"C'mon, Belk. Y' can't cut me off! Y'knows I'm good fer it."
Belkantihr ignored the slurred pleadings as he wiped down the deep rose colored Gawvinwood bar. There was more than enough custom nightly at the Angry Tooth to justify being a little picky over who drank and who did not.
"Give th' man a drink, Belk. We's tired of hearin' 'is whinin'. Sounds more like a woman than a Bluejacket."
The drunk spun around, nearly losing his balance. "'Oo said that?" he demanded, pulling a very serviceable looking knife. "C'mon, stand up an' say it agin. I'll gut ya like a fish."
Jeers came from the crowd, egging Jaffer on. Someone threw a well-chewed sausage his way.
Without pausing in his polishing of the bar, Belkantihr reached out and plucked the knife from the drunk's hand. "You'll get this back when you're sober, Jaffer." He placed the blade beneath the bar. The crowd noise died.
Jaffer turned back to face Belkantihr, ready to fight. Belkantihr leaned forward and stared into the drunk's eyes. "Goodbye, Jaffer," he said evenly.
Jaffer gulped and nodded. "Aye, Belk ... I'll be doin' that thing." Turning to face the door, he stumbled past the tables, avoiding the gaze of the unsympathetic eyes of the Angry Tooth's patrons as they watched him leave.
The Angry Tooth occupied a damp corner just off the docks in Weller's Landing, a village on a nondescript finger of rock jutting out into the water on the southeastern shore of Daneshold. Near the far end of the peninsula, the island community claimed Import and Export as the official trade. Piracy would be the truer definition. Many of the Tooth's patrons could trace their lineage to that of an ancestor brought to Daneshold in chains of one form or another. Belkantihr claimed such a lineage.
More men and a few women piled in through the Tooth's door. The men crowded toward the bar calling for ale, bread and cheese; the preferred evening meal among the townsfolk. As Belkantihr pulled pints, the Tooth's barmaids moved among the crowd exchanging fare for coins, pats and pinches.
Just to the left of the bar, the stained curtain at the back of a small raised platform rustled, and a figure stepped through carrying a stool and a leather wrapped case. Setting the case onto the stool, he opened the three clasps and removed a highly polished instrument with several sets of strings.
Smaller than the average Human, the musician looked not unlike a fox that had learned to walk on two legs, except this one had hands rather than paws. The fingers were fine-boned and they caressed the instrument with a sure knowledge. He wore a puff-sleeved white shirt with a laced-front umber tunic. Between his ears sat a peaked green cap with a single feather set into the cap's right side. Deep wine-red breeches that billowed out to close at the knees completed the musician's costume. He finished tuning and sat on the stool, facing the crowd. Though he looked out of place in the Angry Tooth's rough environs, the Llwyn musician appeared to feel at home.
The crowd yelled out names of favorite tunes.
"Play Ramblin' Rosie."
"Dawn, she's a comin'."
More suggestions were shouted, some of them were ribald enough to cause the Llwyn's ears to twitch. Falu Quikfingers surveyed the crowd. A few of the barmaids caught his gaze and either winked or smiled at him. His nose wrinkled. A waft of unwashed body lay in the air of the pub mixed in with the scent of spilled ale, flatulence, overripe cheese and wood smoke. Human were a lot more ... fragrant than Llwyn.
The first draw of the bow across the strings silenced the crowd, many of them edged forward in their seats, already drawn into the tune. Falu was in his element now. As the notes leapt out of the instrument, he could almost feel a part of himself flying into the air along with them. One of his favorites, a lilting jig, danced up and down the scale in a quick repetition before climbing into a heart-soaring reel. Unconsciously, his feet began to dance in time to the music and soon his body joined. Off the stool he leapt, twirling about the stage.
Caught up in the Llwyn's tune, a number of the pub's patrons joined in, joyfully tramping on each other's toes as they danced before the pub's fireplace.
Belkantihr watched the crowd, smiling. A good night, he thought. The little Llwyn was one of the best hires he had ever made.
"Bandoor ... ," Belkantihr turned to reach for one of the tankards stacked behind the bar, "Back so soon? I thought such a task would have kept you occupied for another season, at least." A guarded urgency colored his voice.
