Thom stuck his head up over the crate for the hundredth time, peering across the rock jetty. He turned around and sat down on the hard gravel. Cranky looked up from where he sat sorting decent throwing stones.
“Nope.” said Thom, and deepened the groove his heel had been making in the gravelly beach for the last half hour. Morrie was late. Morrie was fat. Morrie was fat, late and he had the stupid grapnel. Stupid Morrie.
Cranky brushed grit from his hands and selected a rounded stone. Thom watched as Cranky expertly sized up a Shearwater perched on a rotted piling about thirty yards away and whipped the rock sidearm. The stone neatly obliterated a freshwater mussel the Shearwater was dangling by a shred of seaweed and then plunked into the lake further out. Cranky had recently decided that sidearm throwing was better for accuracy than overhand, a point which was hotly debated amongst their group. Thom held that overhand was better. Cranky triumphantly looked over to where Thom was slumped against the crate. The Shearwater had screamed away over the lake. Smart move around bored little hobbits.
“Luck.” drolled Thom. It was. Most times Cranky missed left on the sidearm crap.
“I wath aiming at the bird,” sneered Cranky, “A hit is a hit.” Gods, where was Morrie?
“Ok, fine your aim is improving, wanna go sidearm against overhand?” asked Thom, sweetly. “I’ll bet my best sling against your folding knife. Whaddya say?”
“No. Or at least not until I sink I’m ready.” Cranky had problems with some of his words. He sounded like a really little kid sometimes, but he wasn’t dumb enough to make that bet. He was getting better though. Which sucked for the mussel. Better to be rock than a mussel.
Stupid late Morrie was probably the best arm of the three of them, he had this smooth throw which looked deceptively slow. Any of the three would have easily hit the Shearwater overhand, but Morrie would have turned it into blood and feathers, bam. He was also slightly older, being 18 and all. He also had an older brother named Sherwood who had all kinds of great crap that little brothers desperately want to play with, amongst which was a real metal grapnel which had caused the three of them to arrange to meet here, out past the mole on the east side of town, wayy past where they were allowed to go for what would be an excellent Thom-type plan, and maybe even real money. If he ever got here.
Cranky scrunched his vaguely smelly self down next to Thom, “Tell me again.”
“Again?” Thom rolled his eyes, “OK. So yesterday noon a few of the Men were drinking some beer or something over at the White Marsh-”
“Loon. It is the White Loon.” interjected Cranky.
“LOON, right, so these two Men who were drinking were talking about how one of them knew that Medium Fred had snagged a barrel of flour over past the mole when he was fishing there a few days back, an it hadn’t spoilt because the water had made this weird crust inside it and most of the milled flour was still dry. One of ’em said that a barge had sunk up lake last month with some goods and livestock and how the currents must have either moved it near here or at least some of cargo and they were going to go get it later after they got a grapnel, after work, right? Oh, and-”
“And Therwood has a grapnel so all sree of us would get rich from all the cash money the bakers would give us for flour!” said Cranky, his eyes were dancing with avarice, which was what had motivated them all in the first place, although Cranky thought the cargo was pots of gold or jewels or even bacon, which was not exactly pooh poohed but even youngish hobbits weren’t that gullible. Morrie wasn’t fooled but he had recognized an opportunity when he heard one.
Thom knew Morrie had been saving what little cash monies he earned for an apprentice fee down at the broadsheet printers, which actually apprenticed hobbits although Thom thought the price was more than insulting to hobbits, being twice the rate for Men. Didn’t they employ Garret Buckman and Styvyn Stubbs as journeyman printers there? Still, Thom respected that Morrie had a plan, and that he was trying to make it happen. Even if working for someone was a rube’s game. Even if your boss didn’t hit you or yell alot or worse, he was still someone who could tell you what to do, like Goodman Jager was. Master Jager was his mom’s… boss. He gritted his teeth and jammed one furry foot into the trench he had made with his heel, obliterating it.
