Here’s the return of Andre and Jerome, the pair of accidentally-adventurous miscreants. If you want to read other stories about them, try Paying the Tab, Jerome Goes North, or Jerome’s Tropical Vacation. There should be another short story coming along soon!
* * *
“Does everyone understand their part?” The man’s voice was nagging and whiny.
Belly down on the hay-strewn dirt, Andre felt a sneeze coming on. There was the unmistakable sensation of rising, building pressure, and that odd tingling feeling that came along with it. He knew it would feel so good to sneeze that the anticipation was almost pleasant in and of itself. Despite this, he thrust his hand up underneath his nose, trying to press against the bone just above his teeth in an effort to stop the sneeze before it could come out. Through his desperately squinted eyes he could make out the feet of five people standing less than a yard from where he hid underneath a small wagon, and he knew that sneezing would be a very bad life choice at this moment. None of the people whose conversation he’d been eavesdropping on would appreciate unexpected company.
It wouldn’t matter that he’d been listening accidentally, or that for a while he’d tried his very best to not pay attention. He had no doubt that they would react poorly to finding out that a strange dwarf had heard all about their plan to blackmail the crooked local factor for the New World Sugar Company. Given that their plan involved theft and arson, in order to acquire the factor’s cooked books and cover their trail, a quiet word to the appropriate authorities would likely land all of these conspirators in a noose. A lenient judge might simply brand them in a prominent location, but Andre didn’t expect that the possibility of such leniency would somehow leave the conspirators feeling especially generous. He almost sighed in relief as the urge to sneeze slowly faded, but remembered at the last moment to breathe quietly.
“Helder, we’ve been over this more than enough times. Yes,” this was the woman Andre had heard called Antoinette, “we know what we have to do.” She sighed. “Charles and I know more than enough about how to get in, Ed knows what the books look like, and Elena just has to do what she does best anyway.” Leather booted feet shifted slightly in the dirt, scuffing aside the hay. The nasty little tickle in Andre’s sinuses had receded momentarily, but was returning with a vengeance.
“What I want to know is why you’re not involved in the rest of this. We’re running all the risks here, and you’re just going to—“ and then Andre interrupted Antoinette with a truly magnificent sneeze. He’d hadn’t yet seen any of their faces, but he didn’t have to in order to imagine their expressions at the moment. It wasn’t like you could talk about committing arson and theft and maybe a little murder without a hint of paranoia, and he’d just justified their every fear. The sense of relief brought by the sneeze was wonderful, but it only lasted a moment before Andre was wracked by several more sneezes. He could vaguely hear feet shifting on the ground ahead of him, but he couldn’t keep track of them through his sneezing fit. Hands grabbed the back of his collar and dragged him out from the dimness underneath the cart, and he lay on the dirt staring up into the light of a lamp, the illuminated faces of his captors staring down at him in various degrees of consternation, anger, and fear.
Andre blinked, glad that he was face up and that his sneezing had finally stopped, though now his nose was stuffy. He kept his hands open and empty, up by his shoulders, and greeted his new companions with a very articulate “Uhhhhh…” They were still staring at him.
He tried again. “I’b dreadfully sorry,” Andre started, trying to give them a smile and faltering at their grim looks. “Would you belieb dat I—“ he was wracked by another sneeze, clearing his nose even as he sprayed all over his captors. “Phew! Sorry about that. Would you believe that I was just napping in the wrong place?”
* * *
Jerome had spent all afternoon and some of the early evening looking for work. He and Andre had been down on their luck recently, and they hadn’t had a good job since arriving in Port Larani. They were very nearly out of coin and Andre had already sold off one of the pistols that he’d picked up on their last good job, just to keep them both fed. Hand resting easily on the hilt of his sword, Jerome caressed the rough grip and quietly hoped that he wouldn’t have to sell his blade next. Finding another good one would take far too long and cost too much to be worth it.
The sun had set by the time he got back to the stables where he’d left Andre to sleep through the heat of the day. It had finally cooled slightly, with the sun drifting behind the hills west of town while the evening sea breeze slowly grew and washed through the town, replacing the hot and stagnant air of the day. The stars were coming out in the east as Jerome crossed the open yard behind the inn to approach the entrance to the stables.
Stepping just inside, he whispered loudly into the dark, “Andre!” He paused for a moment, “Andre, it’s time to go.” He was greeted with silence, except for the whickers of the few horses in their stalls. Grumbling to himself, Jerome stepped further into the dark stables and moved cautiously towards the spot Andre had picked. Nothing unexpected blocked his way. Andre’s sleeping spot was a good one, hidden in the shadows under a little-used cart where it had been pushed into a stall with a broken door, and Jerome had no doubt that his friend had settled into a deep sleep. He envied him his ability to sleep without snoring, even as he appreciated how much easier it had made their travels together.
Reaching the stall, Jerome squatted down and whispered again, “Andre! Come on, it’s time to go.” There was still no response, and now Jerome felt a thin trickle of unease worm its way down his spine. He reached out his hand into the dark, and felt nothing. Alarmed, Jerome got down on his hands and knees and searched the entire little space. His friend was nowhere to be found.
Jerome scrambled backwards awkwardly, standing up once more in the dark of the stables. They’d known that there was a risk to having Andre sleep here, since there was always a a risk to sleeping unannounced on someone else’s property, but they’d thought that he’d probably just be told off and sent packing. Jerome told himself that, if Andre’d gone anywhere, he’d probably be in the inn. He made his way back out of the stables and crossed the yard towards the tavern, hoping that he was right. He wasn’t sure he believed his own story.
The tavern hadn’t yet picked up very much business. The night was still young, and Jerome joined the people slowly filtering in from outside.
