Chapter One ~ Finding Paid Work Is Hard
Thud. Thud. Thud. A pair of soft soled shoes hit the paved road in an even, predictable pattern, carrying their owner at a good pace around the perimeter of the city, following the mighty wall surrounding Caer Callidyr. The path coming up from the South Wall Road to the East was particularly tricky, the worn cobblestones smooth from their years of use and made all the more treacherous after the recent rainfall, forcing the young runner to put all her focus into remaining surefooted and upright as she continued on, her shoes slipping on the stones that currently resembled ice. Anyone else would have already wiped out once or twice, slowed down or taken an easier route if they were so determined to waste energy on such a useless activity like running. This runner however didn’t even think of slowing down, her forehead streaked with sweat and breathing hard as she raced under the setting sun, a stubborness in her grey eyes.
I’m a child of the North, she thought bitterly, trying to remind herself to keep breathing. I have run through frozen lakes, conquered snow banks as high as my head and managed to not get eaten by wild beasts. This is a piece of cake. Not bothering to push her sweat-stuck hair off her forehead, Neri continued on, jogging along the shadows of the city, eyebrows furrowing together as she tried to keep up the pace. Just because they were on a temporary vacation courtesy to Rolan didn’t mean she could get out of shape. The first day, she spent recovering from her seasickness - the three day boat ride from mainland Faerun had done wonders to her strength, making Neri feel as though she had been wrung dry over and over again. The next day, she was off exploring the city, dragging Colm with her (with his loud protests about her rough and violent manhandling ways) and enjoying the very different feel of the Moonshae Isles. That evening was the first time she went off on her run, struggling for breath and falling into bed the second she made it home. That had been nearly 10 days ago and now, although tiring and taking a good hour and a half, Neri was able to go at her regular pace without dying when she reached The Dancing Seabear where they were staying. A few times, Rolan met her at the edge of the Plains quarter and joined her but the past few days, she ran alone, the rogue seeming to slide away from everyone for whatever reason.
Thinking about her older mentor, the girl slowed down to a walk, breathing heavily. The man had always been secretive ever since she met him seven years ago in Mirabar when he found the scrawny wild child amusing, attacking him with the vigour of a mountain tiger, glaring at him with hard grey eyes. Rolan had taken her with him, enrolled her into combat training within the Assassin’s guild, created her to be a weapon of destruction. Many of the smuggler caravans wanted to constantly hire her as a soldier, knowing full well of her fury and ferocity. The man always raised an eyebrow and shrugged, giving them some form of ‘perhaps’. The next day, a body of someone close to the smuggler would be found wanting and Neri would almost immediately be branded as a bad omen. When she confronted her companion, he only shrugged, not even bothering to stand up as she towered over his chair. That made her angrier but she knew better than to do something reckless - even now, Neri could take Rolen every three out of ten fights.
Caer Callidyr made him different though - it almost made him human. Neri grinned at her own thoughts, stretching her arms as she walked, the cool sunset breeze making her shiver slightly. In her light tunic and knee length pants she used for practice, she felt the chilly warning of the air, the end of the summer months. With her back soaked in sweat, she didn’t want her body to stiffen up from the cold. The past few days, once the rogue made it back to the street that he once called home, he was distant and melancholy, sitting in the tavern, constantly observing the people there with some disinterest and disdain. It took all of Neri’s strength not to go and beat some sense into the man - the inside of her cheek was destroyed after a week of trying to keep quiet and say nothing - but he needed to come around soon. If not, she wasn’t sure she would be able to leave him be much longer. She was starting to find the city boring, much smaller than Baldur’s Gate with less variety and too much fish everywhere. No matter where the young fighter looked, all she saw was fish being salted, baked, grilled, cooked, stewed, frozen, gutted, packaged, sold and eaten. She wondered if the fish smell was going to accompany her everywhere now - worse, if it was gonna accompany the already annoying Colm.
