Campaign of the Month: February 2009

Silent Winter

Pretty Things, Part 2

Posted by Ellanutella

The shadows were good places to hide. People don’t look too closely into them when they were afraid of them. But those three hung around darkness as much as she did and could spot her quickly. They surrounded her, their leader tapping a stick on the ground. Tak, tak, tak, it sounded ominously. She pressed back against the building. Her eyes flicked from each of them to the others and to the alleyway around them. There was no escape.

“You can’t run from us, stupid,” the one to the left of the leader called. The leader just kept tapping his stick, a smirk forming on his mouth.

“Wh-what-what do you want?” she whispered. A vile grin was the only response. “I’ll tell my mother,” she announced boldly.

“Your mother is a stupid elf whore, just like you’re going to be,” the leader snarled at last, stepping forward suddenly, bending his neck to put his eyes at her level. “You should’ve run instead of trying to hide, rat.” He moved his hand behind him, gesturing to his two friends.

Suddenly, a rock cracked against the back of his skull. He cried out, partly in rage and partly in pain. Whipping around, he searched for the culprit. “Which of you two thought that would be funny?” he demanded of his companions. They shook their heads nervously, also looking around.

Another rock pelted downward, this time hitting the one on the left. He squealed, sounding almost like a pig. This time, the leader was able to pinpoint where the rock was coming from.

Gheris stared down dangerously at the kids, adjusting her hold on the rock in her hand. Narrowing her eyes, she flung another rock – barely more than a pebble, really. This time, it struck the boy straight in the forehead. His surprise and the force of the projectile knocked him back a few steps.

“Get away from her,” Gheris announced from the window, stepping forward and revealing a bow with an arrow knocked. The boys’ eyes widened, horrified at the threat. They turned and bolted without another word. They did not know Gheris wouldn’t have shot them. She was not good enough with the bow; her skills were elementary. Her brother’s abilities were superior. And they were children. Idiot children, vile children, raised by vile people, but children nonetheless.

The girl stared, her eyes wide and mouth agape, at the woman in the window. Setting aside her bow, Gheris leaned over and called, “Step forward!” The girl hesitantly took a step closer. “Where I can see you properly,” she added impatiently. The girl stepped into the light. Her hair was light and thin, ruffling gently in the half-hearted breeze, and short, revealing two rounded ears. Gheris narrowed her eyes again. “Go home!”

“I…you…” the girl mumbled.

“Go! Go to your mother. This place isn’t safe.”

The child’s face cringed. “It’s not any safer with my mother!”

“Better than here,” Gheris advised firmly.

The girl stared at her, wide-eyed once more, before darting off in the direction opposite the boys.

Gheris stepped back and closed the window. The scent of the streets so late carried hints of tiredness, alcohol, strange plants, and loneliness; she did not want to feel alone. Stepping back, she checked her belt – weapons, lockpicks, the map scroll tucked into her right boot, and picked up her brother’s bow and set of arrows. Just as she got to the door, it swung open meekly and Geoffrey stepped in.

He was tall, significantly taller than her and most males of her kind. A mess of dark blond hair stuck up in various directions. He carried a scent with him, one of maple trees and then a layer of horse manure, washed off as well as he could in the conditions. His grayish-green eyes looked down at her worriedly.

“My bow, Gheris, have you seen it?” he asked quietly but anxiously.

Almost lazily, she unslung it from her shoulder and held it out to him. “Be careful with your stuff,” she warned. She was so tempted to slip into their native tongue, but it was too dangerous here. They could speak only in the human’s language. Yet the admonishments in the Iar’s dialect seemed so much more appropriate for this. ‘Take care of your weapons’ was the first thing she had learned to say in it.

“Oh, s-sorry. Thanks,” he said, taking it carefully from her. He looked back up at her and furrowed his brow. “Where are you going?”

“Work,” she answered shortly before pushing him aside to pass through.

He followed her. “Is it something illegal again?”

She glanced back at him, an alarmed expression on her face. Don’t say that so loud! she mouthed to him. Aloud, she answered, “What do you think?”

