Band of Brothers
From his place at the stern of The Morning After, Aelfric stared up into the rigging in annoyance. Raed was singing again.
“What do ya do with a drunken sailor?”
How could his brother look so happy up there, with Mother’s life was on the line and time slipping away? If only Raed had gotten Mother out of the locked cabin on that other boat—ship, he corrected himself—they wouldn’t be off on this ridiculous trip to sell what were essentially stolen goods. Aelfric snorted. Here he was, wishing his brother were more like a thief so that they wouldn’t all be involved in thievery.
“What do ya do with a drunken sailor?”
He supposed Raed was in his element here, encouraged to climb things and tie knots, with no inventory to count or money to pay out. Not that there would’ve been any money to pay out at the Sellers Stand, anyway… not with Father having cleaned out the safe. How could Father have abandoned Mother to those thugs? It made no sense to Aelfric. You just don’t treat women that way. It’s just wrong.
“What do ya do with a drunken sailor—”
Aelfric cringed as his older brother flipped through the air and landed on a crossbeam. Crazy oat-cruncher hadn’t even tried to grab the rigging, just landed perfectly on the wood. Maybe something good would come out of all this in the end. After they rescued Mother, Raedefrac could run away to a life on the water, and Aelfric could inherit the shop as he’d always felt he should. The shop that was mortgaged to the hilt. Right. So much for thinking positively.
“—earlye in the morning?”
“I’ll tell you what you do with a drunken sailor…” Will muttered as his cousin’s voice filtered below deck.
“Remind me how well that worked out for you.” Xavi dabbed at his brother’s back with a strip of wet cloth.
Will grit his teeth at the sting. “I could’ve taken him if he hadn’t grabbed that flogging thing.” He returned his focus to the shirt in his hands. “I can stitch this up.”
“You’d better,” his brother replied. “At the rate you’ve bloodied clothes on this trip, you’ll be down to your own skin by the time we get back to Miller’s Crossing.”
“I was just the age of sixteen when I first went on the drive.”
Will began mending his rent shirt, quiet for a little while as Xavi finished checking over his back. “Thanks. For patching me up, and, well, everything. Things are different out here.”
Xavi chuffed. “You mean people don’t just take your punches. If I’d not stepped in to save your sorry hide—”
“Well, at least it was after we had to carry this hulk overland for a day. Who would’ve thought of hauling a boat through fields? But if it means we get to Pine Valley a week faster than by taking River Running down to the lake, so much the better.” He patted Will’s shoulder and stepped away to riffle through their bags. “And speaking of better, your back looks like it’s healing over.”
“After six months hard labor, at home I did arrive.”
“On the way back we won’t have that crate, so maybe I can just guide us straight through the forests,” Will suggested.
“Right,” Xavi chuckled, “do something you know how to do.”
Will laughed. “Hey, I’ve gotten much better at tying those knots, unlike a certain ham-fisted lad I can think of.”
“Oh, sure, I’m ham-fisted now that you don’t need me looking over your scrapes anymore. I’ll keep that in mind next time you come crawling to me after some sailor offends your sensibilities.”
“In my defense, it was Raed’s sensibilities he offended. I don’t think Aelfric really cared what the snot-rag said about him, but Raed’s hackles were raised, and I couldn’t let him stand alone.” Will rose, stretching carefully. He balled up the shirt and tossed it to Xavi to stick in a sack. “Pull me out something else to wear. That might be in one piece now, but it’s still a sorry sight.”
“I courted with a pretty girl; it’s her caused me to roam.”
Xavi’s hand came out with a wad of linen. He shook it out to admire Deirdre’s embroidery for a moment. Will held out his hand, but Xavi hesitated, looking at the shirt and then at his brother.
“Chop, chop,” demanded Will. “I can’t stay below deck all morning.”
Xavi said nary a word, just stepped to the left, around Will. The younger twin gazed around, trying to see what had caught Xavi’s eye. Not noticing anything, he could contain his curiosity no longer. “What?”
Xavi held the fine linen shirt up for Will to see the back. “I hope this doesn’t mean I’m going to cut up my wrist,” he said.
Will examined the back of his shirt. It had swirling green embroidery in places, much like the front. And there were those cascades of blue and white. But then he realized what had given Xavi pause. Triangles of reddish-brown thread zig-zagged from the right shoulder blade down to above the left kidney. While Will certainly couldn’t see his own back, he could definitely feel where the knotted rope had hit him during the fight two nights ago. “Huh.”
“Now I’m a river driver and I’m far away from home.”
“Land ho!” Raed interrupted the chantey to holler down from the crow’s nest.
“Boy,” the captain called back up, “we’re on a river. There’s bloody well land on all sides.”
“Right!” Raed could see Aelfric shaking his head down there at the tiller. “What I meant was, I can see buildings. Um, city ho?” Raed flipped over the side and slid down a rope, to land neatly next to the captain, figuring such conversations might go better if not shouted. “We should be at the docks soon, cap’n.”
The grizzled old man smiled at Raed. “It’s been good to have you boys on board. If you’re ever looking for a place on a crew, you’ll have one here. Well, you certainly, Raed. That one,” he nodded at Will, who was just emerging from a hatch, followed Xavi, “is trouble, and your brother here could certainly use some toughening up…”
“Thanks!” Raed replied. His smile faded as he remembered their business in Pine Valley. “Maybe once we’ve um, made our delivery and, um, picked up our package back in Hawthorne…”
The captain smirked. “Keep your secrets, boy. I ain’t got no need for any but my own. If’n you don’t quite know where you’re delivering that crate, stop in at the Thirsty Oar, tell Kasey that Old Rusty sent you, and maybe you can meet the right people to help you collect your delivery fee, if you catch my meaning.”
“Thank you, sir,” Aelfric cut in, before Raed could ask any questions. “We appreciate your letting us work off our passage and your advice.”
“You there,” the captain shouted at Xavi, “grab those spars! We’ll be putting into harbor soon, and I don’t want the sides of my ship to look like your brother’s back!”