“Stupid Wildheart,” she grumbled to herself, hitting the nearby wall with her fist. The impact echoed with protest in her hand but she ignored the pain, eyes shutting as she turned her face to the last of the blinding sun rays. The bard was a problem all on its own - he was a nuisance and a troublemaker, barely a mage and easily able to get her angry. There were quite a few occasions when breakable objects had been in fact broken due to them flying at the man’s face and him ducking at the last second. A few times, they got quite a tongue lashing from Rolan when the tavern owners gave him a bill for a couple gold coins taking into account the broken plates and pots, upturned tables, a few wobbly chairs and overall chaos. Once, he had taken Neri aside and asked if perhaps the bard should go. After such a silly question, Neri ignored the rogue for a week, pointedly pretending he wasn’t there. She still had a score to settle with the bard and if anything, he was entertaining though she would never tell him that.
Taking in another breathe, Neri pushed off, her legs protesting slightly as she got back into her run. Thud, thud, thud. Her necklace - a plain leather chord with a tiger fang on it, the last thing she had of her past - swung like a pendulum, slapping against her skin with every step. Thud, thud, thud. Bad-dum, bad-dum, bad-dum. Her heart raced a little, trying to fall into a working rhythm and pumping oxygen to her legs, sweat starting to form on her forehead once again. As she rounded Fleetfoot Park, Neri noticed an urchin watching her from behind one of the shrubs, the child’s little face covered in mud and dirt, his eyes following her movement. She had seen him the past few days as well, the little shadow always meeting her around this area. Knowing that looking at him directly scared the kid away - she made that mistake the second day she noticed him - she simply dropped a few copper pieces onto the ground and sped up. Good deeds will never get you far, she could hear Rolan’s disapproval in her mind but brushed it off. She had been there once as well - a few coins weren’t going to make her starve. Besides, it’s not like anyone else saw. This would be her secret.
Twenty minutes later, tired with her shirt plastered to her sweaty skin, Neri half stumbled into the tavern’s back yard, scaring one of the workers who had been there to collect some firewood. Cursing under his breath, the man made a sign against evil, picking up the few small logs he had been carrying.
“Ya do know we ain’ some run down shaggin’-shag,” he shot at her as Neri bent in half, trying to regain her breathe, her hands resting on her knees. Looking up at him through her eyelashes, she only grinned in a feline way.
“Yah yah, I know you’re much more civilized - only smugglers and thieves aloud,” she replied, chuckling as the man gave an annoyed huff and stormed in. Finally catching her breathe, at least enough to stop resembling a steaming tea pot, Neri straightened out and looked around. The sun had almost fully disappeared behind the short city line, the sky remaining a combination of pink, purple and orange colors. If only Neri had the talent to recreate what she saw on a canvas but alas, she never had any formal training and the few doodles that she sketched here and there were hardly masterpieces.
Sighing, the young girl headed to the well tucked in the corner of the yard. Although the tavern wasn’t far from the docks and the seawater, the well gave immediate access to clean water for drinking, washing and overall upkeep. Spinning the crank to raise the full bucket and feeling her arms ache with the effort, she huffed when the full bucket finally reached the top. Looking up and mentally preparing herself, she lifted the wretched thing above her head and tipped it, the freezing water drenching her to the bone and making her shake off like a dog, grey eyes blazing. Grinning from pleasure, her clothes hugging her body, Neri wretched water out of her red hair, standing in the puddle of mud and trying to remember when exactly she was supposed to meet the men in her group.
Rolan sat in one of the corners of The Dancing Seabear, leaning back so that his chair balanced on two legs with his feet kicked up onto the table. The dock tavern was bristling with action even though the summer was ending and most traders would not be in a hurry to return back to Moonshae Isles, looking to avoid long sea travel in the Sea of Swords. For now, the place was packed, every table seeming to be seating at least three people if not more and those not lucky enough to sit leaned against the walls, talking and laughing with their companions. A few wenches in revealing bodice weaved among the patrons, laughing and flirting under the watchful eyes of Hogarth. The owner of the place - a Shiftling - cleaned his kegs behind the bar stand, watching to see that none of the girls was too ruffled up. When men got too rowdy, his two security boys would throw them out. Over the past week or so, he had witnessed those two work and he had to admit - they had quite a swing to their work.