* * *
Jerome couldn’t see a sign of Andre anywhere inside. Maybe, he thought, Andre had come in and left word after he’d found the beer not to his liking? He could feel that earlier creeping anxiousness flickering through his thoughts. What could have happened to his friend? Where could Andre be? He began to ask the crowd if any of them had seen a lone dwarf, doing his best to describe Andre’s short faded blue jacket, thoroughly grayed shirt, and mended and reinforced brownish pants.
He made it all the way through the crowd and to the bar before anyone said that they’d seen a dwarf that evening. As Jerome was asking the early barflies whether or not they’d seen his friend, the taverner called over and caught his attention.
“Hey, tall fellow,” the man’s voice cut through Jerome’s one-sided conversation with a woman he was now certain was already drunk. Jerome looked over at the man behind the counter. The barman smiled and nodded hello, filling a mug from one of the barrels behind the bar. “You’re looking for a dwarf?”
Jerome nodded. “Yes, his name is Andre. He’s got a blue jacket, gray shirt, and brown pants, and—,”
The barkeep waved his hand, dismissing the description. “Yeah, I saw him earlier. Came in briefly. He’s your friend?”
Jerome nodded before he could catch himself. Maybe Andre had caused some trouble? Well, he thought, it was too late now. He nodded again, going for something loosely truthful, “Yeah, we said we’d meet here. Did he say where he’d be going?”
The barkeep shook his head. “Nah. But he looked worried. Might be he’s in trouble.”
Jerome clenched his eyes shut for just a moment, muttering curses under his breath. What, he wondered, could Andre have gotten himself into on such short notice? He looked at the barkeep again. The heavyset man was giving him a considering look.
“How long ago did he leave?” Jerome was impatient to get on his way already. Port Larani wasn’t that big, he should be able to find Andre if the dwarf could only keep still for a few hours. And if he wasn’t already in too much trouble.
“Not too long, maybe half an hour?” The barkeep finished his inspection of Jerome and leaned forward. “How about this. My friend over there,” he nodded to a tallish woman sitting at one of the pub’s tables, where she nursed a mug of beer, “will help you go looking for your Andre. When you find him, you come back here and celebrate. How about that?” He gave Jerome a professionally friendly grin.
Jerome thought about it for only a moment. He’d get help looking for his friend, and in exchange they’d buy beer from this fellow? That seemed like a steal.
Jerome smiled at the man, and stuck out his hand to shake on it. “Deal. I’m Jerome, by the way.”
The man smiled back as they shook hands. “And I’m Helder.”
* * *
Andre lay in the dark and cursed his luck. The gag in his mouth tasted like grime and an accumulated eternity of soured beer, though the smell of it left him thinking of worse things, things he had no desire to guess at. His hands were bound together behind his back, while his feet were shackled together with a rusty old set of manacles. They would have been laughable if he’d had some tools, and if he hadn’t been so infuriatingly helpless. The dirt floor beneath him was cool, making a pleasant change from the usual heat of Port Larani, but he wished he hadn’t had to be caught, tied up, and thrown in a tavern’s basement in order to experience this lovely change of pace. The next time he was looking for a cool place to sleep during the day, he’d remember this and just dig himself a nice hole to begin with. At least that way he was less likely to end up in one against his will.
He tensed his shoulders again, trying to shift the bonds on his wrists, and was once again rewarded with little more than continued chafing. At this rate, his skin would be rubbed bloody and raw long before he escaped, and if there was one thing that he’d learned from Jerome about escaping from ropes like these it was that you didn’t want to get them wet. Getting them bloody would not help. He sighed through his nose, blinking in the dark.
There was a growing hubbub coming from above him, floorboards creaking and slightly muffled voices melding together into the sounds of a slowly filling pub. He even thought he could hear the sounds of tuning instruments. Once the place filled, people would be unlikely to hear him call for help even if he hadn’t had a gag in. He chewed on the dirty cloth in frustration, regretting it almost immediately as bits of grit made themselves known all along his gums.
Slowly, bit by bit, he forced himself to relax and think, taking deep breaths in through his nose and letting them out slowly while he cudgeled his brains in search of some sort of answer. He set aside the gag as being unimportant; he could still breathe well enough through his nose, even if his jaw was starting to hurt from being forced open. Besides, he thought darkly, if someone heard his calls for help he’d be more likely to get that whiny paranoid Helder rather than any sort of rescue. Jerome would get back to his hiding spot some time soon and start looking for him, but there was no way that he’d go looking in the basement of the inn whose stables Andre had slept in, so Andre crossed help from Jerome off his list as well.
What, he wondered, about the manacles? He shifted his legs slightly from where he lay on the dirt, trying to get a feel for how much play there was between the two cuffs. The chain was clearly rusty, he could feel that from the flakes of metal that drifted off it and irritated his skin where they rubbed into it. He doubted, though, that he’d be able to separate any of the links without some serious tools. A hammer and chisel, even a pick would do for breaking them. But unless he had someone else to wield them or somehow freed his hands, that was just as irrelevant as removing his gag. All of which brought him back around to the bindings on his wrists.
Andre groaned in resignation. He already knew that he couldn’t just slip his bindings. That Charles fellow had probably been a sailor at some point, as he certainly knew his knots. The only comforting part was that he just as obviously hadn’t had his pick of rope; as much as its rough fibers hurt him, Andre was glad that the rope was so poorly made. He felt a certain satisfaction in having found at least one point where he could make a difference. Rolling over onto his belly, Andre began the long and slow process of searching the cellar floor for something, anything, that he could use to cut the rope.