“Sinking about your mom?” asked Cranky. Thom glared at him, his young face screwed up into a grimace and his hands became fists. Cranky dropped a rock and threw his hands up. “Pax, paxpaxpaxPAX” he blurted. Thom stared a bit more and said, “No… I was NOT.” Cranky knew better than to ask, although to be fair, they were friends and he was actually trying to be nice. Still, Thom’s mom was officially not a topic of conversation. Or what she did for a living.
Morrie landed between them with a crunch and yelled “Grahh!” startling both them badly until the three of them cracked up at each other’s expressions. He had the grapnel and rope with him and some fairly decent burlap bags held together in a twist of hemp. He saw their looks, “To put the jewels in.” Which sent them off into fits of giggles at Cranky which lasted almost the entire walk along the shore to where Cross Creek joined the lake, i.e. the place where alleged treasure lurked under the lake.
Two hours later they weren’t giggling. About nine thousand random grapnel tosses had yielded one broken fish weir (empty) a few sodden lengths of furry fishnet, a slimy and very heavy leather bucket which had come apart when it cleared the surface and pounds and pounds of the thin, green mussel infested lakegrass which grew in abundance everywhere on the bottom of the lake. Plus they had just about lost the precious grapnel on a snag and had spent a few terrible minutes walking up and down the beach trying to wiggle it out of whatever it had stuck in, which worked but just about killed their grand plans for untold amounts of flour. They were wet, tired and Thom would have given up except that Morrie really wanted to find something, anything besides junk. He was looking out over the lake with the grapnel, like he was magically seeing right through the silty water.
“Don’t throw it towards Thaddle Island, that’s where the thtump is.” said Cranky, who had somehow become the overseer. He was standing behind the two of them further up the shingle and occasionally skipping stones out over the lake. He probably hadn’t left yet because he didn’t want to walk back past Dock street by himself. Some of the human kids were pretty mean to hobbits on their own and no one really gave a shit if a hobbit got jumped down there.
Morrie nodded to himself and turned away from the low double humped island Cranky had pointed out when Thom blurted “Wait.” Morrie looked at him, the grapnel swinging in his right hand.
“Morrie, what if that wasn’t a stump? What if the, thing we snagged was the barge or, or one of the really big barrels they carry? Huh? We might be this close!” Thom held his hands up about six inches apart and gave Morrie a hopeful look. Morrie shrugged, “OK, but last cast. We can come back again tomorrow, maybe ’kay?” Thom looked at him and thought, no way, no how. Morrie had finally made some internal decision that This Officially Was a Bust. Fine.
As Morrie squared up make his cast, Thom leaned forward and said, “Make this one reaally far, Morrie!” Morrie wound up and slung the grapnel out. Either the throw was lucky, or a few hundred previous casts had taught him something because the damn thing arrowed out well past most of the other lame throws they had made before and entered the water at an angle, not with a slap. The rope came off the coil cleanly for a change and even Cranky let out a low whistle of appreciation. It was a great cast. Then the bitter end of the rope flipped up and went into the water, which necessitated some yelling and thrashing around in waist deep water until Thom felt it brush his calf and he brought it up with his toes. A few long tugs brought them back to shore and Thom started pulling the grapnel across the unseen lake bottom where it no doubt was pissing off crabs, mussels, gars and some eels.
Then it caught on something solid. Thom stopped and pulled the line slowly until it straightened out, angling down into the water. He looked back at Morrie, “You wanna help pull or what?”. Morrie looked at the lake, then at Thom and then back at the lake. “You guys hold the line really good, OK? I am gonna shinny down the line and see if this is another stump or something.”
Cranky waded out to Thom and grabbed ahold of the rope and rolled his eyes where only Thom could see. There was probably 30 yards of line in the water, so that grapnel could be what, 20 or 30 feet down? On the bottom of the lake there could be quite a lot of real or imagined terrors for a few young hobbits, especially Cranky, who would not wash well, much less swim. Thom could sort of swim but diving was getting a little serious. “Morrie, you could drown, ok? I mean seriously, an old snag on the bottom isn’t worth it, forget what I said, OK?”
