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"Bring it here, Zak."
Zaknafein dragged his feet as he approached his father with his head down. Suddenly he felt much younger than his twelve years.
Drizzt held out his hand. "Give it to me."
Zaknafein stared at the calluses on his father's hand to avoid his eyes. Slowly, he opened his palm and set the object in question on that callused hand. Zak's fingers trembled, and he stuffed both hands into his pockets.
"What were you going to do with this?"
"Dunno," Zak mumbled. His gaze went lower—to his father's boots now.
"I think you do."
Zak's eyes stung, and he held perfectly still.
Kel'nar dropped the ring into his pocket—Zak could just see the motion through his blurry eyes. Then two gentle fingers raised his chin. Gentle, but firm.
Kel'nar's gaze held such seriousness, such sorrow. Zak's world turned watery, and he blinked fiercely. Not now. He was too old to cry.
"What's happened to you, my d'anthe dalharuk?"
My dear son. The lump in his throat threatened to choke him. Zaknafein fought back tears he'd been fighting for a fortnight, or maybe for a moon. That name—it made a crack in the dam. His father pulled him close, and he lost the battle. The first sob broke loose. "I—I was only …" He gave up trying to speak and collapsed against his father, more sobs escaping and tears racing hot.
Kel'nar hugged him tightly, unwaveringly.
After what seemed a long time, the sobs quieted. Zak snorted a messy breath and wiped his face on his sleeve. His throat felt scratchy, but anything was better than that lump in it. He risked a glance up. "I'm sorry, Kel'nar. Sorry I took that ring."
His father nodded, seeming to search his puffy eyes. "I believe you, Zak, and I'm glad … but there are still consequences to your actions."
Zak felt his stomach clench. He bit his lip and nodded.
Kel'nar's eyebrows drew together. "I mean you must make this right. But for now, come and sit with me and tell me about it."
Zak rubbed his hands over his messy red hair. "I don't know where to start." They were seated on the bench outside of the house in the backyard, and that did nothing to ease the butterflies in his stomach. At worst, this bench was a place of waiting—waiting for consequences to be meted out. Other times, it was a place for serious discussions. At best, it was a place to lace boots or watch the sunrise. He bit his lip hard. Notably painful consequences were what he deserved today. And they would be nothing compared to the pain that awaited him on the schoolyard tomorrow.
Drizzt leaned back against the rough log wall of the house and crossed his arms over his chest. "Start at the beginning. And it will only help you to leave nothing out."
Zaknafein stared down at the ground, twisting the toe of one boot in the yellow grass.
The stolen ring was almost a tangible weight in Drizzt's cloak pocket. He brushed his fingers over it and nearly added, "If I hear something later that you deliberately didn't mention …" but he bit back the words with a slight shake of his head. Sternness wouldn't be the thing that prompted his son to be open with him.
Zak was clutching his stomach, his eyes still red-rimmed, and his gaze firmly fixed on the ground.
Drizzt sighed and put a hand on his son's shoulder. He kept his voice gentle with some effort. "Zaknafein, I trust I can have your honesty." Please, Mielikki. Help him. And me.
Zaknafein's shoulders relaxed a bit at his father's quiet tone. Despite everything that had happened, he did want to honor his father. He looked up, finally able to meet Kel'nar's eyes. "Yes, Father. You'll have my honesty."
It pained Drizzt to hear his son so formally call him Father rather than Kel'nar, the drow word for dad that had taken on so much more meaning and closeness for their family than Menzoberranzan dwellers could think possible. What pained him more was the thought—no, the knowledge—that his son had stolen, and stolen a ring, no less. Yet, if he really thought of it, was that deed worse than things he himself had done in the past? His mind went back to his early days on the surface, and back from there to dark Menzoberranzan. He had done things as bad in his life. Worse. And even if he had not? He let the thought hang there for a moment. Zaknafein was no actor, and it was as easy to read his face as an open book just now. His son was clearly sorry. And clearly casting about for words, his hands worrying the knees of his breeches and leaving damp spots on the soft leather. Drizzt reached out a hand and stopped the agitated motion.
Drizzt squeezed his hand. "Zaknafein, before you start, I want you to know that I don't condemn you for this theft. It was wrong, yes, but there is forgiveness. I forgive you. You can start again."
Each quiet word infused Zak with courage. He nodded, his eyes stinging afresh. The back of his nose burned too. He cleared his throat. Start at the beginning, Kel'nar had said. He'd try. "There's this group of boys in the last reader at school. Fourteen or fifteen summers, all three of 'em. They're the biggest, and they rule the school."
Kel'nar raised an eyebrow. "How so?"