“Gheris,” Geoffrey said, touching her shoulder, then quickly retracting his hand. It was enough to indicate for her to stop, but not long enough for her to become angry about personal space. “You really should think about finding better work.”

Sighing, she pressed him against the wall, allowing another tenant, a wormy-looking human with a drug problem, to pass. He eyed them with his twitching eyes as he slid by. Gheris waited for him to get to the stairs and close the door, unnerved. Humans were creepy as it was. When he was gone, she spoke again.

“What kind of honest job am I supposed to find? You’re the human, you’ll get the decent work, even if it’s shoveling horse manure. Gods know we’ve done worse back with the clan. I’ll do my part to help. I’m not selling myself.”

“Can I at least know what you’re doing?” he asked, weakly, already knowing the answer.

Humoring him, she answered, “Safer that you don’t know. And under no circumstances are you to tell Uncle where I am.” He nodded. She patted – slapped, really – his shoulder once and sped down the hallway. The staircase was narrow with oddly spaced and uneven steps. Some of them were even missing. A strange stain decorated the railing and a few of the stairs. Gheris hopped them to avoid it; better to be paranoid than diseased. Approaching the bottom of the stairs, she slowed and crouched low. Uncle was in the next room. He would be upset if he knew what she resorted to in order to help make ends meet and she did not wish to distress him further. He was getting old; being so far from the clan and having to keep an eye on her and Geoffrey probably strained him enough.

She crept slowly around the edge of the room. Sure enough, Uncle was sitting by the fire, drinking something, as he always did at this time. She reached the door, slithering around a rickety little table with a tankard filled with dying flowers on it.

As Gheris’ hand touched the doorknob, Uncle spoke suddenly, “Be careful, Gheris.”

She paused, glancing behind her at his straight, dignified back. She frowned, but silently pulled open the door and slipped out. She did not let the door slam.

__

“Is Kent in place?” Gheris asked. She was the smallest of them and could not quite see over the fence of the neighboring building. Finnian peered over the top, tip-toeing slightly to do so. Dropping back, he nodded. “Right. Help me up, Brenden.”

The tall human cupped his hands. Gheris planted her foot solidly. As soon as she had, Brenden not only pushed her up but nearly tossed her. With impeccable precision, she grabbed the edge of the rainroof, a narrow and shingled miniature roof built slightly above the windows to keep them dry, and easily pulled herself over. Without waiting to see them following, she scrambled up the chipped and cracked stone tower, much akin to a scuttling spider, easily finding hand-holds. A few seconds later, she sensed Finnian clambering up after her. The shingles creaked below her and she grimaced. Brenden squeaked an apology. She glanced down. He settled down and watched the streets approaching the Kaern house. The buildings around were low and easily visible from the rainroof.

Gheris and Finnian continued up to the top. Gheris had to pause at a window to catch her breath, one foot perched on the window sill, the other in a nook in the building. Finnian quickly overtook her, flashing her a grin as he did, and reached the top before her.

The roof of the scholar’s guild hall, they discovered, was really not much higher than the Kaern home. It was a little closer, in fact, than Gheris had estimated. Still, it did not make a significant difference. They would just need to be even more careful, and Gheris did not skimp on the careful. Watching the ground, she spotted Kent move out of his position, slowly. He played a good drunk, to be sure. Though really, it was not much of a stretch. He always reeked of cheap wine, even when sober.

The guards did not move, but they were probably keeping an eye on him. Gheris tossed the rope with the hook at its end over the roof, across to the chimney. It went down the chimney, and she pulled it up so that it latched properly to the edge. She passed the edge of the rope to Finnian, who wrapped it around the chimney on their roof, tightening it. It stretched taut between the two buildings.

It was dark, but the moon and stars were bright enough to illuminate the distance between them…and the ground. Swallowing, Gheris hung upside down, legs and arms wrapped around the rope, over the edge. Slowly, she shimmied across the gap, speeding up a little as she got closer to the other building. Her hands were sweating and her breath came short. Finally, she could see the edge of the roof below her. She twisted over and placed her feet, one before the other, on the top of the rope, clinging closely to it with the rest of her body. The chimney loomed nearer.