Morrie shook his head, “I’m fatter so I can float better and anyway you can pull me back in if anything happens. I’ll follow the line down” He started wading out holding the line at arms length and taking big gulps of air. Cranky looked scared now, and Thom was certainly feeling that way. He was going to ask Morrie to forget it, just call it off when Morrie took a final big gulp of air and just submerged, leaving a little whirlpool of water where he went down. Thom looked down at the rope, the crappy rope which had been knotted together from at least three other bits of old crappy rope and was waterlogged and slippery. He took the end and tied it around his waist and leaned back against the pull of the embedded grapnel. Cranky helped keep the line tight and as he did, the tension started to lessen, even as Thom could sort of feel where Morrie was doing something with the rope down there under the water. Maybe he was going hand over hand down the rope to where the grapnel was. Whatever it had snagged was coming along very slowly though, it wasn’t just stuck fast like last time. Thom was able to take another loop around his waist as whatever it was slowly dragged over something, there was a bump, more felt than anything and the heavy weight was steady now but still coming up the slope of the bottom. Cranky knew it too. Things were looking up.
“He should have waited, T, this thing is coming up and he didn’t have to do all that, that swimming stuff.” Thom didn’t look at him, he just took another bight of line around him and kept slowly pulling. How long had it been now, a minute? Morrie would probably be popping up any second now. They kept heaving on the line and backing up, the water was streaming off their breeches now and Cranky was rythymically throwing his weight on the rope, pulling it. Whatever it was, was heavy. Two minutes? There was a swirl and a some bubbles off to the left, but it was too far out to be Morrie. Had to be. More pulling now and something was at the end of the rope now, bulky, draped in… cloth? It had to be at least three minutes now and the two hobbits pulled what appeared to be some netting which had a small barrel and a wicker basket crottled up in it. The grapnel had become fouled in the netting, which was rotten, but it had gotten sufficiently tangled to get a decent grip, or else Morrie had moved it there. Four minutes definitely, maybe even five. Could someone hold their breath that long? They untangled the grapnel from the debris, shooting anxious glances over the lake.
Cranky was clutching the grapnel to his chest and saying ohshitohshitohshit to himself, over and over. Tom kept looking left and right along the shore for Morrie, waiting him to burst out of the water so they could all have a laugh. Nice one, Morrie, look at what we got. Except Morrie kept on Not Appearing and dread and fear and other things were becoming more present. Shit.
Thom cupped his hands around his mouth, “MORRIE! MORRIS FELDER!” he took another breath and yelled “MOOOORRIE”. That one echoed back off of Saddle Island. Oh, Morrie, you asshole, why did you Go Into the Water? What was he going to tell Mrs. Felder? Thom was shaking with a combination of cold, fatigue and sheer funk. Cranky was out and out sobbing and plucking his wet shirt to try and ineffectually dab at the snot running out of his nose. Oh man this had gone straight to hell in a hurry.
There was a slight crunch from behind Thom, and he turned, relieved to chew out Fucking Morrie except it wasn’t Fucking Morrie. At first he thought it was one of the Men from town but after he wiped his streaming eyes with one sleeve he saw the person looked too fey, too pretty. Was it an Elf? Whoever it was had been listening a bit and he or she was stepping out their moccasins and shucking a shirt and vest. A small wallet & belt chinked to the ground. Thom looked at the Elf’s bare, flat chest. Male, definitely. Thom looked further up and met a pair of slanted eyes staring back at him. He felt the hair on his arms prickle.
“Which direction?” Thom pointed out toward Saddle and the Elf scooped a stone off the beach and sidearmed it out into the lake. It started glowing before it plunged into the water. He looked at Thom and Cranky, “We’ll settle accounts later, boys.” and then did a very clean running dive into the lake. Wow. Cranky had watched the whole thing without a word, and now he looked at Thom. “Did you thee that sidearm?”
Thom ignored him and watched the lake, which had a vaguely lighter area now where the rock had gone in, but otherwise kept looking like a lake. The Elf had looked familiar. Thom blew his nose into his sleeve and sat down on the shingle, the wind had picked up. Cranky was picking at the netting around the basket. The basket was pretty ruined and he was pulling it into pieces. He plunged one hand into a mass of sodden straw and drew out a silt grimed drinking glass shaped like a church bell. Huh.
