Perrin Crowbait lived his life according to two words:
As long as you did that, you could get away with everything else.
Six days on a boat was plenty of time to examine the crowd and pick out a mark. Almost too much time, really. By day three Perrin had been itching to just start grabbing things. Not a good idea when the boat was afloat on a sea of monsters and the nearest port of escape was still days away.
When the island port came within sight, though, everybody crowded up on deck. The situation was perfect. In the meantime Perrin had made friends, which also helped. Roach didn’t seem inclined towards, er, shenanigans, but that was fine; Perrin had befriended the huge, silent Dragonborn as a meatshield. Flint was a much better companion in connivery.
“Remember not to run too fast,” Perrin whispered to Flint. “Don’t actually catch me.”
And he took off running through the crowd, smacking into legs and hips (and purses), hollering, “No, wait, I’m sorry! Leave me alone, I’m didn’t do anything!”
“Get back here you little rat,” Flint roared. It was the longest and loudest thing Perrin had ever heard him say. If Perrin hadn’t known the gangly, scruffy, stabby-looking human was his accomplice, he’d have been terrified for real.
Bump, bump, bump aaaand hello that was a fancy purse and grab—
And he was grabbed in return.
“What is this?” demanded the puffed-up human, yanking Perrin up by his wrist. “What have we here? A little halfling thief!”
“Excuse me? I am not!” Perrin kicked at the man’s knee because his poor arm was about to come out of its socket. “How dare you! I’m a victim here, didn’t you see that ruffian chasing me? Always with the slander and the stereotypes, I swear, it’s an outrage—”
“Good sir, please,” interrupted yet another human, and oh, this one was even bigger. And armoured. “Surely we can resolve this peacefully.”
They did, barely. The fancy man was reluctant to drop either Perrin or the matter, but Khemed— a bard and a very good one, as far as Perrin was concerned— made the trouble go away eventually. Rubbing his wrist and glaring in reproach, Perrin let Khemed lead him away. (Flint, for his part, was nowhere to be seen. Smart man. Good to know Perrin could rely on him to notice when the game had changed.)
As soon as he was safe, Perrin turned his gushing gratitude on Khemed. Khemed didn’t seem to know how to react, but he didn’t shake Perrin off either. When Perrin introduced him to Roach, the two stared and nodded without a word.
Wasn’t this just a bunch of silent, socially awkward misfits that Perrin was gathering. No matter; he could do plenty of talking for the lot of them. They’d probably even be grateful to have a negotiator once the boat landed!
Then the sea serpent attacked.
One second the serpent was swimming off toward Khemed’s illusory boat, losing interest in the real boat full of breath-holding passengers, and the next second the world was all splinters and flying debris and water. Water everywhere.
Goddamn Flint had yelled in very premature victory. The serpent had rammed the boat to pieces.
Sixty feet from land might as well have been sixty miles. Perrin was drowning in the chop.
Then a hand grabbed him by the collar and pulled him to the frothing surface. “Got you,” Flint grunted.
Perrin threw his arms around Flint’s neck and held on for dear life, choking up seawater all the way to shore.
Noble Khemed and dumb, friendly Roach were already on the sand, picking themselves out of the debris, but scary, scrawny, probably-a-murderer Flint had gone back to get Perrin.
He’d owe Flint rather a lot for this one.
The jungle was full of owls. The market was full of owls. This whole island was crazy for owls, owls, owls.
“I’ll get you an owl,” Perrin promised Flint, who hadn’t a penny to his name. Being a silent, axe-wielding lurker evidently didn’t pay as well as being light-fingered and charming as hell.
They’d picked up another likely looking meatshield on the beach: human and male, again, this one with a preposterous list of names that started with Sir. Perrin refused to call him anything other than "Jaunty," because you just couldn’t indulge people’s grandeur. Not if you wanted them to be tolerable company for more than a day.
Jaunty the wizard at least had a little more motivation than the rest, and led them all through the market.
Perrin was relieved. It was impossible to be quiet and overlooked while leading about a gaggle of awkward, armoured hulks. Now Perrin could hide alongside Roach’s bulk and see if he couldn’t snag a few purses to pay for Flint’s bird.
Khemed wanted an owl too, apparently. Perrin had to conceal his annoyance as the bard walked right up to a stall and asked the price. Bad enough he was going to pay for it, but he wasn’t even going to haggle?
“Oh, look at these ugly birds,” Perrin said with disgust. “They’re not worth that price, that’s ridiculous. You must be joking, madam. Come on, don’t pay that price, we can get better elsewhere.”
“You will not,” the woman said severely. “Go away, little man.”
She did knock a few gold off the price, though. Khemed wasn’t even grateful. Watching Khemed almost empty his purse to buy the owl— one owl! on the first day here! leaving him all but broke!— Perrin nearly rolled his eyes out of their sockets.
Some people were so good they just ruined themselves.