The man sniffed, "Amateurs. You sent me out with a sack full of flicking amateurs, Belk. I was lucky not to be killed along with the rest of them." The man took the proffered tankard and, ignoring the foam, tipped a good portion of the bitter brew down his throat.
"Then, you didn't get it?"
"Serve you right I if didn't, but, no, I got it."
Belkantihr relaxed visibly and then he held out a hand. "Give it to me, quickly," he urged.
Bandoor's hand paused at the clasp of his purse. "What's going on here, Belk? You're acting like a man on the edge of killing for a sniff of Pommin Dust. What is so special about this?" He continued undoing the clasp and slapped a small rolled piece of parchment onto the bar.
"You have no idea," Belkantihr breathed as he unrolled the parchment. "I'm sorry about the loss of life, Bandoor, but I am more than glad you returned with it intact."
"Glad enough to pay double?" The parchment was snatched from Belkantihr's hand.
"You don't want to do that, Ban," Belkantihr said, his eyes darkening.
"Are you threatening me?" Bandoor's hand moved the parchment closer to his tunic.
For a moment, it looked as if Belkantihr had begun to swell, a sense of darkness dimmed the air around him, but then he seemed to collapse in upon himself. "No," he said tiredly, "I'm not threatening you. You can't help your mercenary nature any more than I can help. ..."
"Help what?" The change in Belkantihr intrigued Bandoor. Over the past couple of years he had seen the pubkeep go through many moods. Some of them, if he were honest with himself, had frightened him, but he had never seen the man look defeated.
Belkantihr waved away Bandoor's question. "Never mind," he said. "You risked your life." Leaning forward, he whispered, "I would have paid triple to get this."
Bandoor whispered back, "You are a bastard, Belk. What is that? I couldn't make out a single letter."
"You can read?" Belkantihr's eyebrows climbed upwards.
"An accident of my parentage. Be nice. What is it?"
Belkantihr unrolled the parchment with care. "It is very old and very precious, to more folk than just me," he said, softly. "It is also no wonder you couldn't read it -- the characters are Suro'dahl. It was written long ago."
Bandoor choked on his ale and sputtered as he made a warding sign. "And you sent me to collect it? What kind of a friend are you, Belk? You know the tales even better than I do. You don't meddle in the affairs of, of ... them," he finished, looking over his shoulder. All he saw was the pub's crowd enjoying the night and the Llwyn's music.
The front door opened and more men came in. Bandoor recognized one and quickly turned back to face the bar.
"Ban!" The shout came over the pastoral melody currently filling the air.
Too late, Bandoor thought.
Mutters of protest came from those the fellow pushed aside as he made room for himself at the bar. Like Bandoor, he was tall, but where Bandoor carried a wolfish leanness, this one more closely resembled a bear. Shaggy hair blended in with an equally shaggy beard and mixed into the fur of his cape. A clan tattoo blued the left side of his forehead and his wide grin showed a prominent gap between the two top teeth.
The slap he delivered to Bandoor's back would have sent a lesser man across the bar. "Ban! Good to see ya, lad. What's it been, five seasons? No, six, but you know me. I never forget a shipmate, never."
"Hello, Knurl." Bandoor's tone could have frozen the sun.
Either Knurl did not catch Bandoor's tone or he chose to ignore it. "Mighty good to see yer smilin' face again, Ban. I can't tell ya how many times out there on the water I've looked around an' felt there was something missin' on me deck. An' ya know what it was?" he asked, grinning.
Bandoor looked across to bar at Belkantihr, silently expressing his distress. The innkeeper shrugged and went back to tending to his patrons. In the background, a slip jig was beginning. Turning to face Knurl, he forced a smile. "I have no idea, Knurl. You tell me."
"You, mate. It were you!" Knurl turned and called out to Belkantihr, "You know, this feller once held off a half dozen Piscean who thought they had more of a claim on our plunder than we did? Never seen bladework like that in me life, I didn't." He turned back to Bandoor. "You still do that jugglin' thing?"
Ban nodded. The slip jig segued into a roundel.
