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Before Crossing

"Mama?"

"Yes, child."

"Why do other folk be so tall?"

Marysh smiled as she continued rolling dough. "Cause they always be reachin fer the stars."

Taffei blew at the white powder floating down from the table and watched it's altered flight all the way to the floor. "Mama?"

"Yes, child."

"Do tall folk ever reach the stars?"

Another smile creased Marysh's lips. She gracefully flipped the dough and began to roll again, sending more flour dust between the table's boards. "Sometimes," she said.

Taffei began to draw stars in the dust. "Mama?"

"Yes, child."

"Why are togs green?"

Marysh shook her head ever so slightly. "You be a curious one this mornin, child."

"Mama?"

"Yes, child."

"What be cur...," Taffei wrinkled her brow as she tried to form the word, "curious?"

Marysh chuckled. "Why that be you, child, and all them questions." Taffei crawled out from under the table and clapped her hands together, sending more dust flying. She climbed atop a stool to watch her mother make her favorite tarts.

"Mama?"

"Yes, child."

"Why are togs green?"

Marysh glanced at Taffei and smiled. "Fer the same reason Olvi nae be green."

"Mama?"

Marysh plopped the dough into a pan. "Yes, child?"

"Where be Papa?"

Marysh hesitated a moment, then smiled at her daughter. "I nae be knowin, child. Yer Papa takes ta wanderin an there be no tellin where he might end up." She set the dough aside and reached for a spoon, stirring the contents of a large mixing bowl.

"Ye be angry with Papa?"

A spark flashed in Marysh's eye as she took Taffei's face in her flour covered hands and planted a gentle kiss on her tiny nose. "Yer Papa be who he is, child."

Taffei giggled, "Yep. He be Papa, alright."

Taffei was never quite sure why Papa had to go on those long trips. She accepted it with little question or doubt. Some may think that strange, especially considering the millions of questions she bombarded her mother with on a daily basis. It was just the way things had always been. The fact that Papa always came home bearing gifts and wonderful surprises also helped alleviate any doubts.

And so it was. Marysh went about her daily duties followed constantly by a little shadow named Taffei. The youngest of her 5 children, this one was the smallest in size (even by Olvi standards), but the largest in curiosity. A caring mother, Marysh had a bond with all her offspring, but this one was special. This one was the sunshine in her day... also the most trying on her patience.

The eldest of the five, Gillian was already a woman of 14 by the time Taffei had been born. She had even played midwife on the occasion and had nursed her mother back to health. No one spoke of Gillian these days, however. She had gone away before her 15th nameday. Taffei tried on several occasions to coax information out of her mother about her elder sister, but to no avail. It would be many years before she learned the truth.

Jorath was the one who delivered the scolding that came of those questions about Gillian. It was the worst scolding of Taffei's life. Acting as lord of the knoll during his father's many absences, Jorath came to treat Taffei as more of a daughter than a sister. She had even slipped once and called him Papa. It wouldn't have been so bad if she had just not done it in front of her father. That was when Jorath had delivered her second worst scolding ever. But, he quickly saw that it was not necessary. His youngest sibling had hurt herself more than anyone with her words.

Then, one day shortly after that scolding, Jorath left the knoll. Taffei could not quite understand why, but Marysh knew. She knew all too well that a young man needs to make his own mark on the world. Jorath had felt tied to his family, felt bound by the obligations so easily ignored by Papa. Many years would pass before Taffei was to see her elder brother again.

With Gillian gone, and now Jorath, Marysh clung even tighter to her youngest child. The twins, who were 8 years older than Taffei had each other, after all. They rarely sought her out for anything any more. They spent much of their time alone, but always with each other. They had a special bond of their own.

When Veldarian came home from his latest wandering to find Jorath had gone he had laughed. He sputtered between chuckles about it being that time and how it had taken the boy long enough to decide what he wanted fer himself.

When Taffei wasn't asking questions, which was rare except for when she slept, she was listening to tales of fantasy and adventure. Marysh made up wonderful stories to keep her daughter entertained. But Marysh had other motives for the tales as well, aside from a break in the quizzing. Woven between the lines were lessons Taffei would keep with her forever. Life lessons. Survival lessons.

