This much is true: his mother's grave marker, grown over with flowering vines, is in a quiet, wooded place dappled by sunlight. In the summer, the peace is broken only by the murmur of wind through the leaves.
"So what I'm saying is that I think you're gonna be pretty useless at this," Dranzel says, glaring from underneath the wide brim of his hat.
Scanlan sets his drink down on the table and props himself on a chair, crossing his legs underneath him to get enough height to see over the edge of the table. Time was, Dranzel's formidable glower would've made him seriously consider retiring to the countryside to sing to nice, harmless farm animals and help improve crops in a place where nobody ever heard of half-orc violinists. Now he just rests his chin in the palm of his hand and grins until Dranzel, with a snort, smirks back.
"This just isn't my wheelhouse," Scanlan says. "No shame in that, it takes all kinds. I'm awfully good at the music side of things, and you know it. Didn't think I was signing on for thievery."
"We're supplementing our income," Dranzel says, smile dropping away again. "I know you're quick with words. Figured you'd be good with your hands, too."
Scanlan waggles his fingers. "I don't get many complaints."
Not so much as a flicker of a grin. Ouch. "Well, you're getting one now. You're gonna get your fool face smashed in if you try and lift a purse. You're quite possibly the least subtle person I've ever known."
"I am," Scanlan says, "extremely subtle."
"Your hat has seven feathers in it," Dranzel says. "Three of them are glowing."
"Well, you can't expect me to sacrifice fashion on the altar of subtlety, can you?" Scanlan pulls off the cap, though, and pokes at the novelty enchanted feathers to douse their glow before replacing it on his head.
Dranzel sighs, long and drawn-out, and rubs his forehead with the heavily callused palm of one hand. He's got the same look he did when he had to tell the group about their third, fifth, and seventh drummers' untimely demises. "Look. Shorthalt. I'm not gonna pretend this is a totally normal troupe of performers, okay? We're having some financial problems, and if you want to join us full-time, I need to know you can pull your weight. I'm sorry. I hope you find somewhere you can make your mark, but raw talent isn't gonna pay the bills."
Scanlan scratches at the scruff on his chin, settling back in his chair. "Pick one."
Dranzel takes his hand away from his face to tap a finger on the table. Scanlan watches his face shift from curiosity to wariness to resignation. "One what?"
With a wave of his hand, Scanlan encompasses the busy tavern. "Any poor sod in this place. I'll take their purse."
"I'm not gonna come bail you out when you get thrown in the stockade. And I'm sure as hell not gonna risk my neck if someone pulls a blade instead."
"I know, I know." Well, he's pretty sure Dranzel's half-faking the hardass routine. "You know what? I'll figure something out. Wait here."
He hops down off his chair, forestalling the stunned beginnings of a protest, and meanders cheerfully to the bar; people are packed in tightly enough that even he has to shoulder his way through from time to time. It takes him a moment to spy a likely mark: an elven woman with close-cropped black hair, perched on a barstool, completely engrossed in her mug of ale. Her purse is dangling from her belt, weighted down by a solid mass of coin, and Scanlan glances back across the room to see Dranzel straining his neck to watch. Scanlan winks.
"Hey," he says, softly. "Don't turn around."
The elven woman promptly turns and looks at him, very nearly overbalancing on her seat.
"Okay," Scanlan says, as she scans the crowd and eventually thinks to look down to his level. "We'll work on the whole following-instructions thing." He lowers his voice even further; taken in, she leans in closer. "Listen, I need you not to react to what I'm about to say."
The elf squints at him. "What?"
"I think there's a thief in this tavern. No, don't look around," Scanlan says, but the woman's already straightening up in her seat, one hand clasping her purse. "He's very good, and very well known to the authorities."
"Didn't get my coin," she says, narrowing her eyes.
"That's exactly how he operates," Scanlan says, making a show of scanning the crowd. "Takes just enough from every person's purse that they're unlikely to miss the surplus."
This time, the woman's brow furrows, and she hunches away from him untrustingly to open her purse, counting out the coins. "No, see, seventeen silver and three copper. That seems about right."
Scanlan schools his facial expression to one of mingled sympathy and pity, smile straining at the corners under the weight of its recipient's misfortune. "I'm so sorry to ask this, but are you absolutely certain there isn't a coin or two missing?"
He watches her brow wrinkle further as she visibly revisits every drink she's paid for this evening. The number's high enough that she comes up with the obvious answer. "I... now that you mention it, I guess I'm not sure. Why wouldn't he just take everything?"
Scanlan makes a point of lowering his voice again; this time, the humans seated to either side of his immediate quarry lean in a little as well, unconsciously. "Because that keeps him from being suspected, which keeps him from getting caught. I work for the city, and I've been on his trail for years. I think he's damned close to getting enough money to split town for good, and we need to stall him as completely as we can."
She stares at him doubtfully. "You don't look that official."
Okay, so maybe Dranzel has a point about the hat. "Exactly. I'm incognito. You think anybody's going to suspect someone who looks like me as law enforcement? Barkeep's been kind enough to let me scope things out tonight." Summoning his best grin, he waves to the scrawny halfling behind the counter, who pauses midway through washing a mug to smile back in good-natured confusion. "And I approached you because I suspect you're a regular here. Somebody the people trust."
