Shu. Drizzt bit back the drow curse that was on the tip of his tongue, keeping it internal only. He and the magistrate were not on the best of terms ever since Drizzt had caught the magistrate's son, Jeshen, stealing candy from the general store when Drizzt had been in town to buy supplies a few moons back. Magistrate Ellis was rightly embarrassed, and things had been uneasy since. Drizzt had tried to keep the matter as private as possible, but there had been a few onlookers, and Cal Greer, the shopkeeper, had made quite a scene, which attracted more. Somehow the magistrate had blamed his perceived humiliation on Drizzt, not on the shopkeeper's outburst or even Jeshen's petty theft. Drizzt blew out a long breath. It was easy for Ellis to pin his hard feelings on the foreigner among them, the dark elf. Protector of Ten Towns or not, Drizzt still felt that he wasn't quite accepted by all, even these many years later. He'd hoped Flynn Ellis would soon come around, meet his eyes again instead of scurrying away when the Do'Urdens were in town. Now the magistrate would see a perfect opportunity to regain his lost pride. Drizzt doubted he'd deal with things quietly—oh no. He'd want a public spectacle and more. It was Ellis's way. Drizzt stared out across the backyard, unseeing. Of all the people for Zaknafein to rob! He realized he'd been shaking his head all this time, and he stopped.
Zaknafein was biting his bottom lip so hard that a drop of blood hung ruby red just below his two front teeth.
Drizzt took his son's face gently in both hands and lifted up his head. "Breathe."
Zaknafein's eyes were as cloudy as a thunderstorm. He exhaled shakily. "What's going to happen to me, Kel'nar?" He reached up and rubbed his thumb across his lip, smearing the blood. He looked down at his thumb and began to tremble, first his hands, and then his arms and shoulders.
Drizzt didn't let go of his face. "Steady, Zak. We're going to return this ring."
Zak's eyes widened. "Now?"
Violet huddled under the thick wool blanket Mum had tucked around her on the sofa. The coarse fibers tickled her nose. In her mind, she saw again Zak slipping the ring from Mrs. Ellis's fat, pudgy hand as she dozed in the stagecoach, snoring softly with the saggy folds of her neck jiggling, head tipped way back against the red plush seat. Zak and Violet had ridden the stage halfway home to where the track divided at the signpost that pointed to Termalaine. Zak must have thought Violet was sleeping too. She had been, until the coach jolted over a rock. Violet jolted again in memory of the moment …
Violet's eyes fluttered open just as Zak leaned forward and made his snatch and grab. She slammed her eyelids shut again, scarce believing what she'd seen, then peered at him from the slightest crack between her eyelashes. Zak stuffed the ring into the pocket of his breeches, and she could just see the outline of it there, sharp and condemning.
On the sofa, Violet moaned, and her stomach churned. She should have confronted Zak then and there and made him put the ring back on Sue Ellis's hand. If Mrs. Ellis had awakened, Zak could've claimed that the ring had slipped off, and he'd retrieved it from the stagecoach floor. Her mind whirled. She thought she knew her brother. Since school had started this term, he'd been so quiet and withdrawn. Violet turned facedown on the pillow. Two hot tears burned in her eyes. Students who lived out of the village could ride the stage for free if there was room. Zak and Violet were the last ones off when they did, but they often shared the coach with passengers going to Termalaine or beyond. Zak had never done anything like this before though. Never ever. They hadn't spoken as they walked the last mile and a half down the forest trail to the clearing where their home stood, but that wasn't unusual. What was unusual was how slow Zak walked, dragging his feet in the dust with his head down. She replayed it in her mind …
Violet stopped several feet ahead of her brother and turned to look back. "I feel like running." It wasn't a lie—everything in her wanted to run hard, to get away from the revulsion and bewildering confusion of what Zaknafein had done. Once, she would have talked to him about anything, but lately he had been aloof, and it was as though any camaraderie between them was lost—perhaps forever. Violet felt sick to her stomach. She did feel like running—away from him.
