"Excuse me, sir, how much for this loaf?"
The gnome popped out from behind his oddly plain cart, grey tufts poking out over his ears. Was he standing on a box? "EH!?"
Oh, fantastic. He's hard of hearing. Derrick raised his voice. "HOW MUCH-"
"Ten copper!? That's absurd."
"THAT'S ABSURD. I CAN SEE WHERE THE RATS HAVE NIBBLED THE ENDS OFF."
Derrick blew through his lips, disturbing a lock of brownish hair that'd fallen into his eye, and dug out his worryingly light purse. He weighed it in his rough hands, mentally calculating what meager finances he had left.
"I can gi- I CAN GIVE YOU FIVE."
"EIGHT, AND THAT'S AS HIGH AS I CAN GO."
"NO SALE!" The wizened creature struck his hand on the side of the cart, then hopped back down out of sight, leaving his cart unguarded. Almost subconsciously, Derrick's hand reached forward.
It's right there. I could just take it. It's one loaf of bread...No. I promised. A whisper responded in his mind unbidden, a whisper that sounded of youth and worry-free days. Yeah, well, you've promised lots of things to lots of people. What's one promise, give or take? What's the difference? He stretched further, before snatching his hand back and turning away briskly. Her. I promised her. That's the difference.
Derrick walked away, trying to reconcile his promise with Simons' empty stomach. Perhaps there was yet another merchant still selling at this hour...
Derrick froze, his heart racing. What now? He hadn't even taken anything! He almost broke out running, but calmed himself. If he ran, he'd look guilty. Instead, he turned to face the voice, willing an expression of bemusement onto his visage. The wrinkled gnome was...not walking, so much as wobbling in Derricks' general direction, clutching something under his robes.
"What seems to be the trouble, sir?" The merchant glared up at him, eyes seeming to peer into his mind, and from 2 and a half feet down that's no mean feat. He grunted, then thrust his hands out.
"HERE. TAKE IT."
Derrick glanced at the gnome's hands, then back to the gnome. "I... I can't..."
Derrick reached out his hand, palm-up, and choked back a tear as the coin sang in his hands. "Thank you."
"NOW BUY." The gnome half-walked, half-waddled back to his cart and hopped back onto his box. Derrick followed him, exchanging his coin for a mostly-clean loaf of day-old bread. The gnome leaned in, lowering his voice. "The other merchants, they tell me about you. They tell me...You're good man. You try. You have child."
"I'm a charity case." Derrick whispered to himself.
"Better in charity case than in pine case, eh? Now go home. If anyone ask, you rob me."
"You...can hear me?"
"DADDYYY!!!" A sugar-blur ran into Derrick's knees and hugged him tightly, holding on as though he'd been gone for a year instead of just a day. Derrick laughed, kneeling down to hug his son back with one arm, keeping the loaf of bread from being crushed.
"Ohh, Simon I missed you!"
"Daddy a man came over an' he an' Nana talked for a while an' she got sad for a bit but then it was ok an' then he played dwarves an' gobbins with me, an' I got to be the dwarf! An' then-"
Derrick laughed, tustling the shock of red hair Simon had inherited from his mother. "You always get to be the dwarf! Where's Nana?"
"She's in the kitchen, starting dinner. It's mystery stew, and it smells delicious. Frankly, it's a shame I can't stay."
A chill ran down Derrick's spine. That voice... He stood, and faced the man. It was him...
"Simon, buddy, take this and go give it to Nana, ok? Your friend and I need to talk." The child ran into the kitchen clutching the bread. "So Gavin...How have you been?" Without a word, the stranger who'd been Derrick's best friend crossed the room and wrapped Derrick in a hug that seemed to span years.
"I heard about Lark, Derrick. I'm so sorry."
On rickety stairs outside a decrepit old house sat two men, laughing and passing a bottle between them. Where one was tall and strong the other was short and slight; Where one was dark, the other was fair. One had eyes the color of a clear sky, while the others were the green of foam on an ocean wave. If one of them had a tail, they could not have appeared more different; and yet, a passerby could scarce distinguish between them.