The elven woman flushes, pleased. "I suppose I am, at that. It really is a bit of a shithole, though, to be perfectly honest. What can I do to help?"
Five minutes later, he wanders back to Dranzel's table. "Didn't see you take her purse," Dranzel says, leaning back in his chair. "What did you have to talk about all this time?"
"Oh, you know, this and that. Life, wealth, happiness." Scanlan perches back on his own chair and, resisting the urge to turn around and watch the fruits of his labor, starts working on finishing up his mug of ale.
Dranzel crosses his arms and watches in silence. As he does, the permanent sneer at the corner of his mouth worries its way into something a little more tight-lipped, a little closer to his breaking-the-bad-news expression. "Look," he says, shifting the silence at last, "I understand that you're on your own, now, and I'm not unsympathetic—"
Scanlan suppresses the urge to do a victory dance on the table right then and there. Instead, ignoring Dranzel's stunned expression, he turns to grin at the elven woman. "Right on time. I assume you were as careful as we discussed?"
"Absolutely I was." She starts to lift something onto the table, then hesitates.
He waves away her concerned glance at Dranzel. "A colleague. My business partner, in fact."
She glances over her shoulder, gnawing uncertainly on her bottom lip, then seems to come to a decision. Blocking the motion from the view of the rest of the tavern as best she can, she lifts a heaping sack of coin onto the table; it's heavy enough that she actually strains with the effort. "And here's the list," she says, placing a sheet of parchment, covered with lines of neat scrawled writing, on top of the gold. "Every person's name and the contents of their coin purse carefully documented."
"Nicely done," says Scanlan, kicking the gawping Dranzel under the table to get him to shut his mouth. "We'll keep these funds in a safe down at the stockade for everyone to pick up tomorrow. Our man will have no money to leave town tonight, which should give our team enough time to pick him up."
The elf crosses her arms, glancing furtively over her shoulder. "And as we agreed?"
"Of course," says Scanlan, reaching blindly into the bag to pull out a heaping handful of silver and bronze coins. "All yours. Sometimes a little bit of money goes missing down at the stockade. We have petty cash to help account for that kind of loss. Get yourself out of this shithole, if that's what you want."
"Gladly," the elf says, with a genuine grin. "Gonna go visit family out east, I think. Pleasure doing business with you."
"Um," says Dranzel, watching her elbow her way through the crowd and out the door. "What, uh."
"Well, hide the money," Scanlan says, and, taking pity on Dranzel's terrified expression, adds, "I just told her there was a thief around and convinced her it was in her best interest to help us gather funds from her friends to keep in a safe place until this all blows over."
"You robbed the entire tavern?"
"Not the whole thing. Just the people she was particularly well-acquainted with."
Dranzel finally drags the sack of money back under the table and out of sight, then rubs at his forehead. "I... how in the hells did you lie like that?"
"I say things and they happen." Scanlan shrugs. "It wasn't a lie, really, from her point of view. She was fed up with this place and helping me meant she got to leave. I didn't need her to believe me so much as I needed her to enjoy the idea of the lie better than the truth. Convincing her friends got easier when she was making the extra effort."
"There must be a small fortune in here," Dranzel says, softly, glancing down at the bag in his lap.
"Just so you know, you looked really weird saying that to your crotch. Not very subtle."
"Point taken." Dranzel shakes his head, then grins, broadly. "Well, I'm glad. Didn't want to have to give you up for something as small as money, you know. We're all family here, and there's no question you'll be able to pull your weight." He reaches out to flick at the feathers on Scanlan's cap until they're glowing again. "'I say things and they happen,' huh? Welcome aboard, Shorthalt."
This much is true: his mother's grave marker is in a busy, crowded city cemetery, one identical stone amid rows and rows of nameless dead. Sometimes he can't recall which one is hers.
As it turns out, big knock-down drag-out heroic fights sometimes get a little... violent.
Grog and Tiberius are pulled out of the fight early, drawn into the forest in hotheaded pursuit of three members of the bandit gang. By the time the rest of the group figures out that their heavy hitters are temporarily out of play, the second wave of bandits swarm down from some sort of treetop lookout and attack in earnest.
Basically, long story short, somebody with an unfairly large club wallops Scanlan in his left temple and things go real quiet for a while.
He wakes up gasping in the snow, right arm numb from being pinned beneath him at an odd angle, and tries to suppress his shivering with an effort, holding as still as he can until he's entirely certain nobody's standing above him debating whether or not to finish him off. Thus reassured, he rolls onto his back, rubs at the matted blood in his hair, and stares up into a swirl of white: the blizzard promised by the heavy clouds that were dogging their tracks all day.
"Ow," he says, softly, into the storm.
Getting to his feet is an exercise in ignoring nausea and the spinning of a world already gone a little wavery with all the snow, but he manages on his fourth or fifth try to stand shivering and squinting in the storm, rubbing his arms. "Hey," he says, experimentally, and the wind tears the word from his mouth. He takes a breath, imbuing his voice with a little arcane weight. "Hey! Anyone?"