Knurl roared out a bark of laughter loud enough to cause the Llwyn to pause in his playing, "By Yahrl, I never could figger how you do that." Turning back to Belkantihr, he winked while tapping on his tankard for a refill, "Ban here likes to juggle a dagger on his fingertips. I seen him get the thing spinnin' so fast ya can't see the blade, using all his fingers, cep'n the thumb. Don't know why he don't use that."
Belkantihr nodded noncommittally and slid a fresh tankard Knurl's way. The huge Human slapped a coin onto the bar and scooped up his drink. Turning back to Bandoor, he drained off half the ale and belched. "Yup, never seen a man as good with a blade as you, Ban, not even Maddjakk."
The name narrowed Bandoor's eyes. He placed his drink back onto the bar and leaned forward. "All right, Knurl," he said, a tone of menace slipping into his voice, "what are you playing at?"
Knurl leaned forward and whispered, "I hear Maddjakk has hisself a prize, a real prize. I hear he's figgerin' on sellin' it for a king's ransom. Maybe even to Artur hisself."
Bandoor said nothing, waiting for the pirate to continue.
"I was thinkin'," Knurl went on in a sotto voice, "that you being the best blade 'cross the Peninsula, an' me knowin' where Maddjakk's keepin' this prize o' his ..."
The front door opened again, letting in more men and another figure that had to stoop to enter the door. Its form filled the frame enough that it had to lean sideways to fit through. About a dozen heavily armed men followed after.
"By the Gods," Belkantihr breathed, "a Tusse."
"Skrud," Knurl muttered, "So that's 'is prize. Fergit what I was offerin' Ban."
The music and all conversation stopped. Over eight feet in height, if it stood erect, the Tusse shuffled forward to a spot near the bar. Moving carefully, as if to avoid breaking things, the creature turned to face the crowd, resting its weight on the knuckles of its huge hands. The shoulders, as broad as a Human was tall, shifted. Intricate carvings swirled through its rocky hide. Bits of lavender and gray-green lichen clung to it in patches and tiny spots of mica glistened here and there. A soft grinding sound spread throughout the room as its head turned slowly, surveying the crowd. Beneath heavy ridges, the eyes glowed a dull reddish-orange.
"Ahoy, the bar!" In spite of the Tusse, Maddjakk D'Oroninithn drew every eye in the tavern as he entered. His reputation for bloodlust, excessive even by Piscean standards, acted as a sort of buffer. The crowd parted as he approached the bar. He stood just a half head shorter than Bandoor. A thickly cabled knit sweater showed beneath his red overcoat. Crossed belts supported his twin sabers and the hafts of daggers showed at the tops of his calf-high cuffed boots. The two crewmen behind him held onto the chain running from the iron collar around the Tusse's neck. Another carried a small cage, but Bandoor couldn't make out what was inside.
One of the crewmen, a sneer twisting his mouth, shoved Knurl roughly to the side. Even though he topped the man by a good head, Knurl remained silent.
"What is your pleasure, gentlehuman?" Belkantihr asked, running a cloth across the bar.
Maddjakk raised an eyebrow. He was quite proud of the expression. "What, no comment on my ... acquisition?" He finished the question with an affected gesture toward the Tusse.
"Nice bit of rock," Bandoor said, as if he was commenting on a flower arrangement. "Doing some landscaping?"
"How droll," Maddjakk murmured. "But I wasn't asking you, Bandoor Dre'Nelth, I was asking our esteemed ... bartender here. His typical day is so ... common."
If the barb struck home, Belkantihr gave no sign of it. He raised his eyes and looked at the towering Tusse. Something about it seemed off. The swirling carvings typical of the race were there, as was the lichen. It stood in the usual stance of its kind, leaning slightly forward, resting on its knuckles. A deep sadness reached out to him through its eyes. Part of him wondered why the creature had not used its enormous strength to escape. D'Oroninithn controlled no magic and blades were less than useless against a creature composed mostly of stone.
He turned his gaze back to the pirate lord. "An interesting acquisition, as you say. May I ask how you came by it?"
Maddjakk's laugh was high. He twirled on his toes once and struck a pose. "A good question, pubkeep, a marvelous question, indeed. I shall tell you why. In fact, I shall tell you all why." He stepped away from the bar and began pacing back and forth. "Who among you knows aught of the Tusse, hmm?"