Everytime Veldarian came home from his latest wanderings Taffei would quiz him as well. She would always start with the same question. "Where ya been, Papa?"

"On me way home to me favorite girls," he would always reply with a jolly laugh. Then he would plant a kiss on his wife's cheek, lift Taffei up and swing her through the air to hear giggles and squeels of delight. And then his own tales of adventure and bravery would commence. Now, whether these tales had any lick of truth in them was anybody's guess.

Yep, he was Papa, all right.

Life was simple for Taffei, as you can see. But, things would not stay simple forever. On her 19th nameday Papa found hiw way home once more. Taffei jumped up to greet him in her usual bouncing happy style and asked, "Where ya been, Papa?"

With a very sober voice, and no hint of a smile anywhere on his face, he simply replied, "On a very long road."

Taffei and Marysh looked at each other. Something was wrong. Their minds began to grind on what they did know. This particular trip had not been any longer or shorter than any other. They had not heard any rumors from the neighbors of war or any other major catastrophy. Veldarian carried no obvious wounds, and his clothing was in the normal state of array, a little dirty from the trip, but still in mostly good repair. From their sequestered perspectives, all had been normal... until Veldarian had walked through the door wearing that look.

Veldarian plopped himself heavily into his favorite chair and stared straight ahead. His two favorite girls gathered close and waited patiently. Marysh gently stroked his hand as Taffei looked deep into his eyes and tried to read what was there.

After a long moment, Veldarian closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. "I must be tellin the truth to the two people I care most for in this world," he finally said. Both Snarfn'tart women were confused. "If ye be goin into town fer shoppin er visitin..." His voice trailed off as he searched for the words he wanted and silence filled the room once more. "All the gifts I be bringin home to ya..." he faltered again. "All the tall tales...." He covered his face with his soft stubby hands.

"Taffei," whispered Marysh. "Be a good daughter and fetch yer Papa a tankard of ale."

Taffei hesitated. Something was wrong with Papa and she wanted to stay right where whe was. But she rose to her feet and did as she was bid. In the kitchen, she found Papa's favorite tankard and took it to the keg. The tap sputtered out a small bit of foam and hissed at her. It was empty. Mama had mentioned earlier in the day that it needed to be refilled. Muttering under her breath she knew she couldn't go back empty handed.

With a practiced hand, Taffei lifted the empty keg from it's resting place and carried it out the back door to the shed. Looking over the stock she grabbed the closest one to the door and hefted it into the wheelbarrow. This was taking too long. What was Papa saying to Mama while she was out here? By the time she had the replacement keg in place and the tankard full Mama and Papa had moved into their bedroom and shut the door. Taffei's heart fell to her stomach. She had well learned long ago that she was never to disturb them in there when the door was closed. So she sat and waited.

Without even thinking about what she was doing, Taffei sipped at the ale in her hands until it was gone. Each time she emptied it, she would look at the bottom of the tankard surprised, as if the ale had disappeared on it's own. She had to make three trips back to the kitchen to refill the tankard for Papa. The shadows began to slowly climb the walls of the small room, as she sat there and waited, but she never noticed.

Finally, the door to the bedroom opened and her parents came out. Taffei held the half full tankard out and said, "I fetched yer ale, Papa." Without a word he took it and swallowed the last drop.

Marysh looked at her daughter and knew this would be a long day. "Taffei..." she started. "Yer Papa has to go on another trip."

"So soon?" Taffei blurted out.

Veldarian stepped up to her and held her shoulders gently as he looked her square in the eye. "Know this, daughter. Yer Papa loves ya."

"I know, Papa."

"Then know this as well," he continued. "Yer Papa be who he is. And that's all."

"I know, Papa."

Veldarian smiled sweetly at this wonder before him. After a moment he nodded and said, "The truth ye shall hear from me own lips, as much as I can tell ya."

Marysh took the empty tankard and slipped quietly into the kitchen as Taffei and Veldarian settled themselves in the living room. "Yer Papa be a thief, Taffei."

Taffei blinked. She didn't know what to say, what to think.

