Those Left Behind: Part Six
Listening to Haldan's story had alleviated my seasickness to the point where I could safely eat lunch. To my relief, one of the sailors sold me a small package of candied ginger, which helped the nausea even more.
When we returned to our positions around the table on the deck, all eyes turned to Mellis. "Bren already said he was last," Lapnir said, "so that means you're next."
Mellis pulled an uncomfortable face. Despite bringing us all together for this trip and cheerfully encouraging the storytelling of the past few days, he had said remarkably little during the journey. "Actually, I was really hoping that Bren would be willing to go before me."
This snapped me to attention. "Huh? Why?"
He responded to my question with a question: "You've already put the whole story together, haven't you?"
Trying to understand what he meant, I straightened my back. Then when I figured out where he was going, I slumped back down again. "Oh. Yeah, I have."
"Everyone so far has told a different part of the same story," he continued. I got the feeling that he enjoyed talking in riddles like this. "It's almost complete, and I believe that just one more part will tie everything together. But it's your part that the story needs, not mine. And since we should be arriving at Krawk Island tomorrow morning, there might not be enough time to tell the last story. So, I think you should tell yours first."
I didn't like his logic, but I couldn't argue with it--which was most of the reason why I didn't like it. "Fine, unless someone wants to hear yours first." I looked around the table, trying not to look too hopeful, but nobody spoke up. "Worth a shot," I muttered. Grabbing a piece of ginger to nibble on, I began.
I come from Neopia Central. Like many others, I was affected by the event that left so many without homes. After begging and stealing for several months, I had almost earned enough money to escape. I set off for Meridell, hoping that someone might take me in--and if that failed, I would try the same in Brightvale.
I failed in Meridell. The kingdom was swarming with tramps and street urchins; no place was willing to take in one more. I had expected Brightvale, seat of learning and benevolent leadership that it is, to be more welcoming, but I didn't have any luck there, either. Maybe I just didn't do the adorable waif thing very well.
Faerieland got me sympathy, but no shelter. I had long since used up all the supplies I had saved up, and had no choice but to keep going. Despite my better judgment screaming at me, I made my way to the Haunted Woods. If nothing else, the trees would offer shelter from the rain, and the darkness would make theft easier. As I grew near, the forest went from bright and clear to dark and foreboding, the trees became thicker, and I felt uncomfortably like my every step was being watched. Just as I was considering whether I would wake up again if I bedded down for the night on the side of the road, I heard signs of civilization.
It was a large group with several wagons, all circled around a fire. The smells of wood smoke and cooking food drew me closer, and as I approached, I saw that one of the wagons was open. There were several open crates of food, bearing fruits and root vegetables. As silently as I could, I placed several of each into my pack, then turned to run away.
I learned a lesson then, something that has stuck with me ever since: black is not the best color for stealth. It's a bit too dark, standing out against the background of night almost as though it was glowing. The best colors for sneaking around at night are those that fall just shy of black, such as dark gray--or in this case, dark brown.
I ran into something, and fell backwards onto the ground. It took me several moments to realize that I had not just bumped into an invisible barrier, but rather another Neopet.
"Lifting our supplies?" the enormous brown Eyrie asked me. Urchins in stories who get caught in similar situations tend to stay frustratingly silent, and I was no exception. "You're good, but not good enough. Put them back and you can have some proper food."
I wasn't sure that some horrible fate wasn't about to befall me, but my stomach overruled that fear. I put the stolen goods back into their crates, then the Eyrie herded me into the clearing where the campsite was located.
"What d'you got there?" somebody asked.
"I caught him trying to nab some potatoes," the Eyrie responded. There was a quiet chorus of laughter. I cringed, trying to disappear into the ground. It didn't work.
"Well, if he's hungry enough to eat a raw potato, then he's hungry enough for some of Nella's soup."
"Yeah," a different voice chimed in, "but he's going to have to give us something first, right?" By this point, I wasn't sure if I was about to be fed or eaten.
"Well, I suppose so," the Eyrie responded. They seemed to be enjoying this. "But he doesn't have anything on him."
"What about a name?" came another call.