Silence greeted the question. The pirate lord looked around the room with a sneer growing on his face.
The voice was high, soft and oddly accented. "Who said that?" Maddjakk asked. "Is there actually one of you rabble with an education? Speak up."
"I said, I do." The Llwyn moved to the edge of the stage, his instrument in his right hand. "The Tusse are a symbiotic race and they live mostly underground." His sharp eyes looked closely at the pirate's captive. "I don't sense the others," he said.
Maddjakk's sneer turned into a scowl. "When I want my dog to speak, I'll throw it a bone."
The Llwyn's ears flattened against his skull. "My name is Falu Quikfingers, and I am no man's dog, least of all to an overdressed popinjay." A derisive trill came from the instrument as he drew the bow sharply across the strings.
Belkantihr's voice cut off Maddjakk's retort and possible violence against the musician, "That's what's missing, the Tussein. They live within the host. You didn't kill them, did you? This one will die without their company."
Knurl cursed quietly under his breath.
Maddjakk threw his back into another high-pitched laugh, "Of course not ... well, not all of them!" His men joined in the laughter. "Do you think I'm a fool? That is how I captured it. How I pulled them out is my secret. As long as I control its little helper, I control it. Isn't that right, you great lump of gravel?" He turned and reached up to pat the Tusse's right cheek.
When his captive did not answer right away, Maddjakk screamed, "Isn't that right!"
When no answer came, he turned to the one holding the cage. "Chip a bit off the little one."
The crewman pulled out a broad-bladed knife and poised its tip between the bars of the cage. Tiny high-pitched squeals came from within. Bandoor caught a flash of movement. What he saw looked like a tiny copy of Maddjakk's captive.
Maddjakk smiled. "Just a little chip, now, we don't want to damage the goods too much."
"Aye, sir," the crewman said, as he pulled back his knife and tensed his arm. There was a soft thunk and the sailor froze. It took him nearly a full second to realize a dagger had buried itself into his wrist. Then he screamed and dropped the cage.
Unseen by Maddjakk, Belkantihr leaned across the bar and caught the cage as it fell. When he flicked open the door, a small form blurred out of the cage, ran down the bar, leapt onto the Tusse's shoulder and immediately faded against the background of the larger creature.
Literally hopping with fury, Maddjakk pointed at Bandoor. "Look what you've done! Fool!" He pulled his sabers. "I'll have you now!"
"I didn't do it," Bandoor said, leaning against the bar. "Look at my belt. Do you see anything missing?" He appeared completely unimpressed with the pirate's display of anger.
"He's right," Belkantihr agreed, apparently as unmoved by the sudden violence as Bandoor, "Ban hasn't moved."
"Aye, that's a fack," Knurl offered.
A couple of Maddjakk's crewmen muttered assent as well, which sent the pirate's temper even higher. "Then who did?" he grated, whirling upon the crowd. "Whoever committed this outrage had better stand forth or I'll have my men slit every throat here." The sound of steel scraping against scabbards filled the room.
From the back of the bar came a timid voice, "I did," Falu admitted, nervously.
The crowd gasped at the Llwyn's admission.
"Why'd he do it?" The question floated out of the crowd, in several tones and dialects.
Maddjakk turned to face the crowd with a sneer. "Why? Never mind the why. His hide will make a welcome addition to my cabin. I may even use it as a rug.
"Take him." He waved a languid hand at Falu, light from the fireplace glinting off the rings on his fingers.
"You'll never live to enjoy the moment, D'Oroninithn." Bandoor's voice cut through the murmurs filling the room.
The pirates advancing on the Llwyn paused, uncertain.
Falu, his only knife now in the pirate's wrist, gulped.
Maddjakk looked over his shoulder and grinned, shark-like. "At last," he drawled, letting the hiss of the word linger in the air. "I was wondering what it would take ... and now I know."
Bandoor answered Maddjakk's grin with one of his own, shifting his stance minutely.
Maddjakk looked from Bandoor to Falu. "What is it? Are you a couple, perhaps?" He snorted derisively. "A man and his bitch ..." Coarse laughter erupted from the pirate's men. "I pity the litter such a union would produce." He pirouetted on a pointed toe.