“Another drink maestro!” someone called from the far table. “On my tab for me and my friends!” There was a loud cheer that made Hogarth roll his eyes and start pouring mugs, overflowing with foam.
“My friends and I,” the man muttered under his breath, pulling out one of his throwing knives and using the fine sharp tip to pick his teeth. He closed his eyes, focusing on his other senses passively, a habit that had kept him alive for the past twenty odd years. He could hear the shuffling of feet against the worn out floor, the way men and women laughed, a few low voices discussing business deals and the sound of coins hitting the wooden countertops, quickly swiped by Hogarth. A few men stumbled by on their way to the door, reacking of cheap piss-beer, sweat and even some barf. A serving wench walked by with the smell of another man on her, twisting with her own lilly-water. Stray mutts plotted across the wooden floors in search of scraps, their nails making distinct sounds with every step, one sneezed from the dust of the place.
“Aye, get out ya curs!” Rolan smirked as the owner of the tavern yelled, the words followed by a distinct smack of a wet towel and a surprised, slightly terrified yelp, the dogs scurrying away and out. “Damn dogs.” He heard the old Shifter mutter under his breath as he turned back to his task. Tossing his knife onto the table beside his boots, Rolan raised opened his eyes and made eye contact with the yellow eyes with slightly elongated irises. If one didn’t focus, they would never see the subtle signs of Shifting that became more and more diluted with every generation. By now, Hogarth was the third generation, mostly human with only traces of a feline heritage. With a sigh, the bartender walked over, wiping his hands on an old worn rag.
“What can I get you?” he asked, frowning as he looked at the dirty boots resting on his table. Rolan’s smirk grew, filling with amusement. For all that Hogarth disliked the way the rogue - and more often than not his companions - behaved, he wasn’t about to get into a fight, knowing perfectly well the rogue’s profession and extensive list of completed deeds. All he allowed himself were those disappointed, pointed looks.
“Bottle of that fine wine you offered me last night,” Rolan replied, stretching. “The burgundy or merlot or morrisberg.”
“The Nerbundy,” the tavern owner corrected, shaking his head. “The bottles are worth their weight in gold and you still owe me for the past few nights. Not to mention all the trouble your two friends cause.”
“They’re children,” Rolan shrugged, not really bothered by the older man’s comments. “I told you, I’ll pay you once I get a job.”
“And when will that be?” Hogarth raised an eyebrow. Another shrug.
“What if it doesn’t?” the innkeeper cleaned his ear with his pinkie, pausing to think it over. With a sigh, he looked at the rogue. “I do not run a charity case, Rolan the murderer, nor am I afraid of you. I will have my money otherwise you may pack up and go find some other simpleton to feed you for free.”
“And I know you, Hogarth the Shiftling,” Rolan responded in kind, his voice becoming cooler. “You won’t leave anyone of the wild blood in the cold. And we both know the girl has the tiger spirit in her veins. You will get your money when I find a job. Now get me a bottle.”
“My mother always told me my kind heart would lead me into trouble. No wonder she wanted me to resemble my father,” the old man grumbled under his breath, glaring at the rogue before shuffling off. Rolan watched him go, his blue eyes intent on the leaving figure. The innkeeper was right - the money that the rogue had brought with them was running low. Actually, it was pretty much non-existent. Besides scaring and manipulating old Hogarth into running a tab, something that the Shiftling was not happy about at all, they needed money to go back to the mainland. The winter caravan season was slow and jobs were usually fought for but if he could only pull a few strings….mayhap add some more encouragement...
The bottle landed on his table with a thud and Rolan looked up in surprise at the angry owner. Pursing his lips, Hogarth left, muttering something about assassins and their inability to care about anything - soul, etiquette and timely payments. Watching him go, the rogue sighed, sitting properly and reaching for the muted colored wine bottle. Using his knife, he quickly popped the cork and brought the throat to his lips. The strong scent of the aged drink filled his nostrils, exhilarating him before starting a fire in his stomach, lining it with a rich coating of fine grape wine. Sighing with contentment, Rolan continued to watch the people mulling around the tavern.