* * *
Jerome didn’t notice the other three people that left the tavern behind him, cutting across the street and into a narrow alley while he and his fellow searcher turned left and moved further down the street. It was a pleasant evening, and if he hadn’t been so worried for his friend Jerome would have been quite happy to be walking with this woman. She was nearly his height, with the muscular forearms that he would expect from someone who had trained long and hard with swords, and she had been wearing a mysterious half-smile ever since he’d met her.
“So, you know who we’re looking for?” Jerome glanced over at his companion.
She nodded. “I could hear your description earlier. Dwarf, blue jacket, brown pants, gray shirt. What’s his name?”
“He’s Andre.” Jerome cast his eyes around them, trying to guess where his friend might have gone. What, he wondered, would have caught his attention and pulled him from the barn? It wasn’t like Andre to go running off somewhere. Belatedly remembering his manners, Jerome continued, “And I’m Jerome.” He tried for a winning smile and fell a bit short.
The woman’s smirk grew a bit wider. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jerome. I’m Antoinette.” The two of them continued along the street, stopping every so often at stalls open late for the evening, wandering into taverns to ask whether anyone had seen a dwarf recently. Neither of them found any sign of Andre having passed through.
An hour later they stood at an intersection, Antoinette looking calm and Jerome feeling increasingly frantic. They’d doubled back and checked every route they could think of from the tavern where they’d started, and neither of them had heard the least hint of Andre’s location. Jerome’s eyes flitted around the various corners of the intersection as he worriedly chewed on the side of one of his fingers. Antoinette put out a hand and let it rest on his forearm, gently pulling his finger from between his teeth.
“Jerome,” she waited until she had his full attention, “where might your friend have gone? What were you doing in town? Could he have gone to meet someone else?”
Jerome shook his head, eyes still not quite focusing on what was in front of him. “We hadn’t even planned to come to Port Larani, and we don’t really know anyone here. I mean,” his distracted look faded a little, “maybe we have some contacts. I was trying to find that out. He was sleeping in the barn while I went out to find work. He shouldn’t have even left the barn.” Jerome’s face tightened with worry. “Where could he have gotten himself to?” As he spoke, Antoinette’s half-smile faded for the first time since they’d set out. She looked a little sad, and Jerome hoped that she might even share some of his worry for his friend at this point.
“Well, there’re a few other places we haven’t looked yet. Maybe he’ll be there.” Antoinette frowned a little, patting Jerome on the arm before setting out. She hitched her belt up a little bit, and Jerome unconsciously made note of the way that she checked the draw on the sword at her side, making sure that it wouldn’t stick in its sheath. He did the same without even thinking about it.
Antoinette led them on a twisting route back through the streets of Port Larani, cool with the evening’s sea breeze and dim in the twilight of moonlight and the occasional lantern. Many of the streets were familiar from their previous wanderings, but then Antoinette began moving through alleyways, checking the shadows as they went. Jerome couldn’t imagine what would have moved Andre to go into an alley instead of simply loitering in the street, but he was desperate enough at this point that he happily followed Antoinette’s lead.
Several alleys later, once more getting closer to the tavern where they’d started, Jerome thought he saw movement in the shadows behind them. He closed up the distance between him and Antoinette, surreptitiously tapping her on the shoulder while he checked his draw again. “Psst, Antoinette, don’t make any big moves, but I think someone’s following us.” Jerome was surprised when she turned around to face him.
“Look, Jerome,” her face almost looked sad, “I’m really sorry about your friend, but—.” It was her lack of surprise or concern that tipped Jerome off. He realized almost immediately that she’d expected there to be people following them. His sword came into his hand without even a thought. Antoinette took a startled step backwards, caught off guard by his sudden draw and pulling out her own sword as she retreated.
“What is this all about?” Jerome was angry. He’d been led around town by the nose for a little more than an hour, and if this ambush had been planned from the start then Antoinette had clearly never meant to help him find Andre. He darted a glance behind him, and caught the glint of moonlight on metal. He threw himself sideways, slamming into one of the narrow alley’s walls as a crossbow quarrel whistled through the space where he’d been and splintered into the wood of the opposite wall. He heard a muttered curse from behind him, then whirled to put his back to the wall and face all his attackers.
Antoinette stood to his left, sword out and looking a little uncertain in the dim light of the alleyway. The moon above cast just barely enough light to see by, but not enough to be certain of one’s surroundings. To Jerome’s right were three more people; there was a muscular man holding knives, a heavyset man with a cudgel who vaguely resembled Helder, and a woman who was frantically trying to reload a crossbow. Jerome advanced quickly to his right, trying to keep some distance between himself and Antoinette while using his superior reach against the men with knives and cudgels.
The heavy man didn’t retreat quite fast enough, and Jerome scored him several times across the backs of his hands and forearms, drawing blood with each quick slashing flick. The heavy man stumbled back, dropping the cudgel in pain as he tried to hold his arms tight against his body. The man with knives stepped to the side, hemming in Jerome against the wall and forcing him to turn and face the two people armed with blades.
Jerome risked flicking a glance at the woman with the crossbow, trying to guess how much time it would take her to reload. The man with knives took advantage of the opening and stepped in closer, one knife catching Jerome’s sword near the hilt and driving it out of line while his other knife flashed in past Jerome’s guard and towards his chest. Jerome moved instinctually, his left hand coming up and inside the man’s extended right wrist and pushing it sideways, away from the center of his chest. The knife slid over the skin of Jerome’s upper arm, cutting through his light shirt and biting deeply into his flesh. He could feel the cold tearing sting, the warm wetness of blood as it began rolling down his arm. With his hilt still caught in the guard of the other man’s knife, Jerome yelled in pain and stepped forward, lashing out with his foot. He planted his heel just above the other man’s knee, then drove it down and outwards. The other man collapsed backwards, giving ground rather than let his knee be broken, and he landed on his back with a muffled “oof.” He lost his grip on the knife that had tangled with Jerome’s sword, but he kept hold of the one still wet with Jerome’s blood. The dropped knife landed on the ground with a quiet thud.