A pause, an ominous silence, and then a ragged cough, somewhere off to his right. As good a direction as any. Probably not too far, if he can hear it over the howl of wind. He starts walking.
He nearly falls over Vex's body.
For a horrible second he's pretty sure she's a corpse, pale against a shocking smear of red in the snow, but her face is tensed up in pain and he can hear her breathing, quick and uneven. "Okay," he says. "Okay."
It takes an effort to bend down beside her, and then a greater effort not to throw up at the combination of his throbbing head and the heavy stench the wind whips back in his face: the too-familiar stink of lots and lots of blood. As near as he can tell—and looking closely isn't exactly helping him keep his stomach right now—someone's managed to stab down from above right behind her clavicle and into her chest cavity. No sign of the weapon, but enough of the bandits were carrying longswords that it doesn't take a real stretch of the imagination to picture one of them catching an archer off-guard.
He touches her forehead, a little helplessly, and jolts back when her eyes shoot open. "Scanlan?" she wheezes.
"Oi," he says, and then just sort of stops having anything interesting to say because watching a friend die in the snow wasn't exactly on his to-do list today. He grabs her hand instead to hold it between his, cold and heavy.
"Shit," she says, which about sums it up. "Pike?"
"No, I—" Scanlan squints into another blast of wind and snow. "I can't find anyone. I think we're it. I'm out of potions, I don't—"
"Vax?" Her voice, this time, is very soft.
And, you know what, fuck it. Healing's a thing he's seen people do, and it's not like he hasn't made stranger things happen just by singing.
So he sings something he's pretty sure his old troupe used to croon whenever they wanted their audience in a particularly teary-eyed daze that might make them a little more susceptible to misplacing their valuables, but he tells himself it's something that goes back further, that it's a song his mother would sing to him in a fine, clear, bell-like voice. He tells himself it's soothing in the way that Pike's smile is soothing, that it knits bone and muscle and sinew like Pike's spells do, that it encompasses that same terror at being drawn out of peace and into pain, that same relief at her warmth and nearness and comfort. He tells himself all of these things, and he believes them.
He isn't even surprised, really, when he feels the familiar jolt of arcane energy firing along every nerve ending, setting up strange resonances that hum and crackle until the song comes to a familiar end.
When he finally looks down at her, feeling hollowed-out and shaky, Vex is staring back at him. The horrific wound has begun to seal, the blood slowing to a trickle. "Huh," he says, and turns away from her to be noisily sick in the snow.
Even above the howl of the blizzard, he hears her sit up behind him, coughing with a lot more strength than she'd had moments ago. "What in the absolute fuck, Scanlan," she says, but there's a laugh in her voice. "How did you do that?"
"I can do many things," he says, which would've sounded a lot more mysterious if he weren't busy trying to clean out his mouth with fresh snow. "Just do me a favor and stop almost dying, okay? That was messed up."
Vex stays quiet long enough to trick him into turning around and meeting her eyes; she smiles pure relief at him. "Nice song, though."
Scanlan sighs, heavily. "It was sort of nice, wasn't it?"
They sit and shiver in a weirdly companionable silence until Vax finds them, melting from the shadows like some sort of ghost, and anyway the important thing is that Scanlan only shrieks the one time and definitely doesn't try to tackle him when he appears out of nowhere. After that, things happen quickly: tearful reunions, joining the rest of the party hunkered down to wait out the storm in a particularly pleasant and not at all damp and terrible cavern, enduring the squabbles about who'd fucked up the worst now that everyone was safe. Scanlan bows out of the conversation as soon as possible to find a quiet corner of the cave, curling into his bedroll with his face to the wall and the new melody wavering through his mind.
Pike sits next to him, after a while; even without looking, he'd know it was her. Mostly because nobody else's armor clanks quite so loudly. "Hey, you. Vex told me what happened."
He picks at a bit of dirt ground into the edge of his bedroll. "Rough fight. You weren't with us when we got separated, and I guess we had to make do."
"That's amazing, though." The grin in her voice makes him roll onto his back to see the real thing, finally meeting her eyes. "D'you think you could do it again?"
He doesn't need to think about it. "Definitely. I got the hang of it. There's a line of counterpoint I could probably incorporate to improve it, given a little time."
"Okay! Mine definitely doesn't work the same way, but that's great."
Pike's smile broadens, then, and Scanlan says, slowly and deliberately, "I'm in love with you, you know." The words feel strange, not quite right, but they also feel reality-shaping in the same way the song had.
"Well, all right," Pike says, her grin unfaltering. "You hit your head pretty hard. Get some rest, maybe?"
Scanlan curls back to face the wall, listening to her footsteps fade away, moving back to the others, and can't quite keep from humming softly under his breath, singing himself to sleep.
This much is true: his mother's grave maker is a worn-down stone he scooped up in his desperate flight from the goblins, the weight of remembrance in his pocket.
"I love you," he says. "If nothing else, believe that I'm going to make this right."
"If you've taught me anything, Father, it's that saying something doesn't make it happen."
This much is true: his mother has no grave marker at all, and most days he tries to forget.