaced as I slid into place.
"Oh, don't worry. I'll take it easy on you," Beidrick said through a smirk, noting the pain I was in. "M'lady? Are you thirsty?"
Silah's musical laughed seemed almost involuntary. His flattery was far beyond my own skill. I definitely had my work cut out for me.
The festivities started to fade a long while after dark and there was a lull as the crowd slowly departed. Being the gentleman he is, Bromm, offered his room to Silah and I. Taking a place by the fire in the common room. I passed by Robyn, she was almost always the last one to leave. She had a vacant stare, looking at the wall behind the bar. She looked back as we passed and I nodded to her. She nodded back with a slight smile, her eyes flitting between Silah and myself.
She turned forward again, the smile slipping from her lips. Her last ale was untouched, she looked into it, rolling the liquid around. Robyn always had something on her mind, but this sort of resigned feeling I was picking up from her was disconcerting. I didn't know her past, but I ached at what she saw in her future.
I opened the door to Bromm's room and stood aside for Silah to glide in. She was cheerful after the events of the night.
"How are you feeling?" I asked Silah while starting my nighttime ritual.
"Better, all of this attention… You boys know how to fight for a girl's affection." She had a wide grin.
I smiled, then winced as I took the cool wet towel and pressed it against the deepening bruise that covered almost my entire left side. This had normally been my shield side.I stripped to the waist, kicking off my boots. I took a deep breath with the effort, feeling the pain wasn't worth the effort of attempting to get clean. I began to settle onto the rug beside the bed, but Silah stopped me.
"I appreciate the gesture. It's a fitting end to the night, but you need this more than I do." She patted the bed, beckoning me over.
I laid back creakingly on the bed. It was too small, but there was no footboard, allowing me to hang my feet off the end comfortably.
Silah stood and walked over to shelf near the basin, pulling three more towels and getting them wet. She rolled one up and put it between my left arm and chest, then properly draped the other, unfurling it to let it cool, then laid it over my side. The remaining smaller towel she used to gently dab at my swollen cheek, and raw lips.
I closed my eyes, feeling my heartbeat from behind my eyelids as she sponged away some of the caked red with the damp cloth. She was unnaturally silent, which had been strange to get used to. She didn't need to breathe, after all, and rarely did except to speak. She extinguished the lamp light in the room and I felt myself slipping off to sleep with the weariness, but also from the comfort of the safe haven she had created. She moved under my right arm and snuggled in close, laying her hand on my chest, as I slipped into oblivion.
(Get to know Akeron)