Jerome twisted his hips, rotating on the balls of his feet to face Antoinette and bring his sword into line with her. She halted her advance for barely a moment, just too far away for Jerome to lunge and take her by surprise, then her sword came up and she began to bat aside Jerome’s blade. She was already committing herself to the advance when Jerome’s blade dipped below hers in a disengage and came back up in line with her once more. Antoinette scrambled backwards hastily, reversing in mid-stride as Jerome stepped forward.
“You didn’t think I was that bad, did you?” Jerome hadn’t expected to be underestimated like that, and he could feel the adrenaline making him cocky. He almost didn’t care that he was facing four to one odds in a dark alley and was already injured. The pain in his arm had disappeared as quickly as it had come, just a faint nagging ache there to remind him that something had gone horribly wrong with his body. Fighting someone, especially after they’d led him around and ambushed him while pretending to help him find his friend, felt like the most right thing in the world. But there was a small voice in the back of his head reminding him that he’d already been cut, that he was already in trouble and needed to settle things so that he could find Andre.
Antoinette took a slightly more relaxed and patient stance. “I thought maybe I’d get lucky, but you’re right,” she was keeping her spacing with him very even, only shifting as he did. “I guess there’s no need for me to rush, is there?” Jerome couldn’t see her face, but her voice had a considering, teasing quality to it as she reminded him of his own need to move quickly.
Despite knowing that there was a crossbow being reloaded behind him, Jerome forced himself to settle back into his long-trained posture. He hardly had the time necessary to learn his opponent well and fight a battle of maneuver, but he’d settle for a little misdirection. Though he’d practiced long and hard with his fencing instructors when he was young, he’d learned far more since from the Northmen with whom he’d traded. If Antoinette recognized his posture and thought him more set in his ways for it, maybe he’d be able to trick her with something unexpected.
Laughing lightly, Antoinette stepped up into a salute, bowing very slightly as she whipped her sword down and settled back into her own guard position. “You know Jerome, it would have been nice to do this some other time. I’m really sorry about all this.” She advanced, blade at the ready and poised to quickly puncture Jerome’s throat at the slightest opportunity.
Jerome backed up a hair, trying to gauge the distance covered by Antoinette’s stride, trying to guess how much more distance she could cover that she wasn’t showing him yet. He beat her sword aside in a quick feint, trying for a stop thrust, but she halted and recovered her posture before he could make contact. She tsked quietly before parroting his own words back at him, “You didn’t think I was that bad, did you?” She resumed her slow advance.
“Well, no, but—,” Jerome suddenly realized what Antoinette was trying to do. He sidestepped quickly to his left, just as he felt a knife slice past the outside of his right thigh. It cut through skin and bit lightly into muscle, bringing the same stinging burn that he’d felt so many times before. Jerome stepped back again, trying not to favor his leg too much as he whipped his rapier down into the arm of the man who’d just stabbed him. The tip of the blade slashed through muscle and broke bone before Jerome slid it free. The man screamed. Jerome could feel himself starting to get jittery, too much adrenaline trying to cope with too much pain, and forced himself to whip back to face towards Antoinette.
He was lucky that he had taken the extra step backwards, as he had barely enough time to parry across his body and slam her sword into the wall beside him. Then he tackled Antoinette down to the alley’s dirt, guessing more than knowing that the crossbowwoman behind him had reloaded. He was rewarded with the sound of a curse as he heard the crossbow fire. Nothing new punctured his body, though the landing had hurt both his wounded arm and leg.
Antoinette was only stunned for a moment, recovering before Jerome had the chance to use his weight and position to his advantage. Her right fist slammed into his wounded upper arm, and for a few moments Jerome’s whole world seemed to go gray-black, fuzzy around the edges like one of his mother’s lace doilies. He had a distant sensation of being flipped over, feeling the dirt of the alleyway under his back with Antoinette’s weight on top of him, and then the punching started. In some quiet part of his mind, Jerome knew that he was lucky that Antoinette wasn’t actually trying to kill him. She could easily have fractured his windpipe with her first blow. Instead, he felt her fist plunge into his belly, knocking the wind out of him just as he was starting to come back to himself.
The next few blows landed on his ribs as he twisted himself around, trying and failing to gulp down air. But as he shifted, he could feel Antoinette’s hips lift slightly, and he took a chance. He rocked hard to the side, reaching up and catching her under her armpit with his good arm just in time to twist her over to the ground beside him and work his arm around her throat in an impromptu chokehold. He pressed his face into the back of her neck, protecting his eyes from her desperately clawing hands and forcing her head farther forward so that she would have less space to maneuver for a headbutt. He tried not to vomit as he did his best to ignore the pain of resting on his wounded arm, pressing the cut into the alleyway’s dirt.
Just as he’d expected, Antoinette’s head shifted forward slightly, trying to put some space between the two of them so that she could slam her head back into his. He pressed his own head even closer to hers, depriving her of room and pushing home the choke even as he felt her fingernails tear furrows in the back of his neck while they searched for his eyes. Somehow, Jerome was amused by the pain instead of being alarmed by it; it reminded him of his very first real fight, and he was glad that this one wasn’t being settled by something so simple as blood. If it were, he knew that he would have lost a while ago.