“Don’t break your heart over him, Cora,” soothed Aunt Verne. Perrin’s mother kept weeping into her hands. Aunt Verne threw Perrin a nasty look over her head.
“It’s not really that bad, ma,” Perrin tried.
“It’s not your shame,” Aunt Verne interrupted. “It’s not your fault the boy turned out like this, we all know it. Nobody will blame you.”
Stung, Perrin protested, “It was one hog! He’d never have missed it out of the whole herd if Milo hadn’t’ve told him!”
That was entirely wrong: his mother broke into fresh wailing. Perrin hunched down miserably.
“It’s not your fault, Cora,” Aunt Verne said, glaring. “Every family has its piece of crowbait. You’ve got plenty of fine, upstanding children. It’s just how this one turned out.”
“Crowbait!” Perrin repeated, grinning hugely even though he felt like he'd been punched in the gut. “Perrin Crowbait. Oh, you know, I actually like the sound of that. That’s a good one, I may keep that. Keep all the shame off you fine upstanding Popcobbles, eh?”
It made his mother cry harder, but it also defeated Aunt Verne, leaving her pinch-mouthed and furious but unable to retort. So that was all right.
Really, Perrin was grateful to Aunt Verne for that: for teaching him how important it was to keep up the patter, the grin, the charm, no matter how much he’d been hurt.
Visiting the weapon merchant was another debacle. They learned plenty about the island and its aura-sucking wildlife, true, and nearly everyone in the group came away with a new weapon that could repel those auras. But Perrin had to watch his companions barter like fumbling children and empty their purses one after another. Stern, law-abiding Khemed insisted on standing so near that Perrin couldn’t even try to swipe something for free. It was all Perrin could do to trade his old shortsword for an enchanted one, sweetening the deal with a “magic” bell that broke the spell of sleep.
Well, it had always woken Perrin when Aunt Alderlead had clanged it in his ear every morning.
Walking away from the stall, Perrin pointed out, “You know, you don’t just have to pay what they ask every time.”
Khemed harrumphed. “And what would you do instead? Steal everything?”
“Steal?” Perrin gasped. “My good man, that is a stereotype, a harmful, terrible stereotype. I have no need to steal, have you ever seen me steal? Really, my friend. I’d thought you were a better man than that.”
“What would you do, then?” asked Jaunty. Good to know he was looking to Perrin for leadership instead of Khemed.
“Barter. Discuss. Persuade. You know… work around the price.”
“Why not just pay?” demanded Khemed, still annoyed.
“There is a time and place for paying money, I admit,” said Perrin. “But not every time. I mean… remind me, friend. How much is left in your purse?”
Khemed glared but couldn’t argue.
And on their way through the market, Perrin dropped to the back of the group, sticking beside the oblivious Roach. In the big Dragonborn’s shadow, Perrin managed to swipe a curiously coloured bag from the belt of a drunken tavern-goer. It was a hard decision, choosing in a split second between the mysterious pouch and the easy target of a full purse, but Perrin had always been a sucker for the thrill of the unknown.
“Here, Flint,” Perrin said when they stopped at a tavern. “This is for you. Got it as a good-bye gift from a cousin of mine, not sure what it is, but here, you should have it.”
Inside, the bag had sharp teeth and an endless black void for a throat. When Flint poked inside, the Bag of Devouring nearly severed his fingers.
“Now isn’t that better than an owl?” Perrin said, preening over Flint’s delighted agreement.
Their first day out in the island’s wilderness was a hard one.
Knowing that his combat expertise was limited, Perrin distinguished himself by investigating the terrain and hollering leaderly suggestions in combat. Flint stabbed himself in the arm with his own dagger, but he also… actually, that was pretty much all he did. Roach made an excellent meatshield, as Perrin had known he would. Sir Jaunty the wizard turned out to be worth his list of ridiculous names.
And Khemed, it had to be said, was invaluable. He lead with his longsword and spotted every trap that littered their path, saving the group from a number of messy deaths. He healed sad, scrawny Flint’s self-stabbed arm, too. Against his own will, Perrin appreciated Khemed for that.
Back in the city that night, Perrin sat quietly at the bar and watched the rest of his newfound group awkwardly drink and flirt with strangers. Ordinarily he’d at least be trying to charm a free drink from the bartender, possibly playing on sympathy for poor penniless shipwreck victims, but tonight he just didn’t have the energy.
Perrin was going to fall for these people, he could tell. Loyalty was a weakness he couldn’t help. Give him any group that acted halfway like friends and he’d start thinking they were family. A halfling’s curse, really.
That... hadn’t worked out well in the past. But he was smarter now. He had rules.
So fine. He’d fall for them, give them his loyalty, start putting their welfare alongside his own. He’d watch their backs and their purses, and smooth the way for their socially awkward hesitation. He’d probably end up risking his life for them, because Perrin Crowbait had never been able to stand by when there was family to protect.
And he’d make himself so damn indispensable that they couldn’t help but protect him right back.