“Oh come on, Nali, it'll be easy. Jonhi said there's a way in the back. Requires a bit of climbing, but when has that ever stopped us?”
Kester rolled his eyes and tore another chunk of meat off the roast nug leg between his front teeth and chewed at it with some considerable effort. It was overcooked, dry, and frankly awful. Humans never knew how to cook it right. You have to boil it before you roast it, everyone knows that. Well, everyone except these shitty human inn keepers who think they can take coin off the surface dwarf community without bothering to learn anything. And you have to season it, of course. Ma used to use this one mix- Kester shook his head, chasing the thought away. He hadn't seen his parents in over two years now. That was in the past. He was his own man now. Er, dwarf. Whatever.
His cousin Jonhi had set him up good with these lyrium running jobs. They were like stealing candy from particularly stupid babies. The Chantry's precious Templars were a bunch of suckers, by in large. They guarded the front doors and obsessed over mages and magic and their precious Maker, and never saw you coming, if you were quiet. They could sniff a mage a mile away, but a dwarf? Ha! Not a whiff of Fade shit to be found on a dwarf, after all. Waltz in, snatch the goods, shift it through a few hands and eventually you can sell it right back to the Chantry. Or anyone else with the right price, quite often the Templars themselves, after they'd burned through their official allowance.
Nali smirked at him, firelight glinting off white teeth. She leaned back in her seat to prop a foot on an empty chair nearby. “Didn't say it would be hard, nug-brains. I said I'm fed up of these rat-piss jobs your cousins keep handing you. This small-time lyrium-snatching is kid stuff.”
“Kid stuff? You think a kid could have gotten out of Markham with that barrel? I nearly lost my fucking skin when they let that Mabari out!” Kester gesticulated with the nug-leg, waving it over the table while Nali rolled her eyes at him. Her expression of annoyance was somewhat ruined by the grin she failed to suppress.
“That weren't no Mabari, it was just an ugly-arse mongrel. Still, the pay's not half bad-” Nali reached across the table and snatched the half-eaten nug leg out of Kester's hand, taking a large bite out of it, then promptly spitting it onto the tavern floor. “Ugh! How can you eat this shit? Nugs are disgusting alive and worse dead!”
Kester's lip curled in distaste at Nali. “It's great if you cook it right. Not my fault these people can't, is it?”
Nali laughed shrilly, garnering a few looks from others in the tavern. “Oh you know how to cook, do you? Balls of the Ancestors! I just can't picture it... So, did dear old mother teach you?”
Kester crossed his arms over his chest, tipping his dwarf-sized chair back to rock on two short legs, looking across the room to the balding, middle-aged human behind the bar. The tavern owner had really gone a bit overboard trying to cater to the local Carta crowd. Kester knew the owner was paying a monthly “protection” fee and likely wetting himself on the regular. Probably because they broke the legs of the guy across town when he refused. Weren't that the one whose kid died last winter because the family couldn't afford a healer?
“What's wrong now, Kester? Don't go getting all serious on me. I mean what, did yer mama die or something?”
Kester's attention refocused on Nali and he shrugged. “Not that I know of.” He let his chair drop back to all four legs with a thump and picked up his beer, draining the rest of the pint.
Nali smiled at him like a cat. She stood and threw a few coins on the table for their drink & food, before coming around the table and dragging Kester up by his collar. “Let's get out of this dump, eh? Got a few hours to kill before we get down to business and this place reeks.”
Nali's hip flask had done a pretty good job of chasing away whatever useless shit Kester had been worried about earlier in the evening, and what she was currently doing was providing more than adequate distraction in case they tried to sneak back in.
The footsteps of passersby went to and fro just above them, but Kester hardly noticed. A bridge that stood over a creek that was, frankly, more of a sewer by the time it left town served as an adequate shelter for the two of them. There were some advantages to being a two feet shorter than the population average, such as not banging the shit out of one's skull in places that were not designed to be inhabited.