Morrie was dead, drowned and now this random Elf was going to take their stuff and Goodman Felder was going to cane the fuck out of both of them and it was going to be All. His. Fault. Thom hugged his knees and cried. He was still crying when the Elf came out of the lake with Morrie’s limp corpse, which he threw down on the gravel beach and proceeded to kneel on top of. Thom stopped crying and stood up, sobbing, not knowing What To Do, he had never seen a drowned hobbit though, so he walked over to look at Morrie, to get one last glimpse before he had to go back and tell the Felders. Maybe he could get the Elf to tell them.
Morrie looked pretty pale, and he had a twist of netting around his neck. His eyes were half open, too. The Elf did something in the air with his hand and he was saying something which sounded like pretty words slurred by drunk highborn lady. Huh?
Morrie threw up lakewater violently, and then convulsed a more few times and rolled over on his side, taking big whooping breaths. Holy Goddess of the Lake. Thom stared at the Elf but Morrie still had an astounding amount of water in him, and apparently it was all coming out at once, so he watched him. The Elf had stood back from the retching hobbit, pulling his long hair back from his face. Cranky thoughtfully dipped his new found beaker into the lake and offered it to wretched, retching Morrie, who batted it from his hand, whereupon it sailed ten feet into Cross Creek. Guess Morrie wasn’t thirsty.
“You, you ASSHOLE!” shrieked Cranky and he flew at Morrie where he was kneeling, fists flying. They tumbled together, fighting and rolling down the shingle. Morrie was going to be ok and the relief that washed over him made Thom even more tired. He felt like he was the one who had drowned.
The Elf watched the two filthy hobbit kids yelling and punching, Morrie was larger but his underwater adventure had really sapped his strength, so it was pretty even. Cranky was windmilling his arms like crazy, which was his style. The Elf shook his head and walked past Thom to where his gear lay, and began to get dressed. He looked bored.
“What was that you said to Morrie just then?” asked Thom, “What does -” he repeated the slurred phrase to the Elf, who was pulling on his white linen shirt. It had little geese embroidered in white around the shoulders. The Elf stopped, pulled the shirt abruptly over his head and looked sharply at Thom. He looked focused. “Say that again, young one.” His eyebrows had drawn down into a V. Thom drew back, and tried to get good footing on the beach. Get ready to run. The Elf noticed and his face went from scary Elf face to friendly Elf face. He held up one hand, “Young master halfling, please, I am Jocelyn, ah, Stiffwood and it please you.” The he did this little hand gesture and drew one leg out. It looked pretty cool, actually. Thom relaxed slightly and glanced back over his shoulder. Morrie was sitting on top of a pinned Cranky and feeding him some nice sand.
Thom repeated the hand thingy and leg waving back, trying to get it right. ""Master Elf, please, I am Thomas, and it please you, at your service." If he screwed it up, the Elf didn’t say, but he did get a funny look in his eyes when Thomas named him an Elf. In any case, Jocelyn went down on one knee at a safe distance from Thom and looked at him at eye level. “Thomas, repeat what you hear me say, please.” He smiled at Thomas hopefully and said something made of angles and funny cadences. Thomas wrung some water out of his shirt and looked at the ground, then slowly repeated the words he had heard, which were harder but still doable. Jocelyn said something else in that language to Thomas, which Thom did not understand but he repeated it anyway.
Thom looked up to where Jocelyn was pulling on his earlobe with a strange look on his face. Like he was deciding something important. “I will be damned, You have a good ear for words, Thomas.” Thom shrugged. “Weren’t no language I ever heard of though, and I have heard a bunch down at the…” He stopped and his face colored. He didn’t say whorehouse, or bawdyhouse or Fancy House, and Jocelyn pursed his lips slightly and didn’t supply the name.
Jocelyn instead said carefully, “You repeated a simple spell I know, and you did it very accurately considering you only heard it once. Could be you might be worth a drowned hobbit to me. I want you to-”
Morrie and Cranky slopped up next to Thom, both of them wet, filthy and bloodied around the face, but Cranky had really the gotten the worst of it. Cranky spit out some grit and glared at Jocelyn, “Ok fine, whoever you are, I sink you can go pith off now.” A teenaged hobbit was telling off an Elf, albeit the drama was lessened by the act that Cranky looked like he had been run over by a millwheel and then rolled in a pigsty. Morrie didn’t say anything, he just looked warily back and forth between Thom and Jocelyn. Cranky coughed up some grit.