"Six MONTHS, you bastard!"
"How was I s'posed to know it was a gift from his grandpa? It was a belt!"
"He still wears it, you know."
"Yeah. Hikes up his pants every time he passes me in the street too!" At this they both burst into laughter. Gavin passed the bottle, and Derrick took a long swig. Suddenly sombre, Derrick kept talking. "Six months. And...You weren't there."
"No, but Lark was." Gavin said, with perhaps more bitterness than he intended.
"Wha's that s'posed to mean?"
"Nothing, Derrick. I...I'm sorry. I just..." He paused, wistful longing passing across his face. "I mean, I figured she could never...I mean, I'm not that great a guy, I knew what my chances were, but watching her pine over you...It was more than I could stand. Not to mention how pissed she was at me for talking you into that. I just thought...I dunno, I thought maybe if I left for a little bit, it'd help me get things in focus, y'know? I didn't mean to be gone as long as I was."
Confusion was chased from Derrick's face by realization. "You and she...?" Derrick paused, fearing to speak the rest aloud.
"No. It was all me. I don't think she even knew I felt that way. After I left, I traveled the continent. I saw a lot of things, things I thought I'd never get to see, and I had some truly amazing experiences, but my thoughts kept coming back to her, how happy she'd be, what she would say if she saw what I saw. But you know something, Derrick? I'm glad. You made her happier than I've ever seen her. It was like, when she was with you, nothing could possibly be wrong in her world."
"I felt the same way." Derrick whispered, fingering the locket hidden under his shirt.
"I know. That's why I couldn't stand in your way."
"I miss her, Gavin." It contained a lock of Larks' hair, and a portrait of them created by a wandering bard on their wedding day.
"I miss her too."
"I try to be strong for Simon, but it's so hard. I never knew how much I needed her, until..." How she'd smiled and laughed that day!
"I made her a promise, the day we knew about Simon." Auburn curls glistening in the sun, eyes the color of a doe's coat, full red lips that were always parted ever so slightly. "I promised her I'd straighten out my life. No more stealing, even if times were tough." The look in her eyes when she'd made the vows..."I needed to set a good example for Simon." Her kiss, as though it was their first all over again, a promise of their life...
"That's why I'm here, Derrick. I had a long talk with Nana. She told me how tough things have been for you, how hard you've been trying. She's worried that you won't have a place to live this time next month. But I can change that."
Still staring at his shoes, Derrick asked "What do you mean?"
"I mean..." Gavin slid closer, lowering his voice. "Two thousand gold pieces are moving through the docks tonight. I know which warehouse, which crate, which guards are on duty, everything. But I need your help getting in."
Derrick scooted away, shaking his head. "No, Gavin. I told you. I'm clean now."
"Derrick, listen -"
"No! I made her a promise. I can't go back on it, not now."
"Derrick, please. You won't be making this a lifestyle. Even if we only take 20 apiece, that'll set us up for life!"
Something stirred within Derrick, his fingers twitching as he moved the pins in an imaginary lock. "But...My promise..."
"Derrick, I loved her too. I know what a promise to her means. But you can't keep promises based on the past. What about Simon? How many times have you had to choose between feeding him and feeding yourself?"
"It was never a choice."
"Of course not, Derrick. But you need to take the best care of him you can, whatever that means. If you come with me, you'll never have to worry about where he's going to sleep or what he's going to eat. You need to do this, not for me, not for yourself, but for Simon." Gavin laid his hand on Derrick's shoulder. "For Lark."
For my little songbird...
Derrick retched, gasping for air as another blow sank into his stomach.
"Where is it!?"
Panting between words, Derrick hissed "I don't know what you're talking about." He cried out in pain as a fist the size of a gnome's head thudded into him.
"Don't be stupid! We know you took it!"
"Took WHAT!?" Derrick tensed, awaiting the impact of a blow that never came. Instead, there was only the clack of boot-heels on stone. Derrick couldn't see very well through his swollen eyes, but they sounded expensive.
"Come now, Derrick." A manicured voice, smooth like silk. "Give it up."