"Yeah, that's a good start." The Eyrie clapped me on the back, and I nearly fell over again from the surprise. "How 'bout it?"
For the first time in the discussion, I opened my mouth. "Bn," I mumbled.
The Eyrie drew in closer. "I didn't catch that, say it again?"
"Bren," I repeated. It felt a bit too loud this time, as though it would carry straight through the woods.
"Well, it's a pleasure to meet you, Bren," the Eyrie responded, holding out a massive paw. "I'm Hephen, and this is my merry band of thieves." Nervously, I shook his paw, which completely enveloped mine. "Now, have some soup. Bowls are over there," he pointed toward an open wagon with the tip of his tail. "Make sure you help clean up after you've finished eating."
I ate, nervously at first, but eventually ravenously. It felt like the best meal I had ever had. I helped to scrub out the bowls afterward, as requested. As the fire died down, I was invited to sit around it, and listened as this odd group of people talked, sang, and told stories.
"I meant what I said," came a voice next to me. I started a bit, and realized Hephen was standing beside me. "You're a good thief. You almost got away with it back there. We could use skills like those, if you'd like to join us."
"--," I began.
"Don't answer just yet," he interrupted. "Take time to think it over. For now, you can travel with us. You'll get food and drink and a relatively safe place to sleep, no obligations except for the chore work that everyone does. We've got a few other kids your age, you might want to meet them." I had seen the younger members of the group, but hadn't spoken to them yet.
I nodded. "Thank you," I said.
The next morning, dull gray light filtered through the trees. I was awoken, and we continued deeper into the Woods. I was nervous about speaking to any of my new companions, as though they might suddenly realize that I was just a child and chase me away. This didn't happen, and I slowly became more comfortable speaking with the other people in the group.
"You're thieves?" I asked one of them, a Chomby.
"Yeah," Lapnir answered. "We just take what we need, and only if the people we're stealing from don't need it. You already understand that idea, right?"
"Uh-huh," I mumbled. I thought back: would I have tried to take that food the night before if it looked like they really needed it? What about all the other times I had stolen food or small amounts of money? I couldn't be sure at this point.
I had assumed they came to the Haunted Woods to steal things, but it turned out that they were actually there to sell. Several people disappeared at various points, and came back a few hours later, carrying money or supplies. It seemed like an efficient, streamlined system of commerce, rather than the haphazard and nervous medley that I was used to. After a few days, I was told that they would be going to the Lost Desert, and from there on to Altador. I decided to continue traveling with the group.
After several days traveling along the rivers that made up the lifeline of the desert, we arrived at Sakhmet. "Consider this your entrance exam," Hephen told me. "We've got a job to do here. Show us how much you can find in one day, but remember--only what other people don't need."
I nodded. Though I understood the task, I was confused about the whose opportunity this was--was I getting the chance to join a band of thieves, and whatever security came with it; or were they getting the chance to increase their ranks? I had been told not too long ago that I should decide whether I wanted to join, and now I was being tested.
By the evening, I had brought back three scrolls, five baggusses, four tchea fruits, a grackle-stuffed turkey, and a turtmid. As the petpet plodded around at my feet, the rest of the band observed my haul with polite admiration, and several asked how I managed to steal an entire turkey without anybody noticing. I decided that answering honestly would give me better cred than acting mysterious or telling a tall tale.
"I bought it with the money I stole, since it was the most cost effective thing I could get. Then I pocketed two tchea fruits while the shop owner was in the back room carrying it out."
The group around me erupted into laughter at this last part. "That's audacious!" someone cried. "This kid has no shame, we've gotta keep him around!"
I wasn't sure if I was being praised or insulted. Nobody seemed angry anyway, so I grinned. As the laughter died down, Hephen took a step toward me. "Well, that was quite a show," he said, still chuckling. "You've demonstrated your skill, so unless anybody else has major objections, you can officially join our merry little band. Any objections? Good, didn't think so. So, what do you say, now that you've gotten a taste of what we do?"
And right after being tested, the decision once again rested on me, apparently. I didn't need much time to think.
"Yes, I want to join," I answered. And with that, my fate was sealed.
To be continued...