His breath finally returning, Jerome rolled once more onto his back. He pulled Antoinette partly over him, trying to ruin her leverage and shield himself from the next crossbow bolt at the same time. Antoinette’s fingernails were now scouring his forearm, and her struggles were increasingly desperate.
“Put down your crossbow and she can breathe!” Jerome yelled as best as he could, muffled by Antoinette’s neck and shoulders. He really didn’t want to choke her into unconsciousness; he actually liked her, in a “I wish you weren’t trying to kill me” sort of way. And if she were unconscious, he’d be trapped by her deadweight while the lady with the crossbow could do whatever she wanted. He just hoped that the people attacking him were good enough friends that they might care about each other’s lives.
He could feel Antoinette go slack as he said that, lightly tapping him twice on his now-bloody arm in the nigh-universal sign of surrender. Risking a glance around her shoulder, he could see that she’d put up both of her hands in front of her, palms out towards the woman with the crossbow. Jerome decided to try his luck, and relaxed his grip just enough to let her get a little air.
“Give up, Elena.” The words came out more of a croak than anything else, just another sign of Antoinette’s abused windpipe. “I don’t want you to shoot,” she paused to take a ragged breath and gather her wits, “me or him.”
For several moments tense quiet was the only response. Then there was the soft creak of the crossbow’s tension being released, and an equally quiet, “Fine.”
“So,” Antoinette spoke up again, her head turned awkwardly in Jerome’s direction as she tried to glance over her shoulder at him while they lay on the ground. “Call it a draw?”
Jerome considered for a moment, his arm still loosely wrapped around Antoinette’s throat. “That’s pretty generous of you, considering you didn’t break my trachea when you had the chance. Let’s say you won, but decided not to do anything about it.”
Antoinette shook her head slowly, brushing her hair back and forth across Jerome’s face. Now that they weren’t fighting, he actually rather liked the sensation. “No, it would look bad for us if we won and you got away.” She shifted slightly further away from Jerome, and he relaxed his arm to let her slide down his chest and put a foot or so between their faces. He could see her smile. “But I’m glad you realized how nice I was.”
“Oh, by my mother’s left tit,” they were interrupted by Elena’s voice, “would you two save your flirting for some other time?”
“Yeah, um, yes.” Jerome blushed, glad that it would be hard to see in the dim light of the alleyway. He did his best to recover quickly. “So, uh,” he was blanking, now that he was looking at the smiling Antoinette. The thought of his missing friend galvanized him. “I’ll call it a draw on two conditions: first, you help me bind up my cuts,” he gestured loosely towards his arm and thigh, “and second, you tell me where to find my friend Andre.” Confusion crept into his voice, “And why the fuck were you trying to ambush me anyway?”
Heaving herself upright while her companion Elena began to help their other friends, Antoinette started tearing off sections of Jerome’s shirt to bind up his biggest cuts. As always, he’d picked up more scratches and scuffs than he’d noticed at the time. She started speaking while she tied the first one in place.
“It’s kind of complicated, but basically we thought your friend was spying on us while we made some, uh, plans. Our employer decided that you were working with him, your friend Andre I mean, when you came around asking about him.” She tore off more cloth, putting paid to any chance Jerome might’ve had of mending his shirt after this. “If you get out and lay low for a while with your friend, there shouldn’t be any harm done. As long as he doesn’t say anything.” She gave him what was probably a warning look, much maligned by the alley’s poor lighting. Continuing in a lighter tone, she said, “And maybe at some point you’d like to come back and visit, yeah?” She patted him on the chest and smiled, ignoring the way that he winced when she touched his sore and aching ribs.
Jerome smiled back as best he could, though it was strained by the circumstances. “Yeah, I’d like that.” He slowly levered himself up from the ground, trying to push with only his uninjured right arm. “Where do I find my friend?”
Antoinette grimaced. “If Helder hasn’t moved him, he should still be tied up in the basement of that inn. You can get in through a back door into the pantry, if you know how to open it.” She grinned, “I can let you in. You get to the basement stairs from the pantry, and then you can just leave from there again with no one else the wiser. Sound good?”
“Yeah.” Jerome paused to look at the two men that he’d injured. “They’ll be alright?” He knew that was a lot to hope for, but he didn’t think he’d done any permanent damage. Except for that nasty number he’d done on the knifeman’s arm, which could really go either way.
Antoinette’s mouth was tight. “More or less.” She knew just as well as Jerome did how badly they’d been hurt. At least it didn’t seem like she was holding it against him.
Jerome nodded awkwardly, hoping the moment would pass. “Well, let’s get moving then.”
* * *
Andre was coated with grime and dust. He’d spent what he guessed was more than half an hour crawling around face first in the dirt of the cellar floor, and all he’d come up with to use on his rope was a broken chair with an old nail sticking out of its wood. He was certain that there were more things that he might have been able to use resting on some of the shelves that he’d found, but he could only get at them by pushing over shelves, and he didn’t want to risk knocking himself on the head by accident. A well placed hammer or knife would put paid to any of his plans for escape. He was glad enough that he hadn’t been interrupted by someone coming down to check on him, but he didn’t expect that his luck would last.
With a great deal of effort, Andre had set up the broken section of chair against one of the posts that supported the floor above him, leaving the nail exposed near the bottom, a little above the dirt floor. He’d leaned against the fragment to hold it in place, and then very slowly and carefully began tearing apart the rope with his rusty nail, one strand at a time.