"Turn around, you mincing maggot, and I'll introduce your giblets to my first pup." Bandoor stepped away from the bar and drew his sword. The blade was not as heavy as those carried by the pirate, but its reach was a good six inches longer.
"Certainly, Bandoor Dre'Nelth, certainly," Maddjakk said, maintaining his grin. As he turned, he said out of the side of his mouth, "Kill the Llwyn and then do what you can to recapture that beast's symbiote while they're getting reacquainted."
Falu's eyes widened as he heard Maddjakk's instructions. Quickly packing his instrument back into his case, he jumped back behind the curtain. Finding a likely spot in the dim room, he pushed it up onto the shelf. "There, that should keep you safe for a while."
The sound of creaking floorboards brought his head around. With eyes much sharper than those of the average Human, he easily saw the two pirates coming through the curtain. Each had a knife in their hand. As quietly as he could, he moved deeper into the shadows. Why did I do it, why? He wondered. The question spun repeatedly in his brain.
Back out in the great room, Belkantihr watched as Maddjakk advanced on Bandoor. "Ban ..." he began.
"No." Bandoor held his palm up to forestall any further argument. "Leave this to me."
Knurl backed further down the bar. "Like Ban says, gaffer, leave 'em be. This's been comin' fer years."
"Seven years, to be exact," Maddjakk snarled as he circled, facing Bandoor. "Ever since you decided to jump ship I've wanted an excuse to even the score."
"I didn't jump, Maddjakk. I walked away. The ship was in dry dock. Knurl left as well, why aren't you after him?" Bandoor kept his eyes on Maddjakk's as he circled. They always told first when an attack was coming.
"Knurl paid. You didn't. With interest, you owe me over a hundred gold Imperials. I imagine the sight of your hide stretched on a yardarm will just about make us even," Maddjakk tittered as he changed direction and began circling to the left. Without apparent warning his right arm shot out in an upward thrust intended to pierce his opponent's heart.
Bandoor's rapier deflected the thrust down and in, forcing Maddjakk's sabers to cross, making it impossible for the pirate lord to riposte with his other blade.
Maddjakk snarled, "Still fast, are you?"
"There was never any payment involved, Maddjakk," Bandoor said, ignoring the comment. "You just can't stand that a founding member of your crew left, that's all. Your ego won't allow for anything other than total devotion. Watch out!"
Bandoor's shout achieved the desired result. Maddjakk flinched, allowing just enough of an opening for Bandoor's rapier to score a deep slash down the pirate's left eyebrow and into his cheek.
With a curse, Maddjakk skipped backwards out of reach as he dropped his left-hand saber in order to free a hand to staunch the bleeding.
"That's one," Bandoor said coolly.
To everyone's surprise except Bandoor's, Maddjakk gave his opponent a deep bow. "Well struck. I had forgotten your penchant for cheating. That mistake will not be repeated. Will you allow me to bind this," he pointed at the wound, "so we may continue?"
Bandoor shook his head, "Only if you can defend yourself while doing so."
The pirate lord snarled and lunged at Bandoor. At the same time a crashing sound came from behind the stage, followed by a body falling through the curtain backwards. Another form came right after the first. This one had a bushy red tail. The second crewman was in hot pursuit.
Falu darted around Maddjakk and hid behind Bandoor as the two separated. A rent in the pirate's coat showed Bandoor had scored again. The pursuing crewman pulled up short, the tip of Bandoor's rapier at his throat.
"What in Yahrl's name do you think you're doing?" Bandoor asked, pressing slightly. A drop of blood showed at the rapier's tip.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," Falu said.
"That is enough!" Maddjakk yelled out, slapping his thigh with the flat of his blade. "I have had it! Charge them, and kill ... that ... skrudding ... dog!" He pointed his saber at Falu.
The Llwyn's ears went flat and he snarled, but he stayed behind Bandoor. For a pregnant moment no one in the tavern moved. Maddjakk kept his eyes on Bandoor, the hatred between the two Human almost palpable. When his men hesitated he pointed his saber again, "I ... said ... charge them!"