Zak barely glanced up. "Suit yourself."
Violet hitched up her knapsack and bit her lip. "Be watchful." The woods held their dangers, and Kel'nar always told them that.
Zaknafein's head snapped up at those words, and his eyes blazed. "You don't need to tell me that!" He spat the words.
Violet cringed from his anger, then turned and fled. She didn't stop running until she reached their front yard.
Kel'nar was emerging from the woodshed at the side of the house, covered with sweat and sawdust. He wiped his hands on his trousers and swept her up, spinning her in a circle. "Easy there, Fleet Foot," he teased. "You run as though a wolf were at your heels."
"If only it were that!" Violet exclaimed. She took a stumbling step and clutched her stomach.
Kel'nar's grin vanished at the anguish she was sure he could see in her face. He steadied her with a strong hand. "What's wrong?"
Mum opened the screen door, wiping her hands on a dish towel.
Violet glanced over her shoulder, chest heaving. Zak was still trudging along a quarter of a mile away. Her throat felt tight. "Kel'nar, Zak stole a ring!" She barely could squeeze the words out. "It's in his pocket."
Kel'nar's eyes widened, and he tightened his grip on her arm. "Are you sure?"
"Yes." Violet's voice broke on the word. "On the stagecoach." She was suddenly too hot, sweat breaking out at her temples despite the cool fall day.
Kel'nar and Mum exchanged glances. Zak was at the end of the driveway now.
Mum twisted her hands in the dish towel and looked from Violet, to Kel'nar, to Zaknafein, then back to Kel'nar again. "Maybe it's not what it seems." Her eyes looked desperate.
Violet swallowed thickly. Oh, no. She tore away from her father and raced to the edge of the clearing, then doubled over and retched, acrid bile burning her throat as she emptied her stomach. She stood for a moment with both hands on her thighs, chest heaving. Her hands shook as she fumbled for her handkerchief and wiped her mouth. Her eyes stung as she straightened up.
Kel'nar took Mum's hand for a moment. "We'll sort this out. See to Violet, please."
Violet bristled. She didn't need to be seen to.
But Mum nodded—of course—and came and put an arm around her shoulders.
Violet shivered, and then she couldn't stop shaking.
"Come inside," Mum said in her ear. Zaknafein had gained the yard proper. "We'll give them some space."
Violet allowed herself to be led into the house, her ears filled with rushing blood and the sound of Zaknafein's forced whistling. Maybe it only sounded forced to her.
"What's the matter with Violet?" she heard her brother ask, and then Mum closed the heavy oak door and led her to the sofa.
Her thoughts back to the present, Violet drew a shuddering breath and pressed her face against the pillow. Mielikki help him. She'd do anything to have the brother she knew back.
Cattie-brie entered the study quietly and rubbed Violet's thin shoulders through the blanket as she lay facedown. "Sit up, me girl. I've brought you some mint tea."
Her daughter did what she was told. "Mum, is everything going to be okay?" Violet's face looked pinched. She took the offered mug but did not drink.
Cattie-brie nodded slowly. "I think so, Violet. I've been praying so."
Violet stared into her mug of tea, tracing one finger around the rim. "What did Kel'nar do?" She didn't look up.
"They're talkin'." She bit off the last word in an unplanned resurgence of her former dwarven accent.
"Is Zaknafein in trouble?"
Cattie-brie's mouth twisted. "Surely."
Violet cast a sidelong glance at her. "Do you think he's telling the truth?"
Cattie-brie gazed out the front window where the curving path disappeared into the trees. "I've not been eavesdropping on them, Violet, and I won't." No matter how much she wanted to. "We've raised you both to tell the truth, and I think Zaknafein will." At least, she desperately hoped he would. She sighed. Drizzt had a special connection with their children. So did she, but it was special in different ways. Zak and Vi seemed more open with their father. Then again, he'd always had a knack for getting her to open up about things too. Drizzt would have the story out of Zaknafein even if they had to sit out there all night. She shook her head. When had her son become a thief?