Jocelyn stood up abruptly and the three hobbits took a quick squishy step back. Up close he was taller and somehow a little scarier. Jocelyn put his hands on his hips and leaned over them, and Thom knew they were pretty far from any help and running was not going to help, this time. “I take my care to provide your friend, Morris Felder back into your graces, rescuing him and then healing his injury and this is my thanks?” He spread his arms out with his palms up. Thom felt embarrassed. Cranky looked pugnacious, which meant he was going to cry any time now. Gods.
Morrie sketched a little bow, and said, “My thanks to you for saving me from the water, Master, umm, Elf, s-sir. I was drowned for certain until you clembed through that bunch of netting and pulled me out.” Netting? There was more down there? Jocelyn looked slightly less put upon and walked over to where the recovered “treasures” were. “Hmm, some crystal glasses which are not bad and a barrel holding an incredibly valuable-” He looked sideways at the three adventure hunters, “Chain mail hauberk.” He nudged the barrel with his foot and something shifted inside. “Show this to the right people and you could get ten or fifteen golden lions if they didn’t think you had stolen it, hmm?”
Cranky stifled a sob. Morry just made a disgusted noise and said,“Oh and you’ll just take it in trade for services rendered.” His voice held all the bitterness of a hobbit who had seen so many situations go they way of the bigger folk, time and time again. Thom started to turn up the beach, to walk back to town, to the South Close and maybe get some leftovers from cook at the Purpled Cock. Cranky was crying to himself. Morrie bent over to recover the grapnel when a small wallet landed in front of him. It made a solid chink. Thom blinked at it and Morrie quickly plucked it up and away fro Cranky who had made a spastic grab at it.
Jocelyn hefted the barrel onto one shoulder, “That’s thirty five lions, minus my quarter share of the haul, but you’ll have to make sure you pack those glasses right carefully. Oh and try to keep up. We have salvage to sell.”
Morrie whooped and grabbed Cranky by the ears and gave him a sloppy kiss on his surprised face. Thirty five lions was a lot of money. Thom looked narrowly at Jocelyn, “That’s more than you said they’re worth.” Jocelyn’s eyebrows did a little jig and he said, “It all depends on who is doing the talking, young Thomas, and I can teach you the how of it.” He shifted the barrel and offered one long hand to Thomas. “You’ve got the voice young one, and I have the knowledge to make that into something, although you aren’t that bad looking under all the slime, which helps in the trade. Interested?” Thom looked at the outstretched hand for a few heartbeats and put one grimy hand into it. They solemnly shook hands. Thom looked to se how impressed his friends were but Cranky and Morrie were bickering over how to pack the beakers into the sacks they had. Lakegrass featured prominently in the discussion.
Thom looked up at Jocelyn, “What is it you do anyway?” He hoped it wasn’t thieving. Jocelyn half grinned at him and said, “Why me lad, I am a jack of all trades and master of none, which Humans would call a Bard, hmm?”
OK, he was a Bard? “What kind of Elf are you, anyway?” asked Thom as they started walking back. Jocelyn didn’t answer for a second and then he said, “The Half Elf kind, Thomas and we don’t ask questions about that any more, just like you don’t like to talk about where your Mother earns her keep, right?” He knew? How did he know that? Jocelyn carried on, “Bards tend to listen, mostly, and then later they remember things when it is important to. Betimes you will find that… people will do most of your work for you if you are careful. You just have to know how to listen.” Jocelyn walked along the gravel beach easily, despite the barrel’s weight.
Thom walked another few minutes and then stopped, thunderstruck. “Did you know about us…?” He gestured at the point where Morrie had nearly died. Jocelyn Half-Elf, Bard kept striding along the shore with that barrel on his shoulder. He laughed.
“First lesson is free, Thomas, do try to keep up.”
Thom ran after him.