"All them trips I be takin were ta seek out new places to practice me trade," he continued. "I wouldn't be tellin yer mother and yeself... although I have a feelin yer mother has been knowin fer many a year already." He cleared his throat. "But, I made a mistake this time." Taffei watched, stunned as a crimson flush seeped into her Papa's cheeks.

Veldarian cleared his throat again, clearling wishing fer an ale... a full tankard. "The mistake I made was chosin the wrong mar... umm... person ta steal from. I be afreared I have made a terrible enemy. An enemy that plays no games when it comes to things like this. So, the trip I must make this time may be much longer than any other I have ever made."

"I understand, Papa," The words came forth almost automatically. Taffei didn't really understand. As much as she thought about what Papa was telling her, as many times as she would go over it in her mind, it would not sink in. Not until the day she met Gillian.

Papa had been gone about a month when Jorath made a sudden appearance at the front door. Marysh was overjoyed to see him standing there. Her son had not forgotten his home. "Mama," he said meekly after the greetings, "I brought someone with me."

"Who," she asked excitedly, "Bring yer friend in. Taffei, get the ale. There be fresh tarts in the cupboard."

"Mama," Jorath interrupted her, his face as serious as it had ever been. "It's Gillian."

Marysh turned a pasty pale and sank down into the nearest chair. Taffei blinked in confusion. So much was happening. Her emotions were at this moment a stew of a mixture, like riding the carts of the greater fist and speeding up and down the spines of the dragon Papa had told her about. Gillian? The sister she could not remember? The sister no one ever discussed? She was really here?

Marysh sobbed into her apron.

"Mama?" came a quiet voice from the front door. "Mama, I know ye disapprove of me." She began weeping quietly, making sure not to cross the threshhold.

Disapprove? Taffei so wanted to rush to Gillian and wrap her arms around her sister. Even though she had never heard anything other than the fact that Gillian was her sister and had aided in her own birthing, Taffei still felt strongly. She had imagined what it would be like to have Gillian around when she was growing up. Had seen in her mind all the fun they would have, all the secrets they would share.

"Mama," Jorath approached his mother and gently put a hand to her shoulder. "Ye daughter be home."

After much sobbing and hugging and drinking of ale... after much apologizing and forgiving... the four of them settled at the table in the kitchen.

Jorath blushed as Marysh asked what he had been doing all the time he had been away. "I been followin in Papa's wake."

The tale told between Jorath and Gillian was more exciting than any of the tales Taffei had heard from her parents. These things had actually happened. Gillian, upon leaving home so many years ago, had given herself to a life of entertaining men for the coin and baubles they would give her. This had not been an easy life by any measure. For along with the coin and baubles came bruises and pain. She had started out in a small pub very close to home, but soon, dreams of wealthy men of nobility and silk dresses took her far away. That had lasted only so long. Such a life was hard indeed and the years showed sooner on these women than on others. When the years did begin to show, Gillian had once again found herself at the mercy of sweaty farmers and their measly coppers.

This is where Jorath had found her. He had tried several professions upon leaving home, but found he was no good at them. Desperate for the coin to make his own way, he had started stealing. Just enough to keep from starving at first, but he soon found that he was good at it. He sneaked into the pubs and waited until a patron was too drunk to notice his hand in their pockets. It didn't take long to find a few fellow thieves. And not much longer to learn of the reputation of the better ones. His jaw had dropped when he had heard his own father's name on that list. He also soon learned of another list of names. A list of special people best left alone. Protected names, so to speak. To steal from these special people was to sign ones own death warrent.

As he made his way from one pub to the next, one town to the next, Jorath finally found himself seated before a serving wench who looked familiar... too familiar. It was Gillian. He had hated her for what she had done to their parents, to Mama in particular. But looking at her now, those feelings were no where near as strong as they had once been. After all, look what he himself had become.

It took time, but Jorath and Gillian managed to forge a friendship, a partnership. They looked out for each other. If one of Gillian's customers became too rowdy, Jorath would come to her rescue. Distracting the man when he could, or using force when he had to. Then he would steal every coin the man had. It came easily to him. Jorath was indeed good. But, he still had much to learn. He was still getting caught on occasion. When that happened, he and Gillian would move on to a new tavern or pub, or even a new town. Taffei was enthralled by the tale unfolding.