Zak had heard Violet retching into the bushes when he was on the driveway …
Kel'nar and Mum looked serious even from thirty yards away. She'd probably just run too hard. Zaknafein forced a cheery whistled tune through his teeth as Mum led Violet inside. "What's the matter with Violet?" he called out, and then Mum swung the door shut. Odd, that. It was still warm enough to use the screen door on this fall day.
Kel'nar turned and fixed him with a piercing look.
Zaknafein's steps inadvertently slowed.
"Zaknafein," Kel'nar said without preamble, "did you steal a ring?"
Zak froze. His stomach seemed to drop to his knees, and the knapsack slipped from his suddenly limp fingers to land with a puff of dust on the dry road. After a moment, he recovered. He tasted the word no on his tongue, but somehow he couldn't say it. His eyes narrowed. "Did Violet—"
Kel'nar held out a hand, palm forward. "Answer my question, Zak. Yes or no?"
Zak's ears rang as his heart raced, blood pounding against the inside of his forehead. There were five yards between them, and if Kel'nar wanted to catch him and check his pockets, he could, even if Zaknafein ran. Kel'nar trained every day. His legs were longer, and he could easily outmatch Zak's stride. Besides, running would look bad. Even if he could get back to town to deliver the ring, what would he do after that?
"Well?" Father crossed his arms over his chest, one eyebrow raised.
Zaknafein's face felt so hot that he wondered if it looked red despite his dark complexion. His eyes met the scuffed toes of his boots. "I need gold to—" His throat felt dry, and his voice cracked on the word to. He licked his lips. "To solve a problem."
Zaknafein's gaze was still down, but his heart thundered as he saw the shadow of his father shift his stance, then step closer.
"I'm going to ask you one more time, Zaknafein. Did you steal a ring?" Each word was enunciated slowly, clearly.
Zak swallowed hard, still not looking up. "Yes." His voice was barely a whisper.
"Bring it here, Zak."
Zaknafein blinked at the spot where his knapsack still stood in the dust, pulling his thoughts back from those first tense moments when Kel'nar had questioned him. Now that he'd finally spilled his whole story, he felt a bit better. His insides didn't gnaw at him so much, despite having had no lunch. And Kel'nar hadn't taken him into the forest and given him a thrashing, as he surely deserved. Zaknafein glanced at his father's back as he stood in the doorway of the house. Maybe that would happen yet.
Kel'nar turned from the doorway and met his eyes. "We'll leave for town in a few minutes. Be ready."
Zak swallowed the lump in his throat and hurried to the outhouse. At least this would all be over with soon. But what would happen tomorrow with Jack and the other bullies? He tried not to look at the spot where Violet had vomited as he rushed past. At least she still cared about him. He sighed. He'd tried to take care of things on his own, but sneaking around hadn't helped anyone. Except Charlie. Maybe Charlie.
His business finished, Zak walked slowly to the house. Could he meet Mum and Violet's eyes when he went inside?
Kel'nar opened the door again, his weapon belt on and his pack and cloak on his back.
Maybe he wouldn't need to go in after all.
His father clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Let's go. You can wash by the bridge on the way."
A small movement at the dining room window caught his attention, and Zaknafein turned. Violet shrank back from peeking out at him.
Zak set his jaw and followed his father, but he could feel his sister's eyes burning into him as he walked away.
Cattie-brie had jumped up when Drizzt finally opened the door. She'd been crouching on the hearth, staring into the flickering flames of the dying fire there. The smoke burned her eyes, but it hadn't occurred to her to add more wood. Her thoughts were on her son.