"I don't know what you want from me!" Silk-covered fingers grabbed his raw chin, turning his head this way and that. For a moment, Derrick thought he felt those fingers in his very brain, but the moment passed.
"I believe you."
"Good! Now tell your goons to let me go."
"Can't do that, I'm afraid. Whether or not you know what item we desire, you've still stolen from us. Quite a substantial amount, in fact. A hundred thousand gold pieces."
"A hundred thou-! But he said..." Too late, Derrick bit his tongue.
"Ahh, now we come closer to the truth of the matter. You weren't alone." Derrick remained silent. "And your friend skipped town, leaving you behind to take the brunt of our anger." Derrick refused to answer, but he didn't need to; The soft voice was speaking in statements, not questions. The fingers withdrew from Derrick's face, then suddenly whipped across his skull.
"I am not." CRACK. "Entirely without sympathy." CRACK. "I know how difficult." CRACK. "It can be to raise." CRACK. "A child alone. But unfortunately, I can't simply let you go. Whatever gold you have is of no consequence. Money can be bought." CRACK. "Your friend, however, has something infinitely more valuable to us. Something that cannot be remade." CRACK. "So, what's going to happen is, I'm going to let you live, and you're going to find this person and retrieve what he stole from us."
Spitting blood, Derrick took the opportunity to express his wishes that the voice should become suddenly and violently intimate with an entire tribe of Gnolls.
"Give this up, Derrick. Your friend betrayed you. And besides...It would be a shame if anything were to happen to Simon. He's a cute one. Not so cute, however, as some children my other enemies have had. It would be a shame." The voice paused, allowing Derricks' imagination to end that sentence in the most horrifying way it could. Often, the best threats were left unspoken. "We have an arrangement then. Do as I wish, and nothing will happen to your child. You will likely still die, of course, but your son will be safe. Find. Your. Friend."
Pain thundered across Derrick's temples, and then the voice, and everything, was silent.
"Excuse me, sir, do you remem-"
Derrick rolled his still-sore eyes. "DO YOU REMEMBER THE MAN WHO BOUGHT THE DWARVEN DRINK FROM YOU TWO WEEKS AGO?"
"OF COURSE I REMEMBER."
"TALL, DARK HAIR, BLUE-"
"I SAID I REMEMBER. WHAT ABOUT HIM?"
"HAVE YOU SEEN HIM SINCE THEN?"
Derrick swore under his breath. "THANK YOU ANYWAY."
"I HEARD HIM THOUGH."
Confused, nevertheless Derrick pressed on. "WHAT DID YOU HEAR?"
"FRIEND TOLD ME ABOUT STRANGE MAN. TALL, DARK HAIR, BLUE-"
"I KNOW WHAT HE LOOKS LIKE."
"ASKING ABOUT PASSAGE AND SECURITY."
"PASSAGE WHERE? FOR WHAT?"
"SOMEWHERE NORTH. WOULDN'T SAY."
"But....Why go north?" Derrick mused to himself.
In a normal voice, the gnome answered "Haven't you heard about the gold rush?"
"HAVEN'T YOU HEARD ABOUT THE GOLD RUSH?"
"OF COURSE I HAVE. And he certainly doesn't need any more gold than he has..."
"WELL, GOLD'S NOT ALL THAT'S UP THERE."
Well, if he's going up there, I guess I have to follow him."
"Good luck, friend. Don't worry, I take good care of your son. He won't be hungry while you're gone."
Derrick swallowed, suddenly paranoid. Was this gnome...No, he was just being a good neighbor. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." The gnome leaned across his cart. "And I don't want to worry you, but your hearing weak. See cleric."
Derrick went cross-eyed momentarily, unsure if the gnome was kidding or just insane. He shrugged it off, and bid goodbye.
An hour later, he had secured passage to the Northlands on the Eisblume, and they left the next day. He stood on the deck, hands clutching his locket.
I'm sorry, my songbird. I promise, I'll fix this. I'll find Gavin, I'll take back what he stole, and I'll keep Simon safe. You have my word...I'll never break another promise to you again.