There were knickknacks scattered about – scraps of notes and tips and coded correspondence, weapons of varying quality & condition (none paid for, naturally), old crates they'd repurposed as wardrobes and tables. Kester & Nali never stayed anywhere for too long, but they'd been in Ostwick about a month now and the detritus had piled up. It was quite cozy, in its own way, at least if you didn't pay mind to the smell.
Nali yanked sharply on Kester's hair as she rode him, and he gave her behind a hard slap in return. He briefly panicked when she shrieked and he clamped a hand over her mouth lest the shoppers on the bridge above begin to suspect there was more than rubbish and seagulls below them. She giggled underneath his palm and her eyes flashed in the dim light as teeth pressed gently into the tender skin between his thumb and forefinger.
The Chantry had several properties around Ostwick. There was, of course, the Chantry itself, and the mage tower. There were also three separate barracks for the Templars, which also served as storehouses for their gear and supplies, and as training grounds for their child recruits.
Kester remembered the first time he'd come across one of the Templar creches, seeing the rows of bunk beds full of kids. Some of them barely looked old enough to be weaned. He'd been horrified; Nali had just shrugged. Yea, their parents just fuckin' dump them off. That's humans for you, I guess.
He'd complained loudly when his father had dragged him into the forge and tried to teach him to make horseshoes at the age of eleven. Well, Kester, if you don't want to be a blacksmith, and you don't want to mind the shop with your mother, then what do you want do? Becoming a lyrium-addled Templar would definitely have never been an answer, even if the Chantry hadn't considered dwarves to be a bunch of heathens not worth notice. Did any of those kids ever even get asked the question?
The barracks on the south end of town were more isolated than the other two, which sat adjacent to the Chantry and the mage tower, respectively. This one was more a warehouse proper, along with a workshop for making and repairing armor and weapons, and a small stables with horses that got dragged out for funerals and suchlike.
The back door, as it were, would require Nali & him to climb up onto the roof of the stables. The horses were an unknown quantity in this particular job – would they sleep through it or would they kick up a fuss and wake the horse master?
Kester glanced around one last time to confirm that the area was empty. Jonhi had told him to follow the wooden fence all the way to where it met the stone wall and count twenty four back. Kester stabbed a dagger into the gap between slats and used it to lever the loose one up. He ducked to go under and stumbled into the dry dirt yard beyond the fence when Nali shoved him in the back.
She giggled softly in his ear as he picked himself up, wiping dirt from his palms. “Hurry up, nug-brains.”
Kester watched as Nali leaped up onto a crate, and then onto a large haystack, vaulting herself onto the roof of the shed. The moon rising over the city outlined her silhouette and Kester froze in place, staring at her. The pebble that hit him between the eyes broke the moment, and he adjusted his bow and quiver on his back until he was satisfied they were secure and followed her.
The place was poorly guarded after dark. The Templars never dreamed anyone would assail their precious Chantry property, feeling secure that the citizens of Ostwick were too afraid of the wrath of their Maker or some such rot to commit such a blasphemy. The Carta's presence in the city had crept in over the past couple of decades, but there were dwarves arriving in the city daily now. Many were run-of-the-mill craftsmen or traders, the sort who came from respectable families with seats in the Merchant's Guild, but what few humans seemed to understand was that the Guild's prosperity was built on a complicated, if informal web of connections with the Carta.
Many of those “proper” dwarven families had no clue, of course, but you didn't get too high in the Merchant's Guild without learning a few pertinent facts. Kester's parents would never have been caught dead involved in anything illegal, but he often wondered just how much they knew about how their rarer ores made it to them, or where the tools and weapons his father made ultimately ended up. They never seemed to look beyond their own doorsteps, after all. The world is a lot bigger than a forge and a shop. If he'd stayed at home, he'd never have seen any of it, and that made it all worth it, right?
“Fuck this is easy. Like picking off flies!”