The noise coming from above him had grown louder, and by now it had reached the dull roar of a fully occupied and popular pub, complete with loud amateur musicians. If he hadn’t been so worried about accidentally braining himself, he probably could have knocked over every one of the shelves down here with no one above him the wiser. He’d let his mind drift a few times to what he’d do once he freed himself of his bonds, and he’d briefly entertained a very satisfying series of fantasies in which he beat up all the people who’d decided to tie him up and toss him in a basement. But every time he stopped paying complete attention to the nail, he’d jabbed it into his own wrists. If he had been pressing much harder, he’d probably have actually stabbed himself instead of rubbing more rust on his raw skin. There were only a few strands left now, and he had settled to tearing them apart with a grimly singular determination.
They finally separated, and Andre’s shoulders popped and cracked as he painfully brought his arms forward again. He gently rolled his shoulders, trying to warm them back up and fight the stiffness that had set in while his hands had been tied behind his back. The pain left gradually, though his muscles still protested his slow movements.
Satisfied that he wasn’t going to hurt himself with any sudden movements, Andre levered himself upright. His stride was cut short by the manacles chained to his ankles, but he felt the need to stretch his legs after so long crawling about. Besides, he told himself, at least now he’d be able to catch himself if he tripped. And how else was he supposed to search the shelves for something useful?
Andre knew that time was still a factor; if any of his captors came for him now, he’d still be an easy target. He needed some way to defend himself, and if at all possible he wanted to surprise his captors before they could get ahold of him. Moving as quickly as he could, Andre found a mallet and positioned a barrel next to the bottom of the stairs. Standing on the top of the barrel, he should be able to hit anyone coming down before they had a chance to see him. Certain that he was nearly out of time, Andre settled in to wait.
* * *
They’d almost worked their way back to the inn before the ambush had happened, so it didn’t take them very long after that to complete their return. Just as Antoinette had promised, there was a door set in the side of the pantry, hidden from the street by the rest of the building yet easy to access from the yard between the inn and the barn. Jerome imagined that it would make an easy way to stock the inn, and he watched with interest as Antoinette fiddled around with the slight gap between the bottom of the door and the dirt floor of the pantry. He heard a click, and then she stood and lifted the obvious latch, swinging the door inwards. She stood to one side, holding the door open and gesturing Jerome inside.
The noise from inside the inn grew in intensity as the door swung open; Jerome could see light shining into the pantry from around a curtain, leaving traces of warm illumination sketched in lines across the otherwise dark room. The singing and yelling which had been a constant background noise while they stood outside now washed out over them.
Struggling to make himself heard without shouting and alerting anyone, Jerome leaned in closer to Antoinette. “Thank you, and, um,” he smiled tentatively, “maybe I’ll see you again soon.”
Antoinette smiled back, but she had a considering look in her eyes. “Yeah, you stick to your part of the deal and maybe you will.” A little quieter, soft enough that Jerome wasn’t quite sure that he’d heard it, “I’d like that.”
Jerome pulled back and nodded, feeling better than he had in a while, and he strode in to the dark space, only slightly hunched to make it through the door frame without hitting his head. He glanced back the way he’d come. Antoinette pointed to a small second catch at the bottom of the door, which he could only see now that it had been opened, and then slowly stepped back and swung the door softly shut. Jerome couldn’t even hear the click over the sounds of the festivities further inside.
Shut into the pantry of the inn, Jerome slowly made his way around the well-stocked room, trying to find the access to the basement that Antoinette had mentioned. As his eyes gradually adjusted to the dark, he was able to make out the darker silhouette of another doorway, just a little further along the same wall that held the curtained passage to the main room. Desperate to make his way out before anyone came back and discovered him hiding in the pantry, Jerome stalked over to the doorway and began quietly feeling his way down the stairs.
The sounds of the bar up above were still incredibly loud, and there were no lamps lit to guide his way. Jerome could see faint lines of light stretched across all sorts of objects, painting the outlines of boxes and shelves where they leaked through the cracks in the floorboards above him. But he couldn’t see any sign of Andre in the dim light, and Jerome resigned himself to the ordeal of searching the entire basement by feel. And then, as he reached the bottom of the stairs, he sensed a presence just to his right. There was a faint exhale of breath, a whistling noise, and then Jerome’s head blossomed in blinding pain as he collapsed to the dirt floor.
* * *
Andre stood on the top of the barrel, breathing heavily with his excitement. He’d nearly given up and tried going upstairs, manacles and all. It had seemed like his captors had forgotten all about him, or been busy with the huge crowd that he could hear upstairs. But then those footsteps had come, and he’d known that his patience and preparation had paid off. At the foot of the stairs, the man he’d hit on the head rolled over and moaned, putting his hands to his head. Andre’s dark-accustomed eyes could only just see him in the dimness.
“Owww,” the groan died off, familiar. Andre stared at the barest outline of the figure. The groan had sounded like Jerome, and then the man spoke again, “You ungrateful goat loving son of a bitch.”
“Ah, shit,” Andre muttered as he clambered down off the barrel. Now he was sure; he’d hit his friend instead of one of his captors. “I’m sorry Jerome, I…” His apology died off as he got down to his friend’s side, feeling around his friend’s bloody scalp to make sure he was ok.
“Ow, fuck,” Jerome hissed as Andre found the spot where the mallet had landed. “Just shut up, ok? Make sure you didn’t break anything.”
Andre grunted in response. He couldn’t feel any broken bone, though his friend was going to have a tremendous goose egg in a few minutes and some skin had torn with the impact. At his best guess, Jerome was concussed. The bleeding needed some attention, but head wounds always bled a lot and it wasn’t as dangerous as having the two of them be stuck in this basement. As a last thought, he did a quick check to make sure that Jerome hadn’t hurt anything else in his fall.
To Andre’s dismay, Jerome was covered in small cuts and scrapes. Worse, it looked like he’d been cut by actual blades at least twice, with hastily applied bandages of torn cloth tied around his left upper arm and right thigh, and more blood seeping from scratches on his neck and right forearm. He’d clearly just been in a pretty bad fight.