Zak gripped the edge of the bench, his knuckles turning a sickly pale gray. "They do what they want, take what they want from any boy smaller than 'em."
Kel'nar's hands tightened into fists. "Only the boys?"
Zak nodded. "In the stable. Miss Hunter gave all the girls indoor jobs before an' after school, and all the boys got chores out."
"No one's told the teacher?"
Zak shook his head. "And get picked on worse? Besides, what could Miss Hunter do?"
Drizzt pursed his lips. "Inform their parents and the board."
"Zak, these boys—what exactly do they do?"
Zaknafein looked down at the scraggly grass. "They take food from boys' lunch pails when we're cleaning out the stable before school. If a boy refuses, they'll punch him in the stomach, then take it anyway." His frown deepened. "Lunches aren't all. They took an' broke Arn Wainwright's new slate pencil. They took Jeff's box of writing paper and started feeding it to Jack Hayworth's mule." Zak could hear the blood pounding in his ears as he continued. "They twisted Charlie Thatcher's arm behind his back and said they'd break it if he didn't give 'em his jackknife." Zak tipped his head to the side for a moment. "It was a gift from his father. He told them that, and he cried, but they still took it." He shook his head and clenched his fist so hard that two of his knuckles cracked. "I couldn't just stand by."
Kel'nar leaned forward, his gaze intent. "What did you do?"
Zaknafein looked away. "Me an' the other boys were standing against the wall all quiet, hoping we wouldn't be next. We heard Miss Hunter ring the bell. Jack Hayworth said, 'Anyone breathes word of this, they'll be beaten up good,' and we headed out to line up." Zak paused for a handful of heartbeats, gazing out across the yard. He glanced at his father sidelong. "You know how Uncle Regis tells his stories of pickpocketing when he was young?"
Kel'nar nodded, and a shadow crossed his face.
"Well, he explained to me exactly how it's done." Zak felt his cheeks grow warm. "So I faked a stumble on the way across the schoolyard, and I got Charlie's knife back from Jack's pocket."
Kel'nar's eyes widened. "I see." A muscle jumped along the line of his jaw. "Suppose you tell me what this has to do with the stolen ring." His voice sounded tight.
Zaknafein put his head in his hands.
Drizzt struggled to keep his expression neutral, to keep from plying Zak with more questions and demanding answers. He struggled, too, with his disappointment. While it was admirable that his son had gotten the other boy's knife back, he had done it in a sneaky, underhanded way. And there remained the mystery of the ring. Had Zaknafein stolen it because he'd realized he—dare he even think it—had a knack for pickpocketing? Was this a case of opportunity making the thief? Drizzt sighed and waited for Zak to look up, trying not to display his impatience to hear the rest of the story. His son was surreptitiously wiping his eyes again. At least if he's a thief, he's a repentant one, Drizzt thought.
Zaknafein blinked hard and looked up. "That was last week. Charlie leaves his knife at home now, but Ernie Smythe got wind of what happened. He and Jack cornered me in the stable the next day with Ollie Ryerson looking on. Jack told me I'd really gotten on the wrong side of 'em now, and even giving 'em all of my lunch didn't help, though they've taken it all for the last four days."
Drizzt's eyes glinted. No wonder Zaknafein ate like a ravenous wolf at suppertime. His hands crossed in a subconscious reach for his scimitar hilts, but he didn't have his weapon belt on. He shook his head. Not that he'd turn even the flats of his blades against schoolboys, but it was time someone taught those bullies a lesson they would remember.
Zaknafein went on. "I—I said I'd fight Jack, but that if I won, they had to leave us all alone."
Drizzt's eyes widened. "You said that?"
Zaknafein nodded, then shook his head. "I said a duel. Said I'd duel him with either swords or scimitars, just one blade or two at once, his choice."
Drizzt felt a grin spreading over his face. "My brave son. I knew you had it in you." Thank you, Mielikki.
A smile lit Zaknafein's face for a moment, but then he frowned. "Jack refused."
Drizzt nodded. "He was scared to duel you."
Zak's eyebrows shot up. "You think?"
Drizzt squeezed his knee. "I know it."
Zak's shoulders relaxed a bit, and he leaned his head against the wall of the house. "I didn't realize."
Drizzt nodded. "Go on," he prompted after a moment.
Zaknafein sighed. "Jack said he was calling the shots, and there was no reason why they shouldn't just beat me bloody for picking his pocket." He bit his lip. "I thought they were going to. Ernie and Ollie are huge, and they do whatever Jack says."
"The muscle and the brain," Drizzt commented.