A sigh of relief escaped as she pulled herself onto the narrow bricks of the roof. Checking that the rope was still well-attached, she gestured to Finnian. Ever fearless, he tested his balance while still over on the other roof, then stood on the rope. Gheris stifled a pang of jealousy – she had always been too afraid to test something so dangerous. He half-hopped, half-walked across the rope, his arms out beside him to maintain balance. His neck was straight, only eyes pointing downward to ensure he was stepping on the rope.

He came across much quicker than she did. Much, much quicker. He quirked a brow at her mutely and she gave him a one-shouldered shrug in response. They looked down at the rainroof. Brenden waved a fist twice: still clear. They could distantly hear Kent’s drunken laughter as he insulted one of the guard’s mothers…and then promptly told him his father was a woman with the wrong parts. Gheris winced. Finnian seemed unperturbed. She glanced at him, raising a questioning brow. He nodded, once. There was barely space enough for the both of them to stand without knocking each other over, but Gheris managed to hook her legs around the edge of the chimney, careful not to have her feet touch the roof itself, and lowered her upper body in. She craned her neck to see her companion reach over and grab her legs and lower her farther in, slowly. It was very uncomfortable. The blood rushed to her head. But the necklace was so close, she could practically see it. The little bugger would fetch so much money.

Finnian’s legs, she guessed by now, would be stretched out across the chimney. It would probably be painful to someone not as practiced as he. She wondered, idly, about his flexibility. Then she berated herself, and focused on reaching the bottom.

The fire was out. So Finnian had done his job, as he had promised. She’d have to ask later what he had done, exactly. Part of her was sad that she would not see the necklace in all its reflective glory, but shiny coins were even better reflective surfaces. Her hands brushed the ashes sitting in the fireplace. She waved her feet and he let her go. Her hands supported her and she slowly lowered herself, rolled out of the fireplace into a crouch (with minimal contact with the ashes), and glanced around. The room was still. The door was closed. The stand with the necklace stood before her, unprotected. She had an uncontrollable urge to say, “Ho, ho, ho,” thought she didn’t know why.

She crept around it and smiled, as a cat did when it had trapped a mouse by the tail. The necklace rested on a clear glass cube. Its pendant was not small, but not so huge as to be tacky. Her eyes widened and she reached out for it, belatedly wondering if the necklace itself was protected by spells. That hadn’t occurred to her.

Before she could lay her sticky fingers on it, however, the door burst open. Without looking over her shoulder, Gheris darted around the stand and to the fireplace, heart thundering in her chest.

“I know you’re in there, you little bitch!” old man Kaern roared. “I know all about your little job!”

Mythal save me, what is going on? she thought, glancing up. Finnian was not visible. Had Brenden signaled? Had they been caught?

Then Finnian’s face appeared, blocking out the sky. He lowered himself down, hanging by his legs as she had. His hand stretched and for a brief moment, she thought he was going to help her!

“The necklace, Gheris!” he whispered loudly. The loud rumbling her heart was making made it difficult to hear him. She blinked at him, and he shook his hand again.

She had indeed said that if something went wrong, Finnian was to grab the necklace and go. Steeling herself, she darted back out and seized the necklace from behind the stand. The old man spotted her and waved a sword at her.

“Bitch! Thief! Whore! Drop my necklace!”

She threw it upward into the chimney. Finnian fumbled, but caught it by the chain. Her shoulder erupted in pain. She fell forward and looked up. The elf’s eyes were bright as he clung to it. Then he looked down at her.

“Sorry, Gheris,” he called, and vanished.

Something heavy landed on Gheris. She focused herself and twisted around. The old man was sitting on her back, fumbling with trying to get her to sit still without stabbing her in a lethal location.

“Elgar’nan take you, I won’t make this easy!” she shrieked, unconcerned about revealing her Dalish origins. She kicked out, ripping her hands out from his grasp. She grabbed at the ashes and tossed them behind her. The man gasped and fell back, hands scratching at his eyes.