Drizzt's voice seemed to anchor her for a moment, to draw her back to the present moment. "Cat," he said from the doorway, "can you put up some food? I'm taking Zaknafein to town." He turned to address their son, telling him to get ready.
Cattie-brie stood. At first, she moved as though in a dream. As if from some distant place, she saw herself quickly buttering fresh biscuit halves and sandwiching thick slabs of venison roast between them. Good thing she'd had the food ready before the revelation of Zak's theft. It would've been useless to try to cook after that.
Drizzt stepped inside and reached for his pack. "We're going to Ellis's, and I don't expect to be back until late."
The butter knife clattered from Cattie-brie's fingers, and she finally found her voice. "Ellis's?" She scarce could get the word out. "Drizzt, you're hauling your own son before the magistrate?" Her voice rose on that last word, in pitch and in volume. It came out as a near-shriek. Cattie-brie clapped a hand over her mouth for a moment, then set her hands on her hips and glared at him. "No, Drizzt! I know we both believe in taking a firm hand, but this is going too far! We should deal with things ourselves, not bring our twelve-year-old before the magistrate!" She crossed her arms, chest heaving.
Drizzt reached her in two steps. He took both of her hands in his tough, callused ones. "It's not like that, Cattie." His voice was calm, though his eyes looked pained at the conclusion she had drawn. "The ring belongs to Sue Ellis. We're going to return it."
"Sue Ellis?" Cattie-brie began to tremble, the anger suddenly draining out of her.
Drizzt guided her to a kitchen chair.
She looked up at him in anguish. "Drizzt, the end result will be the same!"
"Maybe so." Her husband sighed. "But he has to return the ring."
Her protective instincts took over. It was one thing for she or Drizzt to correct their children, but quite another for someone else to do it—especially someone whose judgment she didn't completely trust. "You could return it for him!"
He shook his head resignedly. "No. Zaknafein is old enough to own up, just like he did when he broke that window."
Cattie-brie put her head in her hands. "Mielikki help him." The words were spoken of desperation, nothing more.
But Drizzt nodded firmly, touching the unicorn pendant at his throat. "She will."
Cattie-brie heard the sureness in his voice, but she didn't share his confidence. She looked up at her husband, casting about for some way to shield Zak from what would most likely be cruel consequences for his actions. "He's just a boy."
Drizzt swept the sandwiches into a cloth sack. "I know." He tucked the food into his pack and checked his water skin.
A sudden ray of hope gleamed, and Cattie-brie grasped at it. "But there's no sense in going now—if Sue Ellis was in the coach, then she went to Termalaine."
Violet made a small sound from the doorway to the study—something akin to a squeak.
Drizzt and Cattie-brie turned to look at her. She was wrapped in a blanket, her stark white hair messy, and her face pale. How long had she been standing there?
"Mrs. Ellis was just going to pick up a new hat from the haberdashery. She intended to return before dark."
Drizzt nodded. "Zak told me."
Cattie-brie stood then, watching as he shouldered his cloak and pack. She stepped closer, her hand closing over Drizzt's as he picked up his weapon belt. Her eyes stung, and she pitched her voice low. "Drizzt, is he sorry?"
Drizzt set his weapon belt down and pulled his wife into a tight hug. He didn't lower his voice—surely Violet needed reassurance as well. "He's truly sorry."
Cattie-brie's breath whooshed out. "Oh, thank goodness."
Drizzt rubbed small circles on her back, then picked up his weapon belt and buckled it on. His eyes met his wife's and daughter's in turn. "Don't judge him too harshly. Zak was forced into it by a group of bullies. They promised to break his arms tomorrow if he didn't deliver something of value." He shook his head slightly. "And that's not even the half of it. I'll explain the rest later. We're losing daylight."
Violet rushed to the dining room window. "Oh, Zaknafein," she breathed out.
Drizzt exchanged one more meaningful look with Cattie-brie, and she reached out to squeeze his hand. Then he strode out the door.
*Shu = sh**