Nali laughed a little too loudly for Kester's comfort as she stepped over the unconscious Templar. He'd been asleep already, sitting on a low wooden stool outside of the store room with his helmet perched on one knee and drool dribbling from the corner of his mouth. He couldn't have been much older than Kester. He'd felt a twinge of guilt as he'd taken the cosh across the man's skull. He wouldn't die. Probably. Picking the lock was taking longer than Kester cared for, though. The wood of the door looked ancient but the lock was still shiny, it was so new, and it differed slightly from the sorts that Kester had dealt with in the past. “Just keep a watch out on that hall, Nali--FUCK!” The third lockpick snapped in the lock and Kester swore a bit more as he took pair of magnetized tweezers out and retrieved the fragment.
“Ancestors' tits, Kester, just break the lock! A rampaging giant wouldn't wake these lazy shits. Not like we couldn't take 'em anyway.”
Kester rolled his eyes and started over with a fresh pick. He'd figured out the angle to move the tumblers before the last one broke and another fifteen minutes of fiddling finally had the bolt sliding free. He turned to Nali, leaning against the door. He smirked, raising one eyebrow at her as he opened the door and backed into the room, laughing.
One sputtering torch lit the windowless room and Kester yanked the lid off the first box he saw. The philters glowed with the eerie ghostlight of lyrium. He jammed the lid back down and shoved it under his arm. As he reached for the second box, a shout outside cut him short.
Nali stifled a giggle as she grabbed his shirtsleeve, pulling him toward the opposite direction. “Shit!”
Kester ran like an archdemon was at his back, dashing from one narrow hallway to the next while his heart thudded and Nali alternated between swearing and laughing. They led the solitary Templar guard a merry chase around the old building. Nali egged the man on, taunting him each time she let him catch up, then ducked just out of reach. The Templar swore and swung his sword around wildly, the man's breath blowing harshly.
He's old and out of shape! If we can just find the damned door out! Kester found himself laughing breathlessly, almost hysterically, as blood pumped through his veins. The whole place was like a maze and the Templar didn't seem to know where they were going anymore than he did. Nali, though, ran with complete confidence, locking eyes with him at moments. The place belonged to her. The world belonged to her. Kester belonged to her.
Kester and Nali stopped and turned as one when they heard a metallic crash behind them. The Templar had passed out in a heap of armor and rusty sword. Kester grabbed Nali, nearly crying into her shoulder as he tried not to laugh too loudly. Nali ruffled his hair and stole a kiss. “Let's get out of here, Kes.”
Kester hesitated, glancing back down the hallway, which was now as quiet as the grave. They'd done nearly a full circle. Kester shoved the box of lyrium into Nali's arms. “Go ahead, I'm gonna go back and get the other box.”
Nali barked a laugh and pushed the box back into Kester's chest. “No way, jackass! We've been lucky, let's just take it and go. We can get the other one when they've forgotten about this one. C'mon, we can celebrate back in the hole, I've got some whiskey I nabbed last week off some nob, real fancy shit.”
Kester grinned, showing his teeth while he pushed the box back into Nali's arms. “Fine, go back and wait, crybaby. You said it yourself, it's like picking off flies! Of course if you're scared--”
Nali rolled her eyes. “Fine, nug-brains, but if any more of these tin soldiers show up, I'm telling them it was all your idea.”
“Fuck, move it Kes!” Nali shoved Kester down the hallway, her hand a sharp pressure between his shoulder blades urging him on.
It wasn't one old, gone-to-seed Templar this time, but two heavily armored men still in their prime, and full of righteous fury.
Kester ducked to the side, shoving Nali in front and along the hallway, putting himself between her and their adversaries, the adrenaline no longer a pleasant high, but a pants-wetting terror. Another flash of steel appeared around the corner ahead and Kester shoved through a door to the left, hoping against hope that it didn't lead to a dead end.
Templars crashed into the dusty room behind them, barreling over old practice dummies and sending racks of rusting weapons skittering across the stone floor. A sliver of moonlight at the far end of the room heralded window-shaped salvation and Kester ran for it.
Nali shrieked behind him as a gauntleted fist grabbed her by the hair. The box of lyrium under her left arm fell to the floor. Blue light flickered and died as the phials spilled and shattered and their contents splashed and dripped into cracks in the floor.