“I’ll kill you!” he roared.

The sounds of footsteps could be heard, shouts. Gheris scowled and scrambled up. There were a few logs left in the fireplace. She grabbed the most solid-looking one and cracked it over the old man’s head. He dropped like a stone in water.

The chimney was too well-built to climb. Her best bet was to try and sneak past the guards before they burst in.

Dropping into a crouch, Gheris crept to the open door and peered around either side. Oil lamps lit the hallways – these were rich folk indeed! She could see the shadows of people moving from the right end of the hallway. Quickly, she darted out and moved to the left, clinging to the wall below the lamps. She darted into the first room she came across, opening the door and closing it slowly behind her. She pressed her ear to the door and listened. There was some rustling behind her. She spun around.

“Romeo, is that you?” a light female voice asked. “We were not to meet until tomorrow…unless you could not resist seeing me early!”

Gheris rolled her eyes. This must have been the youngest Kaern daughter. The nobles and some of the courtesans – glorified whores, if you asked Gheris – were afire with the gossip of the girl fraternizing with some unknown man, probably a commoner or rival nobility. Still, it would not hurt.

Gheris raised her voice into a high, but demure note. “I apologize, miss,” she said meekly. “The good master, Romeo, as you said, has sent me with a message.” Her eyes scanned the room. The window was open, as if the girl had just been hanging outside it, looking out over the city.

The gasp the girl delivered was almost theatrical. “Has something gone wrong? Has he been discovered?”

“He…he says he cannot see you again, my lady. He has done something irredeemable and must flee the city.”

“Oh…oh!” she sighed. The silhouette of her thin arm flew to her forehead and she fluttered onto her four-post bed.

Gheris rushed over and prodded the girl. She half-whimpered and Gheris was all but certain the delusion of fainting was self-imposed. She wasn’t even very pretty, Gheris saw, all skin and bones and a horse-like face. But, money was a universal taste, she supposed. Peering over the edge of the window, Gheris released a quiet cry of joy.

“Gods bless you, Romeo, you tricky bastard!”

A lattice adorned the wall by the girl’s window, stretching down. Ivy and roses and a few other plants were wrapped around it. A magical alarm would be set off, for sure, but she was going out, not in. Without hesitation, she clambered down to the level of a few small trees, then reached out and jumped onto the branches. She flung herself from treelet to treelet until she reached the high walls surrounding the estate. They were tall, imposing stone, at least two feet thick. Gheris jumped and clung to the edge before pulling herself up.

She scuttled along the top, clearly visible to anyone looking. A few cries from the guards came. Metal rattled as they tried to follow her, their tired shouts falling farther and farther behind. She passed by the main entrance of the house, hopping over the metal gate, and spotted Kent lying beaten on the ground, too weak to even try and get up anymore. One of the several guards surrounding him was left to watch him and the rest chased after her. A crossbow bolt flew past her head. Gheris ducked her head and charged forward. She glanced back only once, spotting the rainroof of the guild hall. There was no one. Finally, she swung down, hung by her arms, then dropped to the ground. She was nearly on the other side of the estate. A quick look around told her it would be a moment or two before the guards could catch up. She paused, catching her breath.

Gheris had been pondering her situation during her escape. How could it be, she asked herself, that I, so meticulous and careful in my planning of this job, could get caught? The two humans were suspects, but not particularly likely, especially since Kent was all but dead on the ground. And it was Finnian that had made off with her necklace. She narrowed her eyes and hit the side of her fist on the wall. Someone was going to get paid a visit.

Noise was approaching. She darted across the street and between a few houses. She had learned the area well over the last fortnight, and it was easy to lose anyone who may have been following her – unlikely, but she went through the ditching process anyway. Just in case.

But she would not go home. No, no. She had planned to get a necklace this night and trade it in for money, money to help Geoffrey and Uncle. Gods blast this city, she was going to get a necklace. And Finnian was going to give it to her. And if he had already sold it, she was going to take her share from him if she had to dangle him upside down out a window.

All in all, she was not very happy this evening.

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DarthKrzysztof

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