“I,” Jerome sounded unsteady, “don’t feel so good.”
“Sorry,” muttered Andre. “You don’t look that good either.” Not, he thought to himself, that there was much to see in this light.
“No, I mean,” Jerome flopped over ungracefully, then heaved. He vomited across the dirt floor, before continuing in a little voice, “I mean I don’t feel so good.” Jerome breathed quietly for a few moments more before he spoke again, “You are such an asshole Andre. Oh, my head hurts so much.”
Quietly berating himself, Andre helped Jerome to an upright sitting position. The trip up the stairs took an eternity, the tall man barely able to stand on his own, helped by his manacled dwarf friend. When they finally reached the top, they stood in the thoroughly cramped pantry. Andre helped Jerome settle on a sack of flour by the curtained door that led into the main space, making sure that his friend wouldn’t fall from his perch. Then Andre stepped out through the door.
* * *
The tavern was loud and crowded, and the sound and smell of the common room hit Andre like a wall as he stepped out through the pantry door to the back corner by the bar. The usual scents of old sweat, beer, tobacco and the faint tang of vomit wreathed around him, even as the shouts of the customers nearly drowned out the musicians as the crowd enthusiastically sang along to the shanty. Andre was mostly sheltered from the press of the crowd by the presence of the bar, and the dwarf could see Helder standing a little ways to his left, serving up a round of tankards to another few customers.
Andre could feel a surge of anger building. This man had chained him up in his basement and then sent people to attack Jerome, all just because Andre had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was no way that Andre was going to let that go without an answer. Shuffling his feet to avoid tripping himself on his chain, Andre advanced towards the innkeeper.
He still had the mallet with which he’d accidentally brained Jerome, and he let it slip down through his loosely held fingers until he had a solid grip at the base of the haft. Helder was so busy dealing with his customers that he didn’t even look down and see Andre until the dwarf was within three feet of him. Helder was heavyset, a man who had been muscular once and who had let himself go to seed through the comforts of food and drink, and he didn’t get out of the way quite fast enough.
Andre’s mallet caught Helder on the inside of his right knee as the taller human tried and failed to backpedal away from the dwarf. It landed with a crack that Andre could barely hear over the sound of the crowd, and Helder collapsed as his knee shifted unnaturally to the side. The man squealed in pain, scrabbling backwards on the dirty floor behind the bar as Andre advanced on him.
A few of the customers closest to the bar could see what was going on and started leaning over the tall counter to interfere, but Andre shifted to his left, away from the barflies, and continued to shuffle closer to the injured man. While Helder frantically rummaged through the shelves behind the bar, he kicked out at Andre with his uninjured left leg. Andre batted it away and landed a blow on the man’s shin in the process. As the dwarf looked back to Helder, shuffling in just a little closer, he saw what it was that Helder had been searching for. The man clutched Andre’s last pistol in his hands, and Andre was staring down its large bore. He could see that the piece’s flint had been hauled back, and that it was ready to fire. There was shouting from the men at the bar, but the noise was lost in the confusion of the crowd.
Helder gave Andre a sickly smile, clearly still in a great deal of pain. He pushed slightly with the pistol, keeping it pointed straight at Andre and yelled something that looked like “Back away.” Andre looked at the man, then glanced behind himself. The space behind him was still empty, no one there to cut off his retreat, but he’d clearly just lost. There was a roiling twist of tension in his gut, and he slowly put up his hands as he looked back at Helder. The heavy man’s pained grin widened slightly, a look of triumph in his eyes. Then Andre looked closer at his gun in Helder’s hands.
Andre often carried his pistol loaded, but he never carried it with a charge in the pan. It was a simple enough trick to tap out a bit of powder into the priming pan before he fired, something he was always careful to test before he bought a gun. From what Andre could see, Helder hadn’t yet primed the pan. The tension in Andre’s gut turned to frightened looseness even as he felt the anger return. The dwarf stepped towards the injured man where he lay slumped with the gun.
Helder’s eyes widened, then squeezed shut as he pulled hard on the stiff trigger. The flint slapped forward, sparks showering down onto an empty flashpan. Andre knocked the pistol from the man’s hands as fast as he could, terrified that it might still go off from a lucky stray spark, and then stepped in between the man’s legs and brought his fist down on Helder’s solar plexus. The wounded man coughed and squirmed, grasping at Andre as he struggled to breathe, but Andre let himself fall forward onto the larger man. The dwarf wriggled around to an awkward position behind Helder, worming his arms around the taller man’s neck in a chokehold before leaning his head in next to Helder’s ear.
“Give up!” Andre shouted to make sure he was heard over the yelling of the crowd, “I’ve been nice this far, you paranoid and cowardly thief!” Helder struggled for a few moments more, trying to break Andre’s hold, but the dwarf was far stronger and difficult to dislodge. Andre eased up his grip slightly as Helder stopped struggling.
Finally gasping in air, Helder’s reply came out as a choking whine. “What do you want? I’ll give you whatever you want. Just, please,” he spluttered, trying to come up with something. Trying and failing to be subtle, Helder’s left hand groped towards the shelves behind the bar once more.
“Now then, none of that,” Andre wormed his legs around Helder’s arm, locking them into an arm-bar and flexing a little to get the man’s attention. Helder whined again as his arm straightened painfully, stopped only by his elbow’s inability to flex further. The anxious shouts of the barflies had finally caught the attention of the bar’s other patrons, and Andre could hear the music stop as confusion spread through the room.