Kester knocked an arrow in his short bow and sent it into the narrow gap of the Templar's helmet. He was robbed of the satisfaction of watching his target fall to the ground as stars flared across his vision and he blacked out for a fraction of a second. He ignored blood pouring from the bridge of his broken nose and scrambled to stand from his suddenly horizontal position. Still dazed and half-blinded, he groped for his bow until a heavy boot coming down on his back sent him back to the floor, pinning him down.
“You got the other one, Charles?”
Kester struggled, trying to heave himself back up against the pressure pinning him. The fucking Templar was enjoying this! He managed to turn just enough to see Nali struggling in the grasp of one Templar as another came up and struck her across the face.
“Fucking godless gravel eaters think you can just walk into our city and do whatever you please, don't you?”
Nali bared bloodied teeth and spat in his face. Kester would have been proud, if he'd not been so terrified. The Templar said nothing, but pulled a dagger from his waist and stabbed Nali in the belly without another word. Kester howled as she cried out.
The Templar crossed the room and grabbed Kester by the collar, jerking him out from under the other's boot. “You're next, gutter rat!”
Kester twisted in the man's grasp, kicking out at the Templar's knee. Kester's tunic ripped and he pulled free, leaping past the other two Templars, still howling as he leaped at the moonlight.
Anyone who thought that falling into water was the soft option was a damned liar. Three floors into a pond and you might as well be hitting solid ground, thought Kester. You could be killed pulling a stunt like that. I should have been killed. Not her.
Fancy shit. Kester hardly tasted the whiskey as it went down. He'd pinched it off some noble earlier in the day, just like Nali had taught him. Or had it been the day before? He'd lost track. Who cares? Cheap, expensive, it didn't matter, as long as it burned on the way down.
“I got another job for you, Kester. So easy even you can't fuck it up this time.”
“Yea, alright Jonhi.”
His cousin's lip curled like he'd smelled something rotten. “You still moping about that dead girl? Shit happens, Kester. Coulda happened to anyone. Just take up your pickaxe and find another vein to mine, that's what my da always says. Plenty of women around, if you need to get a leg over. Or men, if you're looking for somethin' different.”
Kester swallowed against a bout of indigestion. He was always sick to his stomach these days, it seemed. Not that he bothered to eat much most days. You probably wouldn't feel sick so often if your diet weren't mostly liquid, eh? He mentally told himself to shut the fuck up, turning his attention back to his cousin. “Yea, whatever. What's the job already?”
He couldn't stand up, tonight. Somebody else could drag the bloody merchandise to Markham. Kester rolled off the bed to his feet and lurched to the only other piece of furniture in the tiny rented room and rummaged around in the drawer until he came up with another bottle. He squinted at the stuff, but couldn't recall what it was. It hardly mattered, anyway. Flopping back onto the bed, half-propped on the pillow, he thumbed the cork out of the bottle and managed to get about half of it down his throat instead of down his shirt.
Sometimes Kester could close his eyes and see a different room. The door would be slightly to the left instead of the right, and the window on the opposite side. There were red and gold curtains that his mother had bought when he was about six, because he'd complained about the ugly pea-green ones. There was the small desk beneath the window where he'd practiced spelling and arithmetic for hours. There was a bookshelf next to it and on it, among others, was that book he'd made his parents read eight thousand times about the rabbit. A couple of the pages had come loose over the years and at the age of ten, he'd carefully tried to glue them back in, even though he'd grown much too old for the story. On the top shelf was the stuffed nug that was missing an ear, something else he'd outgrown but had not discarded.
It was all gone now, though, a distant memory. The Blight had torn through Ferelden last year, and so much had been destroyed, he couldn't imagine they were still alive. I could go back and look for them, he sometimes thought. Somehow wondering wasn't nearly as bad as the possibility that he'd know for sure.
Not knowing, he thought, is definitely better than knowing. He took another gulp of the unidentified liquor and drifted in the swamp of his own mind. The bottle slipped from his loosened fingers and broke on the floor, but he was no longer awake to hear it.