They were here now, not because Jorath had been caught again, but because Papa had been caught. As far as they knew Papa had managed to stay hidden from those dangerous people seeking him out, but they had grown more eager in their hunt. They had put their contacts to work and had discovered that Jorath and Gillian were their prey's offspring. And they began hanging around and asking questions. Had they seen their father? Where was he? What was he up to? Had he tried to sell anything big recently? Jorath and Gillian were watched with every step, every move. Then the watchers became more and more bold, outright threatening the two siblings if their father were not brought forth.

Jorath tried to find out exactly what it was Papa had done to anger these men so. Just picking a pocket wasn't enough. It made no sense. Not even for the the wealthiest pocket in the realms. There had to be more to it. "Has Papa been home?" Jorath asked. "Did he tell ya anything? Anything at all?"

There was something more to this. And Mama knew what it was. But her lips were sealed. "This will pass," she tried to tell her children. "Have faith in yer Papa. He knows what he is doing."

"No, Mama," Jorath whispered gently. He reached across the table and took his mother's hands. "He's in real trouble this time, Mama. It will not just pass."

Marysh would not be convinced. She was as stuborn as any dwarf in her beliefs. Veldarian was indeen in real trouble, and this time, he had gotten in so deep that his family was in danger as well. The eyes that had been so focused on the older Snarfn'tart children were now here, watching the knoll from the shadows. Each passing day grew more and more tense. Marysh tried her best to continue as if nothing were wrong, as if the world past the front door mattered not.

Taffei tried to work this through in her mind. What had Papa done that could be so bad? Papa was just Papa. He was not a bad man. She missed him terribly. In the days and months that followed, Marysh took Taffei aside more and more to tell her the same stories she had told over the years. "Remember these stories, Taffei. They will help ya one day. These tales nae be just made up things. They be about real places, and real folk. Remember them, Taffei. Promise me ye will."

Marysh made Taffei give her another promise as well. She did not want another of her loved ones falling into the depths of the thiefly world. "Ya can see fer yeself, child, the trouble it brings." Taffei looked into her mothers eyes and gave the requested promises. But as she looked, she saw Marysh for the first time from a new perspective. The woman before her now was very old and very tired. Huge bags under her eyes and deepening lines in her face betrayed the worry she refused to speak of.

Taffei woke early one morning, just before her 20th nameday, to shakes and urgent whispers. "Hurry, child. Wake yerself quickly. There be no time fer lollin around on this day." Mama pulled a shirt over Taffei's head and helped her find the sleeves. "No time fer questions, either, my curious one." Marysh stopped and looked into Taffei's confused face. "The tales, Taffei. Remember the stories?" Her eyes reddened with the heat of the tears she tried to hold back. "The place I telled ye of be the Crossing. There be map in yer sack. It nae be a very good 'un but it be me best and it will get ye there."

"Mama?" Taffei didn't know what to say, what to ask. This was definantly wrong.

"The wolves be at the door, child, and I can nae hold em back. Ye promise me that the path ye follow will be a right one. Ye promise me that you'll get yerself to this place I telled ye of." She squeezed Taffei's hands hard as a firmness she had never shown before filled her voice. "Promise me, child."

"I promise, Mama, but..."

"No." Marysh pushed a sack into Taffei's hand and herded her through the darkened house to the back door. "There be no time fer buts. You get yerself to this place and make a good way fer yeself. Seek out those who follow Glythtide. They be good folk."

"But, Mama..."

"No lookin back, child. I know this be hard fer ya. Mayhaps the hardest thing ever." Marysh held back a sniffle. "And don't you worry bout ye Mama. I be stronger than ye be thinkin, but a different kind of strong, child. Do ya understand?"

"No, Mama, I don't."

Marysh hugged her youngest child as tight as she ever had. "Glythtide go with ye, child. Make yer Mama proud."

 
 

2001 Taffei Snarfn'tart, a.k.a. Pamela Conard