Surging around either side of Maddjakk, the crewmen charged Bandoor with a yell. His rapier blurred and two of them fell writhing to the floor. He backpedaled rapidly, fighting to keep the Llwyn behind him and his foes in front.
Knurl shook his head. "This ain't fair," he muttered and reached into the scrum, pulled out two of Maddjakk's crewmen and cracked their heads together. He reached for two others and was swarmed by those on either side.
Bandoor's retreat finally backed him up against the tavern wall to the right of the door. Falu tucked himself under his protector's left arm to avoid being crushed between the Human and the wall.
The pounding in Belkantihr's temples had begun just as Falu erupted out of the curtain. Now it was a pain that drove all other input from his mind. Holding his hands against his head, he stumbled toward the door behind the bar that led to the alley beyond. "Not now," he moaned. "Why does it have to be now?"
"I have you at last, Bandoor," Maddjakk sneered as he pushed through his men. Several blade points rested scant inches from the ex-pirate's torso. The pirate lord added his saber to their number, placing its tip against Bandoor's neck. "You see, deserter," Maddjakk's sneer widened into an evil grin, "I am going to enjoy this after all."
Bandoor answered with a grin of his own. "No," he said, looking past the pirate, "you're not."
A resounding CRACK echoed throughout the room. Maddjakk turned to look over his shoulder. "Oh, skrud."
The Tusse no longer slumped forward onto its knuckles. Each of its hands, the size of winter squash, was poised before its chest. It cupped one hand over the other and squeezed. The CRACK sounded again. Beneath heavy brows covered sporadically with lichen, the eyes glowed a vivid red. With blinding speed it moved, swatting several of Maddjakk's crewmen to the side. Three of them bounced off the wall. One went through a window. The others wavered and then ran.
"What are you going to do now, Maddjakk?" Bandoor asked, bringing his rapier back on guard.
"Yes, what are you going to do now?" Falu asked from behind Bandoor.
"Quiet," Bandoor hissed. "Well, Maddjakk," he stepped forward, raising his sword hand up so the tip pointed at the pirate lord's nose, "I asked you a question."
Maddjakk looked around the room and saw no help. He turned with a deathlike expression on his face and brought his remaining saber up to meet Bandoor's blade.
"G'wan, Ban," Knurl said, holding a filthy kerchief against his temple, "gut the bloody bilgeskrud. He's had it comin' as long as he's lived."
The two Human stood, partially encircled by the crowd, eyeing each other, with the tips of their blades rock steady. No sound came from the watchers as they held their breath, waiting for the swordplay to begin again.
A smile suddenly replaced the expression on Maddjakk's face. He nodded. "You'd like that, wouldn't you? Yes, I do believe you would." He tapped the side of Bandoor's blade with his own. "Maybe one day we will finish this. You now owe me for two incidents." He gently slapped Bandoor's rapier to the side, "Your debt grows, Bandoor. Look for me to collect my due when you least expect it." When his opponent gave no response he turned, only to be blocked by the unyielding bulk of the Tusse. Maddjakk paused and looked up into the red eyes.
"Out of my way!" he shouted. Startled, the behemoth jumped back, shaking the floorboards with its landing. Maddjakk paused with the tavern door held open. "Oh, yes, Bandoor, we will indeed revisit this, along with other ..." he fingered the wound in his eyebrow, "... old debts." And then he was gone. Those crewmen of his, still able to walk, rushed out after him.
"Yer just lettin' the skrud go, like that?" Knurl asked, aghast.
"Belkantihr, what's wrong?"
The Llwyn's cry pulled Bandoor's attention to the bar. Belkantihr stood slumped in the back doorway, his face ashen. Blood stained his mouth and his tunic was ripped in several places. Bandoor leapt over the bar and rushed to the tavern owner's side.
"Ban ..." Belkantihr mumbled as he was helped to a chair.
"It's alright, Belk, I've got you. Take it easy."
"Ban ..." Belkantihr reached up and took hold of Bandoor's collar with surprising strength. He could hear the fabric beginning to tear. "Ban, you've got to help me, before I ... before I ..."
"What, Belk?" Bandoor asked in a whisper, "Before you what?"