“You,” Andre started again, “are going to unlock these miserable shackles. Then you’ll give me back my things, give me enough money to buy passage for two to some distant port, and you’ll never have to deal with us again.” Helder’s nod was jerky, cut short by the thickness of Andre’s arm where it wrapped around his throat. “Oh,” Andre appended, “and if you try to cross us, I’ll see to it that everyone knows of your stupid little plot. You can try to fend off the NWSC before I come back and feed your liver to the seagulls. Deal?”
“Deal.” The word came out in an odd little gargle, but Andre was satisfied. He loosened his legs from where they were wrapped around Helder’s arm, then looked at where Helder had been reaching. Andre helped himself to one of the large knives that he saw, and held it meaningfully as he slowly released Helder from his choke hold.
* * *
Moving with exaggerated caution, Helder took a key from his belt and undid Andre’s proffered manacles. The shackles clacked open, releasing the dwarf’s ankles. Still holding the knife towards Helder, Andre flexed his ankles and stood up. The skin at the edges of the shackles had been rubbed raw and covered in rust, but the stinging pain of standing and stretching them for a moment came as a reminder that he was free once more. Helder looked nervously at him, and Andre caught a glimpse of the large man trying to size up the rest of the tavern’s crowd.
Andre hadn’t really considered that complication. He’d been too focused on trying to ensure that he got free to think much about what this might look like to the other people in Helder’s bar. He didn’t trust the man to keep his word and not try something with his customers. Keeping an eye on the innkeeper, he stooped quickly to snatch up his pistol, discarding the mallet.
“Perhaps,” Andre spoke quietly to Helder where he still knelt in pain, “you’d like to inform them of what you did wrong, and how you’re going to make good on your mistakes?” He kept the knife close to the large man’s gut. At least he didn’t have to worry about Helder chasing him after what he’d just done to the man’s knee.
Helder swallowed uncomfortably.
“Well, get on with it,” Andre waved the tip of the knife in a very small circle.
Helder found his voice. “I, um,” he looked down at the threatening knife, and spoke louder for the quieting crowd’s benefit, “I did this dwarf wrong and chained him in my basement.” He paused.
Andre raised an eyebrow. “Continue,” he muttered into the crowd’s waiting silence.
“So now he’s going to leave,” Helder looked up at Andre, trying to gauge the dwarf’s reaction as he went, “and I’ll pay his passage to see him on his way.” His voice sounded anything but confident, but he slowly forced himself to his feet, leaning heavily on the bar to keep himself upright without putting weight on his knee.
“The money, now if you please,” Andre kept the blade in his hand near the inside of Helder’s thigh.
Helder rummaged inside his apron for his coinpurse, pulling out two handfuls of coin. They weren’t much, but from what Andre could see he thought that they might buy passage for him and Jerome. Glancing out at the crowd, he decided that it was better to leave as soon as he could. They were taking Helder’s word for what had happened at the moment, but if at some point Helder changed his tune, there’d be plenty of angry drunks looking to hurt the dwarf who’d hurt their favored barkeep. Andre gestured for Helder to put the coins back in the purse, then stuffed the purse into his belt.
“Right, now you’ll come walking with me for a little bit.” Andre tossed his head in the direction of the door to the pantry. “Just a little ways, far enough that you’ll not be doing anything stupid like you were thinking of just a few moments ago.” Helder blanched, then nodded.
Collecting a still woozy Jerome from the pantry, they made their way out the back door of the tavern, Helder fiddling with two mechanisms to unlock it. Andre kept Helder with them as far as the next intersection, then left him to make his way back to his inn on his own. He hoped that the barkeep’s injured knee would slow him down for long enough that they’d be able to make it away without being caught.
Jerome’s question interrupted Andre’s thoughts. “Why didn’t you just borrow my sword?” The tall and wiry man was looking down at his friend with a pained squint, as though even the night’s lamps and moonlight were too bright for him. “Way better than that mallet,” he mumbled, holding a hand to his head.
“I, uh,” Andre was silent for a few moments, “I forgot.”
Jerome spluttered with laughter, almost immediately trying to stop as he clutched at his head. Sighing, Andre put his arm around his friend’s waist and helped him the rest of the way to whatever ship would take them at this hour.
* * *
Andre was glad that he’d had the good fortune to find a light merchantman bound for the eastern islands by way of Port-au-Prince. Even better, one whose captain was still awake and willing to take on two passengers after dark. It had cost them most of their coin, but the man hadn’t asked any questions. Under other circumstances, Andre might have worried about what that could mean. In this case, he didn’t particularly care to find a more conscientious captain, given how useful this one appeared to be. All he wanted was whatever got them out of Port Larani as fast as possible.
So it was that Andre found himself on deck early the next morning, Jerome swaddled up in blankets and sleeping beside him. The morning dew had left everything damp, and there was quiet movement around the ship as it prepared to set out for the morning tide. They were part way out of the harbor, having already been towed away from the wharf by a pair of launches, when Andre caught sight of something odd. Standing up, he made his way aft, walking carefully after having spent so long on land. Sure enough, as he glanced down through the open companionway, he could see a box of fanatically well oiled and cared for guns, each being taken out of its packaging and passed to a waiting line of seamen. The sailors had formed a chain, and he could see the guns being moved further away into the ship, every so often followed by small casks of powder or shot. Then one of the sailors looked up at him, blanched, and whistled.
Andre took an alarmed step back, missed his footing as the ship shifted on a wave, and sat down hard on the deck. He lay back, feeling entirely too exhausted to deal with the new day and its troubles. He’d just escaped one group of paranoid conspirators. Did he really have to deal with another so soon?
Crawling forward just far enough to be able to yell into the hold, he hollered “I didn’t see anything, I swear!”
A Simple Misunderstanding by Henry White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.