Drizzt waved a hand. "I'll explain later. Please continue."
Zak furrowed his brow. "Well, Jack's eyes sort of lit up when he said 'picking my pocket.' He kind of looked off to the side, then said we could have a 'mutually beneficial arrangement.' If I could pick pockets, then I had to bring him something really valuable, like a full coin purse, a jeweled pin, or a—" his voice caught, and his eyes went to Drizzt's pocket.
"A ring," Drizzt supplied.
Zak nodded. "I have until tomorrow to bring it, and if I do, they'll leave us be. If I don't, they'll beat me up and break my arms—both of them." His face turned ashen.
Drizzt put both hands firmly on his son's shoulders and leaned down to meet his eyes. "Look at me, Zak. That is not going to happen. I promise you that."
Zak's eyes glistened and he squeezed them tightly shut. He shook his head wildly. "That's why I stole the ring! To put a stop to all of this. I know it was wrong, but I was so scared of getting my arms broken." Two tears overflowed from his brimming eyes. "I—I'm not brave, and that's worse than all of this!"
Drizzt shook his head firmly. "You are brave, Zak. You took this all on your shoulders not only to save yourself, but to save the younger boys too." He clapped Zak's shoulder hard. "Remember what I told you last year when you killed that jewel snake?"
Zaknafein sucked in air and nodded. "I remember."
Drizzt look intently into his purple eyes, the same shade as his own. "You did what you thought you had to do—despite your fear. That's what bravery is. More than that, you challenged the leader of the bullies to a duel."
Zak nodded slowly, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. "But he refused. I didn't know what else to do."
Drizzt nodded, although with every fiber of his being he wanted to shout, "Why didn't you come to me?" He took a deep, purging breath and let it out slowly, the way one blows out candles so as not to spatter wax. "Regardless of anything those bullies said—"
"I know it was wrong!" Zaknafein interrupted. He looked away and crossed his arms. "If only Violet hadn't seen and told."
If only? Drizzt shook his head. "That wasn't what I was going to say."
"No." Drizzt sighed. "Zaknafein, giving the bullies the ring isn't going to end their bullying."
"But they said—"
Now it was Drizzt's turn to interrupt. "Does Jack Hayworth seem trustworthy to you? A lad of his word?"
Slowly, Zaknafein shook his head.
"More likely, if you give him this stolen ring, he'll keep on demanding more tribute from you in order to ensure your safety and the safety of the others."
"Tribute?" Zak frowned.
Drizzt nodded. "Like a pirate, or certain guild masters." He watched the minute changes on his young son's face, understanding slowly dawning. "What's more, he'd have something to hold over your head if you ever tried to stand up to him—he'd say he would report you for your crimes."
Zaknafein stared at him wide-eyed. "Kel'nar, I have committed a crime." His voice got small. "And I don't know how to stop the bullies. I don't know what to do."
I wish you had come to me sooner, Zak. Drizzt didn't say the words aloud. Was there a better wording? Wording that didn't sound like he was finding fault? "There comes a time when you need to involve a grown-up, Zak, regardless of what the bullies threaten. That's what I was starting to say before." He put a hand on his son's knee. "Hear me now, Zak. Jack and the others may tell you that you'd better not tell anyone because you'll be in trouble, but I will always hear you out. They may tell you that I can't protect you, but I can. They may even tell you that I'll be in danger if you tell me what's going on, but you leave that to me." Drizzt gripped Zaknafein's upper arms. "I am always ready to help you, Zaknafein. You need only come to me."
Zaknafein nodded, something akin to a wary relief crossing over his face. But he heaved a sigh. "When this all started, I thought you'd tell me to just fight them, even though I'm twelve and they're fourteen and fifteen." He shook his head. "Ollie broke Silas's nose last year because Jack told him to. Silas only got in one punch."
Drizzt shook his head. How had he given his son such a wrong impression? "It's good to see danger and avoid it. It's wise. So is knowing your limits. What I do and what I expect of you are two different things. There's a difference in our strength, our size, our years of training …" His voice trailed off. "I'm sorry I gave you that impression, Zak. Hear me now. I am going to help you. We'll see this resolved and made right."
His thoughts raced ahead. If Zaknafein had stolen the ring from the school teacher, or perhaps from Bruenor's clan, that would certainly make things easier. Once they heard Zak's story, surely they would understand and go easier on him. Drizzt had several ideas on the matter of the bullies as well. He pulled the ring from his pocket. The matter at hand first. "Where did you get this ring?"
Zaknafein's gaze went from his father's face to the ring, and from there to the ground. "I took it from the magistrate's wife."
*Kel'nar = Dad